Take to the River

For some paddling fun

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JoshuaBlu Gutierrez of Merlin paddles on Lake Selmac near Selma. Photo by Nick Soden.

If the new coronavirus pandemic has kept you trapped inside your home more than normal this year, you’re not to blame for feeling the need to escape and cool off. But how can you best satisfy those needs? Head for the water.

Here in Southern Oregon, there’s a bounty of opportunities to please rafters, kayakers, canoers and paddle boarders of every skill level and pursuit. And, they can help you remain (mostly) socially distant. If you’re new to paddling, we’re sharing good advice from two local experts to help you get started.

Getting equipped

 Emil “Butch” Merusi’s mother taught him to row a boat, and his father, an avid fisherman, taught him to paddle a canoe. So, it’s no surprise that Merusi, who lives in Gold Hill, made his career on the water, where he also spends most of his free time. He’s been a whitewater canoe instructor and professional raft guide, working both one-day and multiday rafting trips.

“Go to a reputable outfitter and rent an inflatable kayak,” says Merusi. “Check to make sure they’ve been around for many years, have a reputation for renting good equipment, and reliable guides.” If you want to buy, “You should be able to get a good beginner inflatable, paddles and personal flotation device for under $200,” he says.

JoshuaBlu Gutierrez is a commercial river guide with Morrison’s Wilderness Adventures of Merlin. Growing up in Cave Junction, Gutierrez took up rafting on the Illinois River as a teen. “My first raft was a Sevylor Tahiti–the kind almost everybody used,” he says. “They’re easy to inflate and very portable, which works when you don’t have a truck.” Gutierrez also recommends considering a pack raft, which is a small, portable, single-person inflatable designed for backpackers.

First forays and safety

Gutierrez recommends starting out on the flat surface of a lake. “It’s important to figure out how to maintain your balance and learn the basics of paddling. Flat water is best for that.”

When teaching new paddlers, Gutierrez says he focus on the basics, such as proper forward stroke technique, gripping the paddle and self-rescue. “The ability to get back into a boat or raft after being tossed out opens up all the possibilities,” he says. “When going hard, eventually you’ll get knocked from your craft, so knowing how to get back in is crucial.”

Gutierrez lets some newbies swim through certain sections of the Rogue River. “Some sections are good for growing and learning, where they can get tossed out of their boat and actually swim through the rapids. It helps them learn to get comfortable in the water.”

The key, he says, is to avoid panicking. “It can cause you to stop paddling, making the boat more susceptible to tipping over with the next wave or hole. It’s all about getting comfortable, learning to recognize a situation, and knowing what to do to get out of it.”

Merusi adds that skill and common sense are required to play on the water. He often sees people lacking proper technique shooting rapids and getting ‘flushed-out’ downstream. “They may look like they’re having a good time, but they’re just barely hanging on, and that’s not safe.”

Gutierrez adds, “Never go on a moving body of water if you’re brand-new to rafting, and never go out by yourself. Always go out with a friend.”

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River guide JoshuaBlu Gutierrez demonstrates self-rescue techniques. Photos by Nick Soden.

Further adventures

 When you’re ready to switch from lakes to rivers, Merusi recommends some of the best places to go.

“On the Rogue, a stretch that I recommend highly is between Touvelle State Park to just above Gold Hill,” says Merusi. “Any place above Gold Hill is good, although the closer you get to the [William L. Jess] dam, the colder the water is.”

He cautions that two Class IV rapids in Gold Hill—named Nugget and Powerhouse—require skill and experience to navigate safely. “On anyone’s first trip on the Rogue, I urge them to scout those rapids,” he says. “As a guide, I would scout rapids two or three times before taking guests down.”

Merusi, who says he loves the smell, sights and wildlife found on the water, offers one last bit of advice for those new to whitewater. “Try to find a local club,” he says, like Southern Oregon Kayakers (www.kayak.coosweb.com). “You’ll find others who started out the same way, and you can learn from them, borrow equipment and it makes life much easier. Through Facebook, “I can find people anywhere and get in on a trip almost any time.”

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Photo by Nick Soden.

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More to Explore

Water Gear

Butch Merusi Photo

Emil “Butch” Merusi of Gold Hill, a whitewater canoe instructor and professional raft guide, says to plan your gear for a day in your craft. He emphasizes the importance of sunscreen. “People don’t always realize that they’re getting hammered out there by the sun,” he says. He recommends the following supplies:

  • Sandals (not flip-flops)
  • Brimmed hat
  • Waterproof clothing bag
  • Long-sleeve shirt
  • Sunscreen
  • Drinking water
  • Simple first-aid kit
  • Snacks
  • Helmet for rafting anything that’s Class III or higher
  • Wet suit or dry suit, depending on weather


Photo: Butch Merusi of Gold Hill tackling rapids at Nugget Falls on the Rogue River. Photo by Jeff Wishard.

Oregon Waterway Access Permit Now Required

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Beginning August 1, 2020, use of most nonmotorized watercraft in Oregon requires a
new Oregon Waterway Access permit. The permit replaced the old Aquatic Invasive
Species permit on January 1, but enforcement only started in August. The new
permit applies to any craft 10 feet or longer — which means most canoes, kayaks,
stand-up paddleboards, nonmotorized fishing vessels and small sailboats–and
will cost a bit more than the old one: $5 for one week, $17 per year, or $30 for
two years. The permits are widely available online and at retail locations. Check
myodfw.com for the full list of licensed vendors.

Photo by Nick Soden.



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