Blue Trails, wilderness adventures on civilized rivers.

I’ve had the incredible privilege to raft or kayak many wilderness rivers, including some of the most amazing runs in the Western United States. From a nine-day trip on Alaska’s Copper River, complete with icebergs, glaciers, wolves and grizzly bears, to a couple three-week trips on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, these adventures have been the best times of my life.

Somewhere along the way, I seem to have absorbed the notion that river trips had to involve wilderness or whitewater to be worthwhile. Dredged up for inspection, it’s a rather baffling assumption. Adventure is, after all, primarily a state of mind. With a little imagination, I’ve been fantasizing about the possibilities for grand adventures on many rivers that are mostly flatwater and pass primarily through civilization. While not “wilderness” in the traditional sense, experiencing developed landscapes from the rivers that flow through them has it’s own sense of remoteness and isolation as you drift quietly by. In places where waterfronts haven’t been developed for recreation, a town’s river face reveals a more intimate and honest dimension, less polished and rehearsed, like the view you get walking through a city along the rail lines or back alleys.

One of the participants in this weekend’s raft trip on the Klamath River, Danielle Katz, cofounder of Rivers For Change, introduced me to the concept of “Blue Trails”, or rivers as “hiking trails” for boaters. Turns out there is a large and active movement, with many well-used “trails” already established.

Like hiking trails, Blue Trails have guidebooks, established campsites, boater-friendly portages around obstacles and so on. I found this concept instantly fascinating since, growing up on the Columbia River in Wenatchee, Washington, I’d always fantasized about floating all the way down to the ocean. On a road trip earlier this year that took me along the Columbia, I even pulled over a couple times specifically to assess the difficulty of getting around the dams with a boat and gear. In each case, portaging would involve climbing over security fences, crossing private property and rough terrain and traveling long distances before being able to get back in the water. As it turns out, a friend of Danielle’s did the entire Columbia and found exactly the difficulties I anticipated.

Given that these waterways are considered navigable and as such are open to public travel, it’s surprising that no one has objected more loudly about this. Maybe we should start, since rivers have been considered public resources in practice and law since at least Roman times.

In my experience, what makes long wilderness river trips so special is as much the length as the wilderness character. Day trips, like this past weekend on the Klamath River, are fun and relaxing in much the same way that a trip to the local beach or park is. On long river trips, by comparison, there is a rhythm you get into after a few days that is different than you’ll experience on an afternoon joy float.

Much like a multi-day or multi-week bicycle or backpack tour, long river trips revolve around a daily routine of setting up and breaking down camp, cooking, planning sightseeing, side trips and so on. Your pace is set by the flow of the water, winds if present and your eagerness to paddle or row. Most of all, it’s the open-ended quality of the journey that sets long trips apart. Not knowing where you’ll end up tonight or what will happen tomorrow fosters a more present-focused mindset. The journey itself becomes the destination and everything not directly connected with the immediate requirement of the adventure fades from attention. Each day it becomes easier to leave the worries and stress of home behind. Time speeds and slows at the river’s pace or is easily forgotten about entirely.

Problem is, long wilderness river adventures are not very accessible to most people, requiring hard-to-get permits, expensive gear, wilderness camping knowledge and technical boating skill. Most Western wilderness rivers are administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management which hold permit lotteries every January. You’ll have better luck landing one of these permits than you’ll have of hitting the Lotto jackpot, but not by much. So many people want to raft Grand Canyon, for example, that it took me 18 years on the old wait-list system before I was able to get a permit. Meanwhile, there are three million miles of rivers in the U.S., many of them long enough for multi-week or multi-month trips, no permit required.

I’ve been pondering floating from Garberville to the ocean on the South Fork of the Eel River for years. It would take three easy days and pass through gorgeous scenery, including ancient redwood forests. I could walk up to stores at the small towns to restock food if needed and camp in some of the big cottonwood or redwood groves on the riverside, with a final night on the ocean beach at the end. No permits would be necessary and the shuttle back home would be straightforward, since there is a highway along most of the river. Starting farther upstream near Leggett would add another two days to the trip. The lack of whitewater means that virtually any cheap old inflatable raft would work and only minimal skill and experience would be required.

There are probably hundreds of rivers that would take a week or more. Danielle and others spent three months on the Mississippi River. I’m sure descending the entire Columbia required at least a month. Wilderness and whitewater not required for a grand adventure, though better access would help.

Luckily for my already over-committed schedule, all the navigable rivers in this area are for the most part, well, navigable. All I need to do is take a few days off and go. How about where you live? What sort of wilderness adventures could you have on your local rivers? What are the possibilities for developing Blue Trails on them?

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