Taming the Wild Rogue
Ron Karpinski ©1995
In the summer of 1962, urban-sprawl had not yet reached tiny Gold Hill, Oregon. Nestled in the south central part of the state, time had left the place pretty much as it had always been. A sign at the edge of town, just past the Gold Hill Bridge, read "Pop. 605."
Back in the 1860's, prospectors found gold up on the namesake peak; but the city itself actually settled a short distance away on the banks of the Rogue River. The Rogue enters town from the northeast, drifting down from Shady Cove. It makes a bend under the train-trestle and curves west towards Grants Pass.
Old Highway 99 used to parallel the river at that point. Before the new Interstate 5 cut an ugly swath up the valley, the meandering two-lane 99 served as the main north-south route through the state. A by-pass next to Dardanelle's Trailer Park allowed traffic to enter Gold Hill.
My Aunt Virginia was the only real estate broker for miles. Her little office isn't there anymore, long since torn down and paved over; but Plummer Realty once stood at 520 Second Avenue, right in the center of town.
* * * * *
The Plummer family lived on Lampman Road. Their property fronted the Rogue across from the Sardine Creek inlet. The house sat high above a sharp bend in the river.
One particular feature convinced Aunt Virginia and Uncle Charley to buy that lot. During the great flood of 1955, that house alone escaped the ravage. While every other home on that side of the river lay submerged, this one piece of land remained dry, a small island.
From the front porch, the ground tapered off sharply, dropping a hundred feet to the river bank. The steep slope lay covered in a tangled mass of blackberry bushes and poison ivy. Scratches and rashes awaited anyone foolish enough to venture in among the vines.
A footpath led from the house down the right side of the property line, through thick underbrush, to the river bank. There, a narrow strip of hard clay afforded access to the water. Stepping off the bank, soft black river bottom oozed between the toes.
Four or five feet from shore, the muddy sand gave way to a bed of smooth rocks. Wading farther out, one could reach perhaps ten feet from the river bank and remain standing. Chest-deep by then, the icy current tugged hard but could not pull a man down.
Out in the middle, however, the water raged and would sweep a man off his feet. Upstream, the river flowed wider, deeper, and slower. Boats were common sights there; but few boats ever ventured down in front of the old Plummer place.
* * * * *
Life followed a strict routine that summer. At 7:00 A.M. each morning, Aunt Virginia waltzed into the bedroom and roused cousin Jimmy and me out of the sack. Half awake, we dragged ourselves into the kitchen.
Aunt Virginia had great pride in that spacious kitchen, having designed it herself. It combined the best features from all the homes she'd ever lived in. As Uncle Charley put it, "There is a place for every tool, and every tool has its place."
That kitchen also had the best view of any room in the house. One huge picture window provided a panoramic view of the river a hundred feet below. While Aunt Virginia cooked breakfast, Jimmy and I gazed down at the sharp bend in the river.
Down there, Nature pitted one brute force against the other. Large granite boulders lay in the river bed, blocking the path of a relentless torrent. Pounding the rocks head-on, water foamed over the tops and churned through crevices under the surface.
The river seemed to have a mind of its own, trying to push the rocks aside and form a new channel straight ahead; but the huge boulders held their ground and refused to budge. In the end, the water gave way, sweeping left and heading farther downstream.
Over the long term, Nature has a way of balancing things out. Winter rains and melting snow often favor the river. During heavy flooding, a river charts its own course.
* * * * *
Uncle Charley had his own routine and went his own way each morning. Long retired, he got up with the crows to sip a cup of coffee in quiet while the rest of the house slept. Later, in blue dungarees and gray work shirt, he slipped out the back door.
Real estate agents got up a little later. After breakfast, Aunt Virginia, Jimmy, and I drove into Gold Hill. While Aunt Virginia spent the morning on the road showing property, Jimmy and I watched the office.
