Located just to the south of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Josephine Creek is a remote and stunning tributary to the Illinois River. Paddling this creek has been an alluring, yet challenging goal, pieced together over the last few years by several motivated individuals. I am fortunate to have been part of this story by enjoying a sunny first descent of the 2.6 miles above previously ran sections.
Although Southern Oregon is home to several kayakers and whitewater enthusiasts, Josephine Creek remains a hidden piece of whitewater because of the unique weather conditions required for sufficient flows and the difficulty of simply getting there.
In planning a South Kalmiopsis trip, as with every great adventure, there is a degree of uncertainty and in facing this uncertainty we often return changed, better and content with having gone. Therefore, our crew of three and loyal adventure dog squeezed into a single cab 1985 Dodge Ram ready for the rough and muddy miles ahead. The bed of the truck was loaded with hardshell kayaks, inflatable kayaks and “bug out bags,” just in case our day trip turned into an unexpected overnight endeavor. We drove from Grants Pass in the early morning and by the time we reached the turnoff road we were all smiling for the simple pleasure of being in the strikingly harsh and secluded South Kalimopsis forest.
Climbing up into the mountains was the most extreme off-roading adventure I had ever experienced. And nearing our proposed put-in, smoke began to rise from the hood. The jostling of the uneven road caused the battery to fall inward, melting the protective covering of the connection wires. With a few extra cam straps the battery was repositioned, however the truck did not start. With a few more minor adjustments under the hood the engine came to life and with relief, we reached our put-in with the sound of Josephine Creek within reach.
Although the water level was too low for hardshells our SOTAR inflatables proved be an excellent craft for the expedition. We eagerly pushed off into the clear water with a childlike wonder that comes from being the first known paddlers to explore this special stretch of water.
The steep gradient of Josephine Creek translated into continuous current, few eddies, and closely packed quality rapids. Most of the stretch was fun read-and-run rapids, however the inflatables made it easy to jump out and take a quick look downstream to check lines and look for wood obstructions. It was a true pleasure traveling downstream with a small and trusted crew, nonverbal communication came easy and we often fell into a leap frog pattern above and below rapids, stopping to take pictures and appreciate the plethora of sights.
The entire day felt like it was made just for us, and although everything was new, floating this creek invited us to imagine the rich history of South Kalmiopsis. One of the surprises of the afternoon was paddling up to an abandoned mining shack. The 1850s brought about 2,000 people to inhabit this wilderness in search of gold and other precious metals. Now more than a century removed from those boom years, there’s not much left but piles of tailings and a few small operators still hoping to cash in.
For me, it was an afternoon that no amount of gold can touch. Josephine Creek provided clear, cold water and a few perfect swimming holes perfectly paired with quiet alleys of and colorful fens of Darlingtonia californica. Port-Orford-cedars thrive right on the edge of the rocky banks with their roots exposed, reaching out to the creek. And the fens were sure to be clinging to wet cliffs and decorating each side creek. This high concentration of biodiversity made a lasting impression on me and I feel privileged to know such a unique place.
It takes time and a willingness to commit to unknown conditions in order to develop a relationship with the South Kalmiopsis but it is always worth the investment. It is the ceaseless rain that fills creeks like Josephine while turning other rivers brown with flooded features, the adaptability of the vegetation and the red mud that stains your gear with memories of remote bliss that makes me want to continue to get to know this wild and beautiful area.