08/05/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2012

Killing At Hell's Gate: The Rogue (PHOTOS)

Every year I organize a raft trip for the like-minded in the tech and travel worlds, a kind of floating salon, never stepping the same river twice. But this summer I returned to a rascal that sucked me in some years before, and I couldn't resist pulling up the hoary notes from my first encounter.

Alternatively tranquil and tumultuous, the Rogue chisels through the bristled plateau of the Siskiyou Mountains, taking on the character of a coastal river: steep-sided, narrow and heavily forested with moody, molting pools and sudden, spuming chutes and rapids. The French trappers who worked this watershed in the early 19th century found the waters troubling, but the Takelma Indians more so, and so the trappers called the river Les Coquines ("the Rogues") after their local adversaries. Almost two centuries later the Rogue would prove a scallywag of a river for me as well.

When television producer Ron Roth walks into my office he says he is looking for a whitewater river. "It has to be terribly wild, terribly scenic, with big rapids, big trees and great restaurants."

That final requirement narrows the field.

The Rogue rises in the Cascade Range, northwest of the royal blue waters of Crater Lake, at about a mile above sea level, and makes a 200-mile dash to the Pacific. After spilling through spectacular and pristine timberland, it drops into the broad, fertile Rogue River Valley, where the farms and orchards around Medford and Grants Pass are often clouded by haze from lumber mills, the economic underpinning of the region. Below Galice it picks up speed again, spinning its waters through one of the most magnificent wilderness corridors in America. Then it pauses before making its final exhale into the sea.

An 84-mile section of the Rogue was one of the first eight rivers (known as The Instant 8) designated as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1968. The river earned its initial fame as an angler's paradise for anadromous (sea-going) fish, and has been called "the fishingest river in the West." The late spring Chinook salmon run and the early fall steelhead trout run attract anglers from around the globe. Others are lured by the writings of Zane Grey, who had a cabin on the Rogue during the 1920s and 1930s at Winkle Bar.

In the middle 1960s some local outfitters and an ever-increasing number of private boaters discovered the Rogue as a fine river to run for its own sake. At the same time it attracted Hollywood. Debbie Reynolds -- whom I met a few weeks back at a birthday party for Hugh O'Brian, both still looking dandy and dangerous -- went barreling down the Rogue on a log raft in "How the West Was Won." John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn did the same in "Rooster Cogburn," and Meryl Streep out-maneuvered bad-guy Kevin Bacon in "The River Wild."

Ron Roth invites me to join his production as the whitewater stunt coordinator and a stunt double for two of the lead actors. The film is called "Killing at Hell's Gate," starring Robert Urich, Joel Higgins, Deborah Raffin and Lee Purchell. The plot is a watered-down "Deliverance." A congressman seeking favorable publicity embarks on a river trip. The river he chooses has recently had its wilderness classification enlarged, which effectively closes down a large lumber mill. Of course, the congressman voted for the extended protection for the river corridor.

Accompanying the congressman are his sexy aide; a Justice Department lawyer pressed into service since he hails from the area, and has planned a reunion vacation there; the lawyer's high school buddy who shares a birchbark canoe with him, and a stunning female raft guide who operates the congressman's raft. Everything appears to be the picture-perfect perk weekend until three now-jobless employees of the lumber mill out drowning sorrows in alcohol spot the entourage coming downriver. In spiteful stupor, the mill workers attempt to shoot a hole in the congressional raft; they miss, killing the congressman.

Since the killers know they were seen by the survivors, they figure the other four must die as well. And the hunt is on.

As bullets fly and darkness envelops the river, the lawyer's boyhood friend attempts a daring nighttime run of one of the Rogue's worst rapids, Blossom Bar, hoping to make it through and return with reinforcements. His attempt fails, of course, and in true Hollywood tradition, the lawyer dives in and tries swimming through the rapids to safety.

I am the stuntman who will steer the solo canoe through Blossom Bar and swim the rapid as well. My first job, though, is to recruit professional whitewater guides to act as stunt doubles for the key characters. They have to be pretty much the same size and shape as the actors. Breck O'Neill, a long-time friend, agrees to be the Robert Urich double, paddling the bow of the birchbark.

I recruit Joan Reynolds to play Deborah Raffin's character, Anna Medley, the beautiful raft guide. Tall and striking, Joan fits the part, though she has to wear a blonde wig over her raven hair. I offer the role of the congressman (played by Paul Dooley) to Steve Merefield. Steve refuses when told he has to cut his shoulder-length hair, until he discovers the day rate -- and the bonus for falling in the river after getting shot. His locks came off like rain off a roof. The last double I need is for the congressional aide, Lee Purcell, who is five-foot-three and 100 pounds.

