The wicked little McKenzie River in western Oregon does not just kick up white water. It rushes in a series of boat-shattering, man-dunking drops from Cooks Rapids to Brown's Rock, from Bear Creek to notorious Martin Rapids, through Gate Creek Rapids and under the Goodpasture Covered Bridge, until the calm waters above Leaburg Dam finally gentle its restless passage. This rough-riding torrent was finally tamed 35 years ago when professional fishing guides devised a light plywood boat, a high-riding craft like a junior version of the Nova Scotia dory. In 1938, on the Sunday before the opening of the trout season, 20 of these boats carrying guides and their wives made the first 20-mile parade run. The next year there were 40 boats out to test the spring freshet. By the 1940s students from the University of Oregon had discovered the white-water parade and made it their spring thing. Through the years the size of the attacking armada has swelled, and for this April's hilarity there will be some 500 assorted craft—some are shown opposite and on the following pages—out to bob on the bubbly. "It's a far cry from what it used to be," says Prince Helfrich, a veteran guide. "Once everybody used the regular riverboats and knew how to handle them. Now it's too wild." Wild it is, with the beer flowing as freely as the river and with thousands of festive spectators lined at vantage points along the banks to watch the melee.
In the McKenzie assault at least 10% of the rafts will capsize and wooden boats will be reduced to kindling when swirling against the rocks. However, no lives have been lost thus far in the cold water that is never warmer than 42° in early spring. The river is shallow enough so that a dunking victim can drift downstream to a quiet eddy from which he can walk to shore.