At one o'clock, Aunt Virginia returned, and we tendered our report. She thanked us for a job well done and paid a dollar each. That bought a hamburger and a milk shake at the cafe next door. Since she had sold the place to the owner, he gave us a discount.
Bellying up to the bar and onto a swivel stool, we devoured lunch. There is nothing like the counter of a small town diner to enhance the taste of a hamburger. Finished, we grabbed a couple of old car inner tubes and headed for the river and the ride home.
Ambling down Second Avenue, we passed Walker's Texaco station, the post office, a hardware store, and a bar. Just past the Malloy place, a steep footpath led down to the "old swimming hole" under the Gold Hill Bridge.
Here, the river ran deep and slow, surrounded by high natural rock. A springboard once rested atop a large flat bolder on the north side of the bridge; but only the threaded mounting bolts remained. Too many kids had been hurt, so city officials removed the board.
Rumor had it that older boys proved their macho by jumping into the river from the bridge twenty feet above; but nothing that daring happened during this summer.
Wading into waist deep water, we eased into our tubes and waived goodbye to a couple of kids watching from shore. Gradually, the current pulled us downstream.
The first few hundred yards ran over a series of swift, bumpy rapids. Then the river broadened out, and the ride softened into a long slow drift through glass smooth water. Thick trees and brush obscured most of the shore line. Here and there, gaps in the foliage exposed elegant homes with redwood decks, boat docks, and manicured lawns.
Soon, the Plummer place loomed ahead, and the current threatened to sweep us through the rocks and around the bend. Paddling hard toward shore, we grabbed a low hanging tree branch and hauled ourselves onto the bank.
* * * * *
After a quick change of clothes, we set off in search of the great unknown. Jimmy owned two sturdy old Schwinn Flyers, one-speed bikes with big fat tires and springs on the front forks. He had stripped them of fenders, lights, horns, and other loose parts.
Lampman Park, a short ride up the road, offered a network of bone-jarring trails that eventually led down to the river and an old, abandoned boat ramp. Half covered with weeds, the ramp hadn't seen a boat in a long time.
A short, narrow set of rails ran in the concrete, down the ramp, and into the water. It looked as though a cart might have slid in the tracks, attached to a cable and winch. At one time, people had been able to launch a small boat into the river at that spot.
Years of neglect, however, had allowed the tracks to rust, and the cart had long since been removed. Still, the steep concrete slope looked inviting. Perhaps, if one built up enough speed, he could use the ramp as a launching pad out into the water.
Taking turns, we raced our bikes down the boat ramp and plowed into the river. Tires and springs took most of the shock, as we fell laughing into the shallow water. Time slipped away, and it grew dark.
* * * * *
One evening, as Jimmy and I approached the house, Uncle Charley came out to meet us. He had something on his mind. The two of us ought to spend more time at home, he suggested, instead of roaming loose so much.
Uncle Charley had a plan, a project the three of us could all work on together. Then he described his dream of irrigating the upper acres with free river water.
Between the house and Lampman Road, the Plummers owned several acres of prime forest land. Charley worried that the long, hot summer had dried out the trees and wild grass too much. To him, conditions looked ripe for a wild fire.
Charley's plan called for a network of plastic water pipes and sprinklers to wet the grounds each evening. All the pipes would connect to a single gas-powered water-pump next to the house. The pump, high on the hill, would draw water from the river.
Our job would be to help lay the pipes and – here is the best part – build a breakwater in the river. The breakwater, in front of the house, would create a small sheltered pool in the river. From this pool, the pump could draw water up the hill.
For us boys, the pool would also serve as an aiming point when floating down the river in our inner tubes. The current would come to a stop in front of the breakwater. We had only to stay close to shore, and momentum would carry us into the safety of the pool.
Uncle Charley always had a project in the mill; but this one offered something for everyone. We agreed to start work the next day.
