A paddling expedition on the stunning class 4 upper Chetco River through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness is worth every bit of effort. However, it is the amount of effort and logistics that keep most people out and give this run the magical feel of being truly in the middle of nowhere, or as I prefer to put it, the center of everywhere. There are several ways to approach this trip, including hiring horses to pack boats the 9 miles of lose steep trail or designing a makeshift backpack for a hardshell kayak. Remember, this is wilderness, so no wheels allowed and leave no trace! Whether hiking the Chetco Pass or Babyfoot Lake route, expect an arduous full day of boat packing in addition to a recommended 3 days of paddling. When stopping to tape blisters, be sure to admire the spectacular endemic springtime wildflowers and otherworldly Serpentine rock.
Most paddlers use a lightweight inflatable kayak and roll it to fit inside/on a serious backpack along with ultralight minimalist style overnight gear. I limit my boatpack to half my bodyweight and don’t bring a single item I won’t use (besides the first aid, patch kit and spare paddle hopefully). A Sevylor Tahiti is not going to cut it; rent a 19lb NRS Bandit from Galice or demo a 16lb SOTAR Stealth IK and make sure it’s rigged with thigh straps. For large paddlers, try the 33 lb AIRE Lynx or the 40lb Cronin Ugly Ducky. Inflatable kayaks double as a mattress, PFD for a pillow, and a tarp over a throw rope suffices as a shelter. IKs are a significantly wetter ride than hardshells so plan on a wetsuit or drysuit even if air temps are in the 80s. Overpacking will lead to trail misery, lack of maneuverability and laborious portaging, but don’t skimp on self-rescue essentials because paddling the Chetco is as truly remote as it gets.
Flows and weather are best in May, any earlier and there might be too much snow at the top near 5000 ft. Luckily, there are many online resources and trip reports for paddlers who are seriously dedicated to putting a trip together. Look for between 500-2000cfs on the Chetco gage in Brookings. 500 will feel like lubricated hiking, but at least there’s time to scout the next boulder drop while stuck on a shallow rock. At 2000 almost every rapid is covered up enough to run successfully in an IK and paddlers should have class 4 read and run skills. It is entirely possible for less experienced paddlers to run the Chetco allowing for extra portage time around some of the class 4, but off-the-couch weekend warriors be warned: expect lots of involuntary ego-bashing swims and debilitating soreness in exchange for the adventure of a life time. For the shortest trip, put in at Slide Creek and take out at Tolman Ranch. For a longer trip with easier logistics, put in at Carter Creek and take out at Steel Bridge where there is a dirt access road just downstream of the bridge. Shuttle companies that do the Rogue are a good place to start looking for a shuttle driver, but due to the length, it is more cost effective to use a friend.