Illinois Flood

March 22, 1998
Illinois River, Southern Oregon

March 22, 1998: Illinois River Flash Flood: Two rafters die; 10 rescued

As late as early Sunday, the Illinois gauge at Kerby recorded the flow at 1,934 cubic feet per second, or 6.9 feet.
By Monday, the river had jumped to 21 feet and 17,605 cfs, said Chuck Glaser of the National Weather Service station in Medford.

By John Griffith and Jonathon Brinkman of The Oregonian staff

AGNESS - The white-water thrill of the Illinois River turned to terror for rafters and kayakers when weekend rains churned the Rogue River tributary into a foaming caldron, killing two rafters and forcing the helicopter rescue of 10 others Monday afternoon.

Spring snowmelt and more than 3 inches of warm rain sent the flashy Illinois surging to nine times its flow in a day. The killing pulse formed 12-foot waves that capsized rafts at the Green Wall, a notorious rapid hemmed in by a basalt gorge about 18 miles upriver from the Illinois' confluence with the Rogue.

"That river was doing things I've never seen a river do before," said Bob Tooker, 33, of Vancouver, Wash., who was rescued by helicopter from the rugged canyon Monday afternoon. A wave flipped Tooker's raft at the Little Green Wall, 0.7 mile below the Class 5 Green Wall rapid. Tooker was swept along more than a mile before he could scramble out on a rock.

Another in Tooker's party was not as fortunate. The Curry County Sheriff's Department identified one of the dead as Wilbur Gale Byars, a Deschutes River guide from Aloha. Byars, who also drove a bus for the Beaverton School District, would have turned 63 today.

By dusk Monday, four U.S. Coast Guard helicopters had airlifted 10 survivors from the river. Lt. Mark Metcalf of the Curry County Sheriff's Department said one body had been recovered, but another was still in the river. Coast Guard helicopters made several flights over the river, and authorities thought all boaters had been accounted for.

"As far as we're concerned, the operation is over," Metcalf said. "We're thankful. It could have been a lot worse."

Metcalf said a flyover will be made this morning to make sure there is no one else on the river, and the search will continue for the remaining body. The fury of the current kept rescuers in jet boats off the river Sunday and Monday. Fog and rain delayed air rescue efforts Monday.

As late as early Sunday, the river gauge at Kerby recorded the flow at 1,934 cubic feet per second, or 6.9 feet. By Monday, the river had jumped to 21 feet and 17,605 cfs, said Chuck Glaser of the National Weather Service station in Medford.

"When that water comes through that chute, there's nothing you can do, there's nowhere you can go to escape," Metcalf said.

Earlier, authorities feared as many as 30 people were missing - a number based on the permits issued for people to launch their boats. But a check of the people who obtained permits determined all had been accounted for. Some never launched because of the bad weather, and others made it out safely on their own. Coast Guard helicopters gingerly hovered over the gorge, as narrow as 20 feet in spots. One helicopter lowered a Coast Guard rescue swimmer when the crew spotted Tooker and two companions on the bank.

The three men had spent the night huddled under a lean-to they made from sticks and ferns. They climbed into the basket and were hoisted into the helicopter because there was no room to land in the steep-sided canyon. All those plucked from the rocks appeared to be in good condition, with only mild cases of hypothermia.

"They weren't beat up or bruised or anything like that - they're just cold," said Millie Bird, an administrator at Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach, where three Portland-area survivors were treated.

Mitchell McDougal, 37, of Beaverton was admitted for hypothermia. The other survivors treated were Ricky Carver, 41, and Kirk Wilkens, 33.

The Illinois, which runs through the remote Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the rugged Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon, is among the West's most challenging white-water rivers. It was named for three brothers who emigrated from Peoria, Ill., in 1847 and struck gold on one of its tributaries, which later yielded a 17-pound gold nugget.

The Illinois is run normally between March and May at flows below 3,000 cubic feet a second. Even at those flows, the river boasts 150 rapids in 20 miles of waterborne roller coaster.

River for experts only

The river, which is for experts only, is navigable by raft and kayak. Most boaters put in at Miami Bar in Josephine County and take out at Oak Flat in Curry County, a 35-mile, two-day float through some of Oregon's wildest country.

"At moderate levels, it's beautiful, fun and wonderful, but it can all too quickly become deadly serious," said guide Ferron Mayfield, who has run trips on the river for 20 years. "It's world-class white-water. It is quite awesome and quite intimidating."

On Monday, Justin Boice and his father, Court, ran their jet boats 12 miles up the Illinois in a futile effort to reach stranded boaters. The two boats were forced to turn back at Silver Creek.

"The water was just too high," Boice said. "We couldn't make it any farther without endangering ourselves as much as the people we were trying to rescue. It was some of the more intense boating I have ever done."

Dave Brooks, 45, of Gold Beach made it past the Green Wall, the most treacherous rapid on the river, before the Illinois surged. Brooks and his party of three boats and five people broke camp early Sunday and made it off the river by 10 a.m.

"It was high, but it was safely negotiable," said Brooks, who has floated the Illinois 15 times. "What gets people in trouble in situations like this is bad decisions." Gary Moore and Guy Colby of Gold Beach manned the oars in the other two boats in Brooks' party.

Rafters taken to a base camp in Agness included Ken Bavoso and Dori Brownell from the Portland area. Two other rafters, Roger Stewart and Matthew Smith from the Portland area, made it out on their own Sunday afternoon.

Other rafters who were rescued and brought to Gold Beach Airport were Gary Hough; his son, Daniel; Katherine Meyers; and Mike Kalk, all of the Corvallis area.

Before launching, groups are required to register and place their permits in a lock box in front of the Selma Market. Clerks at the store said a group lingered for several hours Sunday trying to decide whether it was safe to go. "I said, `No way I'd go down that river,' " said clerk Cameron Anderson. He said that just before the group set out, the U.S. Forest Service called and told the store to post information about the dangerous conditions. "I ran out to the parking lot and just missed them," Anderson said.

The Associated Press and Brian Meehan, Rob Eure, Romel Hernandez and Joan Laatz Jewett of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.