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Three Days on the Rogue River

Runners in a meadow near the Rogue River Oregon
Amanda, Willee, Joy, Jill (the writer and birthday girl), Christina, and Paula

[Editor's Note: In spring, 2013, six women including Portland Running Company owner Paula Harkin ran 40 miles along the wild and scenic Rogue River in southern Oregon. Jill McDonnell, who organized the trip for her birthday, wrote about the experience for]

I’m turning 40 this year. A lot of women might indulge in a nice spa weekend or have a huge party to celebrate a milestone like this. Not me. I wanted to do something epic that not only defined who I am, but allowed me to do what I love.

Boy did I find it. And when I asked five of my closest girlfriends if they would like to celebrate my birthday by running 40 plus miles, climbing thousands of feet on a single track trail in a remote part of Oregon, they responded with a resounding "Yes!" 

They are either crazy or appreciate like I do the feeling of freedom while trail running, where you can just feel like a kid again…or maybe a combination of both.

Because families, jobs, and that whole life thing tend to get in the way, we started planning for this trip in December of 2012. I was amazed that one of my friends quickly found a business that included a running guide along the Rogue River, exactly the location where I wanted to do this kind of run.

These girls weren’t even swayed by the information they sent us about snakes on the trail and bears on the other side of the river. (Wait…can’t bears swim?!) We were going to do this!

Day One

We arrived in Merlin, OR—a place I had no idea how to get to except by using Mapquest—the location of Orange Torpedo, the company that was going to lead us on our trail adventure. We met our guide, Vick, a guy in his 50s that informed us that he had done only 97 ultramarathons and run along the Rogue about 100 times!

We also met Billy, our rafting guide extraordinaire, who would be transporting our precious cargo of wine and cake (oh, and our clothes) that we would be enjoying after our daily runs.

We did a quick bathroom stop, tried on our life vests for when we had to cross the river, and began our journey on the Rogue River Trail.

A van dropped us in a parking lot, our raft went in the water, and we started running uphill.

I started second-guessing my choice of birthday fun as I puffed up the hill until we rounded the first corner to a view that was breathtaking. This was the beginning of our overuse of adjectives like “amazing” or “beautiful.” It was almost as if I couldn’t find just the right word to describe this rare and wild area of my home state.

Two of us even started crying at one point when we saw an enormous waterfall.

There are no roads along the way, just the river and the trail. We either had to run back to the parking lot or keep running forward. After about 10 miles of running, pictures, and being awestruck, we arrived at our first lodge.

We were ferried across the river to Black Bar Lodge, took glorious showers, and ate a Thanksgiving dinner.

Yes, a Thanksgiving dinner is not what runners normally eat in the middle of a 3 day trail run, but how could we resist homemade biscuits with turkey with gravy.

Day Two

We slept like the dead and awoke to fresh coffee and a huge breakfast. After packing up and ferrying back over the river to the trail, we began the longest mileage day of our trip.

We were feeling great and running in a “train”, where each person takes a turn at the front, rotating each mile. Halfway through our 17 mile day, we stopped for lunch. I don’t think I have ever eaten lunch in the middle of a run and now I know why.

After a lazy lunch on a beach along the river and skipping rocks across the water, we continued running, although we all wanted to stay and take naps after our stop.

Our terrain was constantly changing from rocky climbing with steep drop-offs to lush rain forest and meadows along the river. This was also the day we started hearing and seeing snakes.

My friend, Paula, is especially not fond of snakes. Luckily, we had discussed overcoming fears earlier in the day as part of goal on the trip, and Paula jumped over the first snake with grace. We also stopped and climbed out on some rocks to watch our guide Billy manage our raft through some Class 4 rapids.

My friend, Willee, who is an incredible swimmer, does not like rafting. As we watched the boat in front of Billy lose a passenger and get tossed around in the rapids, I could only hope that Billy wouldn’t lose our precious cargo (mostly the wine) from his raft! 

Of course our guide made it look easy and Willee relaxed.

At the end of 17 miles, we arrived at our second and final lodging, appropriately named Paradise Inn. It was perched up high on the side of the river with a relaxing sound of rolling rapids that put us all to sleep that night.

Runners above the Rogue River Oregon

Day Three

After stuffing ourselves with sausage, French toast and eggs, we headed out for our final day of running. I’m not sure what I expected, but I wasn’t crying and curled up in the fetal position as I thought I would be after running the last two days.

Instead, I was inspired.

It was a beautiful morning of sun breaking through a thick cloud of fog. We took a quick snapshot in a meadow and started back on the trail.

We really enjoyed the day, knowing it was our last, taking our time and talking about our experience.

We discussed how lucky we were to be doing this and how we should do a reunion run when I turned 50. Our guide pointed out Indian battlegrounds, discarded mining equipment, and western writer Zane Grey’s cabin. And before we knew it, it was over.

We drove back in a van the to our waiting cars, and I thought about the trip the whole way home. It was just what I wanted and more. No fuss, no drama, just a bunch of girls getting it done.

Not only did I feel like it was an accomplishment, I was able to develop a deeper bond along the way with my friends during a trip none of us will ever forget!