Try as I might, I can't find a woman guide that tiny. A few days before shooting I call Joanne Taylor, a waitress I had dated.

"Want to be in the movies?" I volley in my impression of a Hollywood producer. She is skeptical. Although she possesses the correct dimensions, right down to jeans and shoe size, she has never even been in a raft and can't understand how she could be hired as a professional whitewater stuntwoman.

"It's easy," I coach. "You're supposed to play a secretary on her first raft trip, an indoor type out of her element, scared to death of the water. Just be yourself. You'll be brilliant."

A week later we are ferried upstream in flat-bottomed, aluminum jet boats to Paradise Lodge, not far below Blossom Bar. This will be our base for a week of shooting.

The Rogue is canyonous, gorgeous. Rusty-red bluffs, topped with Pacific madrone and Oregon white ash, loom 400 feet above the river. The lodge grounds are bordered by giant-leaved Indian rhubarb, salal, salmonberry and scarlet California fuchsia. The Mesozoic Era canyon walls feature streaks of serpentine and greenstone. A black-tailed deer wanders near the foot of my sleeping bag the first night, and a black bear wanders along the opposite the bank the next.

The first few days we shoot the main actors exchanging dialogue in the flat water below Blossom Bar: "Canoes and rivers are like men and women... They can be dangerous, but what's the choice?"

"He sewed a girl to a mattress... doesn't have both paddles in the water."

"When we get into the rapids, the fluffy white stuff, it looks soft, but it can float a brick."

In the off-time I teach Bob Urich and Joel Higgins how to paddle the canoe, a 15-foot aluminum Grumman painted by the prop departments to look like birchbark, even though birch doesn't grow within 2,000 miles of the Rogue. And some long shots are taken of our stunt doubles paddling through riffles. Joanne Taylor, who awkwardly grips her paddle like a broomstick, looks appropriately scared and green.

Then it is time to film the hairball action; the stuff the director, Jerry Jameson, says will "put Deliverance in the archives. " And that is up to me.

It's the morning Burt Reynolds has been dreading, and I am the first up to Blossom Bar. I have two hours to scout while the jet boats ferry the rest of the crew to the site. I am looking at a river in spring runoff spate. The rapid, named for the wild azaleas along its banks, looks like a rock garden gone to weed. It is a pinball course of water-sculpted, house-sized rocks, with a tricky zigzag route down the middle. But the director doesn't want me to go down the middle. He wants something more spectacular -- a run down the boulder-choked right bank where the cameras will be set up.

Until 1930 Blossom Bar was so clogged with boulders there was no passage. But then legendary riverman Glen Wooldridge blew the worst rocks out of the water. His demolition strategy was simple. He filled a gunnysack with dynamite and stones, worked his skiff up behind an offending boulder, lit the fuse, dumped the bag and then rowed like crazy downstream. Now, I wish I could do the same, since the route Jerry Jameson describes to me is one Glen had left intact.

The scene is to be the pivotal disaster of the film. The congressman has been shot and killed, and the survivors spent the day crouched behind a protecting rock while the killers stalked them from the canyon rim. With the cover of darkness, the Joel Higgins character says he'll go for help by paddling the canoe solo through the worst of Devil's Gorge. The script describes him running a series of increasingly difficult rapids, until he pitches over a waterfall and capsizes. It sounds terrific on paper, but in reality Joel Higgins will watch on shore while I try to flesh out the part.

I pace the banks as the crew sets up the cameras. The route requires threading a needle through various boulders, then dropping off a waterfall into a hydraulic -- a nasty piece of recirculating water that can hold a boat or boater for days. The cameras will be shooting "day for night," meaning the lenses will be stopped-down so daylight will appear as darkness. I figure this means I can take a little liberty with my appearance in the scene, and as I suit up I slip on an extra lifejacket under my lumberjack shirt. But, the director says it makes me look too fat -- I'll have to use just one. Joanne Taylor overhears the conversation and takes me aside to entreat me not to go. At that moment I know I have to.

When the director waves for action, I ease the canoe into the current, pointing the fake birchbark bow toward the maw. A great blue heron, disturbed by my presence, flaps its wings and takes off upstream, the direction I would have preferred. My throat is so dry it feels as if it is cracking. A primal fear shoots through me, but I am committed and keep paddling.

Then I am in it, plunging down the apron strings of the rapid, racing past the granite markers and over the waterfall, into the angry hydraulic where I brace for the upset. Instead, I emerge right-side-up, intact, barely wet. The script calls for a disastrous capsize. So, I grab the gunwales and pull the canoe over in the relatively calm water just below the falls, then flail my arms and legs as though being attacked by a shark.

