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Despite drought, Rogue's not too low for water rafting

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- A spring full of doom and gloom news stories about the current drought has left some people with serious misconceptions about the forecast for fun in Southern Oregon's summer whitewater season.

Just ask rafting outfitter Ferron Mayfield, owner of Merlin-based Ferron's Fun Trips: ''At a boat ramp last week a youngster says, 'Well, how long you think you'll be able to run the river?' And I think he's talking about being an old geezer, so I say, 'I'm feeling all right -- another 10 years at least.' And he says, 'Oh, no, man. It's drying up. The river's drying up!'''

The driest winter since 1977 has left this year's runoff in the Rogue River basin at 53 percent of normal for this time of year. But between the water that flows year-round from the river's headwater springs in Crater Lake National Park and the billions of gallons already stored behind the dam in Lost Creek Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to send at least 1,200 cubic feet per second down the river in July and boost the flow to 1,800 cfs in August.

''It's low. It's different and low, but it's not going to dry up,'' Mayfield says. ''We had this 10-year wet period and everybody got used to the river being 2,000 cfs all summer long. But if you go further back to the last 10-year drought period, 1,200 cfs was a regular sort of thing and not that extreme.''

The Rogue River is a central attraction for Grants Pass' $200,000-plus tourism program, which targets statewide conventions of up to 300 attendees and aims to draw visitors from a region that begins in Sacramento, Calif., and extends through Washington state.

So far, anecdotal evidence suggests business is running about the same as last year.

''I talk to anyone in the rafting business and they're not concerned at all about the river,'' says Kerrie Walters of the Grants Pass Visitors and Convention Bureau. ''It's never quite as drastic as it's been portrayed.''

Hardest hit by the lower flows has been Hellgate Jetboat Excursions, which last month suspended the 74-mile whitewater trip that represents 15 percent of its annual business. Three other 36-mile jet-boat trips are still offered but, to lighten the boats for safety reasons, they carry fewer passengers. Owner Robert Hamlyn anticipates that to protect migrating salmon, state fisheries officials may end his season 10 days earlier than the usual Oct. 1 closing.

''It certainly has affected us. No question we'll be down in terms of numbers and dollars for those three reasons,'' he says.

But with steady bookings on the three remaining excursions, Hamlyn hasn't laid off any employees at the downriver banquet house where boaters dine, the office where reservations are booked or among the drivers who pilot the jet boats.

In a normal year, Hellgate's white-water trip delivers 100 passengers a day to the Galice Resort 21 miles downriver. This year, owner Debbie Robbins had hired and trained 77 employees in anticipation of the normal jet-boat business, before the passengers stopped arriving to dine at her riverside deck.

''It's a huge chunk. It was about $10 a person we would average for lunch and $15 for dinner. That kind of adds up, and they came seven days a week,'' she says.

To make up for that lost business without laying off employees, Robbins boosted her advertising budget for the resort's raft rental business, which accommodates 350 people a day, and hired a Thursday night blues band to supplement the live music offered each weekend.

''We're trying to be rafting central,'' she says. ''It's still perfect for rafting. If you can't get on the boat, get on a raft and come to Galice.''

That message recently got a boost locally when word leaked that lifestyle maven Martha Stewart stopped by Grants Pass for three days to film a September edition of her cable television show, complete with a kayaking segment in Galice.

Tourism officials hope a two-page spread on Grants Pass and the Rogue River in the current issue of the Oregon chapter of the American Automobile Association's magazine VIA will get the word out regionally.

And outfitters such as Mayfield who double as guides during the fishing season already are looking at the autumn silver lining of great fishing that often follows a summer of low flows: ''There is that tendency that the fish have less places to hide, less places to go.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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