Ah, the Illinois. This is a personal favorite and instant classic. This river was my inauguration to running serious whitewater and a river I continue to enjoy exploring further, sharing with friends, and getting away from it all. I'll go out on a limb here and claim the Illinois is the most remote overnight rafting trip in the lower 48. For 33 miles, the river carves a steep canyon through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area in southwestern Oregon before meeting with the Rogue. The "river trail" is high up on the north rim and only comes down to water level once. The only way to see this canyon is from a boat. There are no roads, no houses, no damn jet boats, no hikers and, because the flow window is so narrow, usually no other boaters.
Planning a trip on the Illinois presents its fair share of challenges. The main obstacle is the flow. The Illinois watershed is coastal and low elevation, so it doesn't retain snow for a long runoff season. The entire area is characterized impervious bedrock, clay-rich soil, and minimal vegetation. The result is a river that responds very quickly to rain events. Flows have been known to spike from less than a thousand cfs to a raging 20 grand in as little as a day. Since the snowpack is non-existent, boaters must rely on rain, and because the system is so sensitive, it has to be just the right storm. Many boaters feel privileged to run the Illinois once every couple of years, but while going to college in Ashland, it has been an easy weekend getaway for Will and I. Will is getting to be the authoritative source on the run for anyone wanting beta or just a trip to tag along on. He's run it at a huge range of flows and just finished his 11th trip in less than three years. So far I've run the Illinois seven times: twice in a raft, twice in my creekboat, and now three times in a playboat. Here's what I've seen.
With the exception of one drop, all the class IV rapids on the Illinois are located in two distinct gorges. The first gorge starts with some big and fun class III rapids that lead into a few class IV's, including York Creek Rapid. The second gorge is the most difficult with a gradient of 70 feet per mile. This second gorge starts with Fawn Falls, Green Wall, and Little Green Wall in the first mile. The actions keeps up for another couple miles full of class III rapids and a few class IV's. Once past Collier Creek below the second gorge, boaters are in the clear and enjoy the best scenery on the trip. The bottom 9 miles are much flatter with only three class III rapids but the lack of whitewater is hugely overshadowed by the majesty of the canyon and its tributaries.
The run begins at Miami Bar, which recently had some work done and is a decent put-in area. The first couple miles are slow with a handful of class II riffles. Keep your eyes open for a major tributary coming in on the right through some willows. Just below this landmark, the first gorge begins. The gorge starts with a long, more continuous class II section with a few holes to avoid. Just below this set of rapids the river drops around a blind corner, but don't worry: it's just a fun class III. At high water (above 3000 cfs) this rapid and the next one blend together into a massive wave train. After another couple fun class III rapids comes a more difficult rapid that is recognizable by a large exposed rock on the bottom left and a thick soil exposure on the right bank. After this drop, the river widens out over a cobbly shoal. The clearest path is down the right side. Shortly downstream is York Creek Rapid.
Some boaters call York Creek a class IV+. I think that's a bit generous, but the rapid still deserves respect and requires a strong move. At flows over 3000, a sneak line starts to open up on the right side, but the main line is along the left bank. The rapid makes a sweeping S-turn with three distinct drops. The first is over boulders as you move from the middle of the river into the left channel. Just below comes the second drop with a powerful hole on the left and a turbulent tongue on the right. This middle drop and the lower one should both be run on the right.
A flat section follows York Creek and leads to one of the steeper rapids on the run. This drop is a fast slide over rocks that pushes into the left wall. Run the right side with a right angle and expect to bump a rock or two. The slide feeds directly into Clear Creek Rapid. Of all the rapids on the Illinois, Clear Creek has given me the most trouble. I swim out of the hole on the bottom right every other time I run it. There's actually a sneak on the far right side that I've seen taken, but the main line is starting right and moving to the center to avoid all the holes. If you're where you need to be, the current takes you right through. If not, you may be in for a pounding. I should know!
Clear Creek marks the end of the first gorge. The next few miles are relatively slow down to Pine Flat Rapid. Again, the book overrates this drop. There's a nasty wave-hole on the right that could easily flip a raft, but boaters are by no means obligated to run it. Kayakers may even enjoy surfing the hole. At medium flows (1500) there is eddy service to the hole from behind the midstream rock outcropping. At higher water, you've got to hike up the right bank to the eddy right next to the wave. Pine Flat Campground is one of the best places to stay the night, just below the rapid on the left. The bench could hold hundreds of campers. Downstream from here, the trip only gets better. The next 8 miles has a few good camps such as Klondike Creek on the left and lots of class II/III with one class IV thrown in. At low water, this rapid has a huge hole in the middle, more holes on the left, and a tight sneak down the right that's hidden by big boulders. At higher water, these big boulders are covered and the whole thing is a highway littered with huge crashing waves. The whitewater goes back to class II/III until South Bend.
South Bend is an important landmark, and an easy one to recognize: A creek come in on river left, there is a unique pink boulder bigger than my house on the right bank, the river takes a sharp right turn, an there's a small beach camp on the right. This is the last camp before the class V climax: Green Wall. If you continue downstream, keep your head up at the next swiftwater right-hand bend: you're entering Fawn Falls. At low-medium flows, take the far left airplane turn slot. Kayakers can take any slot they want, including a really cool line that slides along a slanted boulder in the middle. At higher water, the right side of the main drop is preferable. Lines on the left can work, but you'll want to scout first. Or just get stuffed.
At the bottom of the next pool is Green Wall. For your first time down, it's best to pull over above the rapid and hike down. Veteran rafters and kayakers often opt to run the lead in and eddy out on the left above the crux, which saves about 15 minutes of round trip hiking. I don't even want to try to describe this rapid in depth. Scout it for yourself. If you miss the scouting eddy, run left on the first drop and work back right as soon as possible. If you swim, swim left. If you can't swim, good luck.
Below Green Wall, the real fun starts. Little Green Wall is about 1/2 mile down and is pretty much unscoutable. Run right at low-medium flows and left at high water. Either way, move back to the middle at the end of the rapid: there's a wrap rock on the right and weird shit going on against the left wall. Fairly continuous class III rapids persist for almost 3 more miles down to Collier Creek. Some of them deserve a scout. The two biggest drops after LGW come after a flatter section with a major growth of Alder trees on the right bank. The first is un-named, the second is Submarine Hole. Submarine Hole is actually responsible for claiming my raft-flip virginity back in '05. At low-medium flows, this is a very pleasant cruise with a gorgeous canyon and exciting whitewater to keep you on your toes. At high water, don't expect to catch any eddies and run in tight order: a swim could be disastrous if you don't have good safety. If you're comfortable with this type of whitewater, there are some amazing on-the-fly surf waves, but consequences are very real.
When you see Collier Creek entering the river, it's time to crack a beer. There's an elevated campsite up on left bank about 100 yards below the creek. From here down, it's a relaxing float. During our highest water trip in the Fall of '07, the flow rose over 5000 the day we were down on this section and it was still a piece of cake. The gorges down here are breathtaking and the rapids are few. At high water, it took just over an hour to make it from Collier Creek to the take-out.
Just below the double waterfalls, one of the biggest standing waves on the river comes out at high flows. Run it, it's fun! The other rapid worth mentioning is the last class III. Just before Horsetail Creek comes in on the left is a steep drop with a massive wave train at high flows and lots of holes at lower water. Horsetails Creek has a great camp suitable for large parties just upstream of the creek. If you can get down this low on the second-to-last day, you might be able to run Lobster Creek on your drive home! Clean up after yourself, don't feed the wildlife, and enjoy the Illinois River!