Whitewater rafting has become a very popular water sport in Oregon and across the United States. It didn’t start out as a whitewater raft with professional guides though. Instead, it has evolved over time as various cultures and generations have passed on their knowledge and their techniques for navigating the white water of many a river.
The Fishing Rafts of Northwest Native Americans
Here in the northwest, rafting has been an important part of the ﬁshing techniques of several Native American tribes. For almost 15,000 years, the Nez Perce, among other tribes, navigated the many rivers that serve as tributaries to the Columbia River. They did not have ﬂexible rubber rafts though. Instead, they used wooden rafts to ﬂoat down the river in order to get to their plentiful ﬁshing spots. When Lewis and Clark arrived in the west, it was from these tribes that they learned how to build rafts strong enough to navigate the whitewater of rivers like the Deschutes.
East and West Coast Rafts
Some of the original rafts used in our area and across the US were very simple but eﬀective. The pirogue was a ﬂat-bottom boat that had a few diﬀerent designs and it was most commonly used in the West. The Bateau was an Eastern developed raft that was made of a simple frame with planks. Eventually, rafters combined the best qualities of these two boats to create the keelboat. It’s most notable diﬀerence was that it had a streamlined hull, which was much better for controlling the direction of the raft.
The Invention of Rubber Rafts
Once whitewater rafting became more commonplace, more rafting expeditions began to emerge. Most rivers though, including the Snake River and Platte River, were still too rough for the keelboat design. That‘s why in 1843, John Fremont designed the ﬁrst rubber raft, which was later improved by Peter Halkett in 1844. These ﬂexible boats made it much easier to navigate rough waters, making river expeditions across the US more successful.
The Rise of Whitewater Rafting as a Sport
It wasn’t until a full century later that whitewater rafting evolved into a recreational sport. In 1940, the Salmon River became one of the ﬁrst to host guided rafting trips through its white waters. The popularity of the spot grew throughout World War II and really began to spread to other rivers. In 1972, whitewater rafting became an oﬃcial sport and made its ﬁrst appearance at the Munich Olympics. Since then, whitewater rafting has thrived in rivers with great rapids and where communities embraced outdoor adventure.
Today, the Deschutes River is one of the most popular rivers for whitewater rafting in the Northwest. People come from across the country to experience the many outdoor wonders of the Deschutes River Canyon and to challenge themselves with Class III and IV rapids. Imperial River Company in Maupin is a well-known destination for guided rafting trips, where they carry on the proud tradition of navigating thrilling rapids for young and old rafters alike.