I have many favorite rivers, but Southern Oregon’s Illinois River is my actual #1 favorite. Its most commonly rafted section is a four-day expedition with numerous Class IV (and one Class V) rapids. Beyond world-class whitewater, the Illinois River carves an unspoiled and amazingly beautiful canyon through the remarkable Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
The Illinois River is famous for its clear water, stunning scenery, and botany. It’s also a refuge for salmon and steelhead, as it is one of only two river systems in Oregon with no hatchery program. Fish in the Illinois River are truly wild, without genetic tampering from hatcheries.
But, while much of the Illinois River is protected, many of its key tributaries are not. These streams are not only special in their own right, but their health also affects the health of the Illinois and Rogue Rivers.
Rough and Ready Creek
This little known creek begins south of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and flows south into the West Fork of the Illinois River. Since it travels through serpentine geology, the area has the appearance of a desert, even though it can, in fact, receive 100 or more inches of rain each year.
Rough and Ready Creek’s unique serpentine geology makes it difficult for traditional flora to grow. Because of this, there are many rare and endangered plants that have adapted to the lack of nitrogen in the soil. One of these is the carnivorous Darlingtonia californica, a fire-resistant plant that receives much of its nitrogen from insects.
This special creek is currently threatened by nickel strip mining, logging, and invasive Port-Orford-cedar root disease. Rough and Ready Creek is currently protected from new mining claims by a temporary mineral withdrawal while we wait for permanent protection.
Josephine and Canyon Creeks
Canyon Creek is a tributary of Josephine Creek, which flows into the Illinois River. These tributaries of the Illinois River sparked the Oregon gold rush after the discovery of gold on Josephine Creek in 1851. There is still active mining on these creeks as well as some of the biggest largest known Darlingtonia california fens.
Like the other tributaries of the Illinois River, Josephine Creek flows through serpentine geology and is a stronghold for many rare and endangered plants. For someone with a 4×4 looking to see something unique, it has opportunities for primitive hiking and whitewater paddling.
Silver Creek is an important salmon and steelhead refuge that begins north of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and flows south into the Illinois River. It provides critical cold water for the Rogue River’s famous summer steelhead as well as a spawning habitat for salmon.
Anyone who has paddled the Illinois River will remember passing its beautiful and steep canyon at mile 25. Silver Creek has only been paddled by a handful of intrepid paddlers. Most people enjoy Silver Creek by hiking trails to some of its stunning swimming holes.
This unspoiled tributary of the Illinois River parallels Silver Creek’s north to south route as it makes its descent to the Illinois River. Its pristine watershed is a remarkably productive refuge for steelhead as well as a place for primitive off the beaten path recreation.
Like Silver Creek, only a handful of whitewater paddlers and hikers have explored this unique and unprotected creek. The final mile before it meets the Illinois River flows through dramatic serpentine geology dotted with Darlingtonia californica.
Each of these unique creeks of the Illinois River has been identified for National Wild and Scenic designation. In the coming months, I am hopeful that we’ll see legislation that will provide these four special tributaries of the Illinois River with Wild and Scenic protection.