"Cut! Cut! Cut!" I hear the director scream as I surface. There is no applause as I pull myself onto shore. Ron Roth takes me aside. He says the director wants to send out for professional stuntmen, but will give me another chance. I have to capsize in the falls and I have to cut down on my theatrics in the water, or I will be replaced.

As I walk back up to try again, Jerry Jameson corners me. "Look, son. Don't overact once you're in the water. Look at the way Joanne does it. She's a pro, like you, but she comes across on camera as though she's inexperienced and frightened, and she does it without all the hoopla. Follow her example. Cool down a bit."

With the sensei's words ringing, I launch again downstream. "Act like Joanne; do as she would," I mumble my mantra. Then I am in it. I try to make the run sloppier. I graze some of the beginning rocks. I line up off-center to pitch over the worst of the waterfall. But as I careen into the hydraulic, I feel the canoe is still too stable -- that it just isn't going to turn turtle. Only this time I know sooner, so before I emerge I snatch the side of the boat and pull it over under the cover of whitewater. Once in the water I try to panic -- but not too much, just like Joanne.

"Cut!" I again here from shore, but this time the crew claps as I pull myself from the water.

"Nice job," the director says. "Still a bit melodramatic, but it'll do."

And we are on to the next scene.

Now I play Charlie Duke, the Bob Urich character, who decides to swim the Rogue to safety when Joel Higgins never returns from his midnight canoe trip and the remaining raft is punctured by a bullet. The swim is through a more forgiving piece of Blossom Bar, but again it takes several takes for to tone down my acting and get it right.

Then a real drama unfolds. Between takes of my swim, a commercial raft slops down the left side of Blossom Bar and strikes a large boulder sideways. The raft wraps like a giant pancake plastered against a wall. The crew scrambles onto the bounder's dry crest and frantically waves at another commercial raft entering the rapid. The film crew stops to watch the sideshow as the second raft caroms through Blossom Bar towards the wrapped raft. It too approaches the boulder broadside and quickly wraps, folding around the first raft. The crew of the second raft scurries to the crowded roost atop the boulder, and now both sets of marooned crews wave hysterically at yet another approaching raft.

The oarsman of the third raft sees the expanding obstacle, and positions his bowman with a throw-line that can be tossed to the stranded crew as the raft rides by. Yet as he negotiates to get close to the dual shipwreck, he miscalculated and slams into the jam, turning the scene into a Triple Wrap, a turkey in bowling terms.

This is great theater for the professional showmen, but Joan Reynolds sees her fellow river guides in trouble and storms to the director and demands she be allowed to take one of the production rafts across the river with some of the propmen and grips to help in a rescue attempt.

"No. Out of the question," Jerry Jameson spits back. "The production costs over $100,000 a day. We can't stop to get involved in a rescue attempt. Nobody's hurt. They can figure out how to save themselves. We're a big production... We're more important than the fate of a few river rats."

Joan is so upset she threatens to quit on the spot. But then reconsiders. She tells me she needs the money and so suppresses the gallant urge. As the fictional congressman says around the campfire after his first day of rafting, "It's this putting aside certain areas to protect the wildness... That's what it's all about... To keep it wild and free. I care about those men and those families. I know what a paycheck means to them. But I would like their children and their children's children to be able to come out here and enjoy this treasure." It's all a question of degree. How many must be marooned, or how severe their danger, before the film company stops and helps? Would production stop for an injury? For a death? No script for real life.

With an eye on the stranded rafters, the production goes back to work. One by one the rafters jump in the water and swim through the whitewater, making it to shore without apparent mishap. And at the end of the shooting day, when the director yells, "It's a wrap," he's right.

As we board the jet boats for the trip back to Paradise Lodge, two of the three shipwrecked rafts have been freed, loosened by crew members pulling with lines from shore. The third, however, remains like a postage stamp glued to a granite package.

Next the entire crew moves to Grants Pass, with several days shooting in the short but steep-walled Hellgate gorge, a passage with no dangerous whitewater and easy access for the film crew. In order to make it look as if the actors are really running the rapids, we tie their boats to a raft that Breck and I steer through some ripples. The cameraman, Bill Butler, takes tight shots of the stars from the steering boat, with splashes and bits of swiftly moving bank in frame. Back in Hollywood the footage will be cut into the long shots of the stunt doubles actually shooting the rapids.

While the director and actors go off to film the scenes that take place off the river, the five stunt doubles are given two sets of matching clothing, a list of needed shots and directions to be back in five days. Roger Brown, the legendary director of adventure documentaries, accompanies us in another oar-powered raft heading downstream to make the milk run down the Rogue.