* * * * *
The nearby river bottom had more than enough large rocks for the foundation. As those were moved into place, the bottom of the pool turned smooth and sandy, and we had to look farther away for stones of suitable size. Lugging them back required teamwork.
It turned into hard labor; but we were so consumed with the task that we hardly noticed. With each stone in place, the wall grew taller, wider, and stronger. Man had never embarked on a more noble cause.
For Charley, the project meant free river water for the tinder dry forest; but, for Jimmy and I, the project gave us a chance to challenge Nature, head on, for the first time in our lives. We were out to tame the mighty Rogue River.
Day after day, we labored in cutoff blue jeans. The cool river water rose to our waists, and the sun beat down on our bare backs and shoulders. Our skin turned dark brown.
At the end of two weeks, the breakwater stood finished. A long pile of neatly stacked stones, it spread three feet wide at the base and two feet wide at the top. Three and a half feet high, it jutted nearly a foot above normal water level.
The wall began at the shore line and ran eight feet straight out into the river before curving three feet upstream. Jimmy and I stood back and beamed like proud parents. No doubt, workers on the Great Wall of China felt the same way after laying the final stone.
That evening, Charley walked the grounds and inspected the work. The breakwater, the plastic pipes, the sprinkler heads, and the pump had all been laid in place. Now, we would set theory aside and prove if the grand scheme worked, or not.
* * * * *
While Aunt Virginia, Jimmy, and I hovered nearby, Uncle Charley pulled the cord to start the pump motor. On the second try, it roared to life, a screeching high-pitched whine, like a chorus of chain saws. All of Lampman Road must have heard it.
Charley grimaced. You could tell he felt guilty being the author of so much noise.
He hung his head for a second or two. The quiet stillness of a warm summer sunset in the forest had been shattered, and he had been the cause of it. Now, he had to choose between two evils – a few moments of bone-rattling noise, or no water for the dry grass.
Charley hunkered over the pump and tinkered with the gas valve. The rest of us watched the sprinkler heads for signs of life.
After a few seconds, they hissed and sputtered. One by one, as the pressure built, each nozzle turned out a steady stream. Levers flicked, and water pulsed in measured spurts. Long slow arcs sprayed across a wide grid, and the grass turned wet. Not from any metered city pipes, this water came straight from the wild Rogue River.
* * * * *
For the rest of that summer, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor. Each night, for twenty minutes, Charley filled the forest with a deafening roar, his Rube Goldberg contraption screaming like a buzz-saw, sucking up river water and raining it down on the dry upper acres. For the record, city files make no mention of a fire on Lampman Road that year.
Jimmy and I put the breakwater to our own use. Floating lazily down the river in our inner tubes, we no longer feared the rocks and rapids. Eyes shut tight against the sun, we leaned back and soaked up the warm rays.
Sensing a change in the current, we looked up. There, just ahead, right where we knew it would be, lay the breakwater. Coasting into the sheltered pool, we struggled to our feet in the shallow water.
Surveying our small empire, we felt a sense of contentment few men on this earth ever know. In a small way, we had harnessed Nature, and we had done it with our own bare hands. Pleased with ourselves, we hiked up the path to the house.
* * * * *
As if in answer to our youthful audacity, the river flooded again that winter. In the spring, when the water subsided, the breakwater lay in ruin. The brute forces of Nature had scattered our hard work downstream like so many tiny pebbles.
The next year, the Plummers sold their house on Lampman Road and moved to Central Point, so Jimmy could be closer to his new high school; and my own journeys didn't take me back to Gold Hill again until the fall of 1965 when I entered Southern Oregon College. One day, during a break in classes, I drove out to have a look.
From the Sardine Creek Bridge, opposite the old Plummer place, I stared down at the shore line. For half an hour, I studied the spot where our breakwater had once been.
The river had ruthlessly washed away most of the stones; but one could still make out through the shallow water a faint outline of larger rocks that had made up the base of our work. How fragile and fleeting are the marks we leave behind on this earth.