Preliminary decision issued on Chetco outfitting permit

Preliminary decision issued on Chetco outfitting permit

Boater enjoying the Chetco River, photo courtesy Northwest Rafting Co. 

7 January 2013 | Ashland, OR — In 2002 Allen Wilson’s outfitting business on the Chetco went up in smoke with the Biscuit Fire. His trail route into the Chetco through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness filled in with fire killed trees – thousands of them, leaving a crucial 3.5-mile section of trail, already on rugged terrain, impassable for a human, nonetheless a pack-string loaded to the brim with boats and gear.

But in recent years, perhaps in part to Oregon Field Guide’s expose on Wilson’s outfitting business, the Chetco started getting some attention from boaters, especially Zach Collier, owner-operator of Northwest Rafting Company, based in Hood River, OR.
“I had paddled the North Fork Smith,” Collier says, “And the Illinois, too. I wanted to know what was in between.”
Collier’s wonder-lust brought him to the Chetco’s headwaters first in 2011, when his party got lost but ended up at the Chetco via an off-trail adventure down the Slide Creek drainage. Collier was inspired by the Chetco and the remote mountain scape it took him through.
“I wanted to show it to others,” he says. So he applied for a commercial permit with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. And he waited.
Then last week, retiring Gold Beach District Ranger Alan Vandiver submitted a decision memo giving Collier the green light to operate for one year. In the memo, Vandiver describes the decision as “one of the most important of my career.”
The memo also gives the outfitter strict mandates to preserve the area’s pristine wilderness character.  Northwest Rafting Company will pack out all human waste and ashes from campfires, maintain the trail within established clearing limits, and keep group sizes to a maximum of 12, according to the memo.
Volunteer Sarah Shmigelsky scales up one of the lighter sections of the route
Collier plans on running a trip this June with two clients and four guides, but he’ll have to wait for a 30 day comment period after the news hits local papers. Then he’ll have to get to the Chetco, on a trail with thousands of logs on it, arranged some places in continuous stacks higher than six feet called “jackstraw.”
“Access is the big hurdle,” explains Collier. “Well go in a few days and do trail clearing first,” he says. Concurrently his crew will be running supplies, including boats, toward their launch site on the river. “Then guests will just have to navigate the trail with a small pack.”
Collier says his plan has been met with largely because of his company’s stringent leave no trace practices.

“We think Northwest Rafting Company has proven to have wilderness ethic,” says Joseph Vaile of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. He says KSWild’s biggest concern is spread of the Port OrfordCedar disease, which travels on the wheel wells and tires of muddy cars.
Collier plans on driving his guests up a steep, sometimes muddy road to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness boundary.
“Using that road in wet conditions is about the worst thing you can do to spread the disease,” says Vaile. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Among the conditions set withVandiver’s decision, Northwest Rafting Company crews must wash all their equipment before even entering the forest. Collier won’t enjoy any privileged access to the road, so his company will have to wait until the gate opens just like anyone else.
J.R. Weir of Northwest Rafting Co on the “emerald green waters of the Chetco.” 
Given all the restrictions and logistics, it could be hard for Collier to make the trips pencil out. He says it’s not about the money.
“I love seeing new places,” he says. “I like pushing the boundaries and getting to new places. That’s what this is about.”
Vaile says he’s optimistic about the proposal. “The more people that know a place, the more people appreciate it,” he says. “Once you see the emerald green waters of the Chetco—well. It’s just a very special place.”
The trips will last five days, says Collier. The float will be 18-24 miles, depending on flows.