We put in at the traditional start of the commercial tour -- Grave Creek Bridge, 650 feet above sea level, near where the daughter of a pioneer couple was buried under an oak tree in 1846. I'm concerned about running the Rogue in an open canoe fashioned to look like a birchbark with Breck, a rafting veteran, but a canoeing novice, as my bowman. I quietly told the propmen several days before, and they produced a specially-designed canoe, assembled in Hollywood, filled with high-floatation ethafoam, except for the compartments where the paddlers kneel. It is, in fact, a super-canoe -- something Q might design for James Bond. The thing is weighted like an inflatable punching doll. If you try to turn it over, it rolls back up in a snap.

So, dressed like the stars of the movie and piloting our super-canoe, we head down the wild and scenic Rogue River. The first rapid, Grave Creek, immediately below the bridge, tests and proves the seaworthiness of our vessel. The first wave washes over the high crescent of the fake bow and rolls back to slap me in the face. Another follows and another, action that would swamp a lesser craft. We sail through without a hitch. A couple of fishermen on shore stare at our unlikely progress in incredulity.

After a mile of quiet paddling we come to the notorious Rainie Falls. We pull in on the left bank, tie our bowlines to a sugar pine whose bark has been worn by decades of boaters before us, and scramble down to stare at the 15-foot vertical drop and the cauldron below. Standing at the lip of the falls, the spinning mist seems to provide a perpetual rain on the banks and perhaps the reason for its name. Consulting the guidebook, I see the etymology, however, is less evocative. A 19th-century prospector and salmon gaffer named Reamy or Ramey was killed near the falls by Indians, and a bastardized version of his name was applied to the spectacle as tribute.

Rainie Falls is rated VI on the International Whitewater Scale, meaning there is real risk of injury or death. Rainie has seen its share of both. Running it would make for spectacular footage, maybe the stuff that would put "Deliverance" in the archives. But it isn't right for us, not this day. Not even in the super-canoe, which although unsinkable, has layers of fake birchbark coating that could be stripped off in big water.

So, we portage the heavy canoe around the left bank and re-launch in the lapping waters just below the falls. Then, after setting up Roger's camera on shore, Breck and I backpaddle to the foot of the falls, splash water over our heads, and the video rolls, revealing what appears to be the aftermath of an epic run.

We continue a long mile into the afternoon until we come to the broad beach at Whiskey Creek, where we make camp for the night. I set up my tent in a corner between a patch of yellow Siskiyou iris and fragrant wild azaleas and collapse into sleep right after dinner.

We are on the river early the next day. This mist is still rising, doodling lazy curlicues in the cedars and hemlocks. An osprey wheels above the fog; an otter splashes below.

We run Tyee Rapids (tyee is the Chinook word for "chief"), practically shaving the grassy right bank, and at Wildcat we slalom, as though downhill competitors, through a cold-frame course. By the time we reach Black Bar Falls we have our river legs in the super-canoe and are feeling a bit brash. So, when Roger gives the signal for action, we take off in a sprint, bolting over a series of six-foot drops, until we turn broadside, and a wave slaps the boat over, kicking us into the brink. In an instant the canoe pops back up, sans crew.

"No! No!" Roger screams from shore. There is nothing in the script about a dual dunking, and certainly no super-canoe that can right itself. So, we drag the canoe out of the river, up the banks, and do it all again, take two.

The next four days are long and scenic as we slowly make our way downstream, stopping at each rapid to set up the camera, a process that turns a two-minute run into two hours. On the morning of the last day the river narrows from its 100-foot width to a slim 15-feet as we purl into the two-mile-long Mule Creek Canyon. We bounce off the granite bedrock walls like billiard balls, carom through the canyon into Coffee Pot, an eight-foot-wide channel that has so many eddies the river seems to be percolating.

At a fern-draped tributary waterfall on the left bank we emerge from the gorge to the final rapid -- Blossom Bar, where we began. Now we are approaching the rocks that had become so familiar a week before. The fear left behind resurfaces as we enter the run. I know the road by heart at this point, and as we shovel the water with our paddles I stretch to see if the last wrapped raft is still there. It isn't. But the boulder is, and the current is tugging us towards it. I yell at Breck to paddle harder. He screams back at me to quit screaming. And we screech around the boulder, glancing it with our stern, leaving behind a tiny stain of fake birchbark.

We are through. We paddle in the quiet currents to our take-out at Foster Bar. It is a wrap.

Now, today, if you go to IMDB and type in my name you will find one short entry memorializing my career in film: "Killing at Hell's Gate."

The Rogue River