Being a diver in Southern Oregon means if you intend on keeping your skills sharp, you will dive fresh water. I know very well that those of you who reserve themselves to annual (or more, for the lucky among you) opportunities to dive tropical destinations and experience 75+ degree water with 100 foot visibility, the prospect of 45 degree (or colder…brrr) water with 10 foot viz, may sound as enticing as going for a colonoscopy without the benefit of knock out gas. Well, throw caution to the wind, break out the 7mm skins and wake up early! You’ve got the time, you need the practice and there’s diving to do.
Start out by waking early and venture south on Redwood Hwy. (State Rt. 199) out of Grants Pass, OR, driving about 20 miles to the little town of Selma. Time it right and you can have a hearty breakfast at County Folks Café on the left as you enter Selma, where they will serve you the largest pancakes you’re ever likely to see. I promise you’ll have enough leftovers for lunch and most likely dinner!
When you’re done carb’ing up and ready to move, proceed about ½ mile further down 199 and turn right on Illinois River Rd. (a.k.a. National Forest Dev. Rd #4103) which starts just across the street from the local Ray’s Supermarket. You will proceed down Illinois River Rd. until it becomes a BLM single track road on which you will twist and turn along the breathtaking and beautiful Illinois River at no more than 20 MPH for approximately 11 miles. Just when you feel like you couldn’t take the twisties any further, start looking for National Forest Development Rd. #087. The turn is marked with a BLM sign for Swinging Bridge, on the left. In the winter, this road should only be taken by those in four wheel drive vehicles as the clay soil can become treacherously slick when wet; any vehicle is fine when its dry.
Looking down hill about 500 yards or so, at the bottom of the road, you’ll see the magnificent Illinois river snaking its way through a deep ravine. Once you’ve traversed the dirt road to the bottom, look up river from the crossing, and you’ll see a truly impressive, coarse lumber suspension bridge that looks like something right out of the 19th century. If its summer time and the temperatures are approaching 80 or higher, you’ll surely see local teenagers taking the 40 foot plunge from the bridge. As the signage makes clear, this activity is frowned upon by the forest service and because you’ll need your energy and skeletal structure intact for your dive, you’re better off not trying it.
Once you’ve crossed the river you’ll find a parking area on the left. Park and setup there as the entry point below you is tight and can be occupied by other swimmers and divers. As the entry is down river from the best dive locations, you should be prepared for either a surface swim up-river, or using up precious air moving up to the best sights. If you can surface swim to the rocks just below the bridge, that will be your best location to descend.
Once below, you’ll find an otherworldly array of immense rock structures with many large dead fall trees suspended at varying depths that serve as great landmarks and fun swim-throughs. Once you’ve wandered around there, proceed up-river further and you will be rewarded with an outrageous granite canyon with 30 foot high walls. Depending how your air is doing, you may make it as far as a truly unique structure which looks like a vertical tube you swim up and through. On a recent dive I made this tube my turn around point as I was sitting around 1200 psi. The return dive, you get to cruise down stream with the current, revisiting the sights of your upstream swim at your leisure.
Technical notes about this dive include the need to remain in arms reach of your buddy at all times as visibility can become limited at any time due to turbidity from fin kicks too close to the bottom. Diver fitness should be good as there is a very slow, but persistent current working against you on your way up. The confined spaces in this dive add extra risk, and because of this those who suffer from any form of claustrophobia or fear of dark spaces might stay close to the bridge rather than proceeding up river. This dive takes you to depths of 50+ feet with limited light and visibility so a good light is definitely in order. Because of the depth and time of dive, be sure to use good ascent procedures if you come up from depth. If you are good with air, your return to the entry point will also serve as a natural ascent.
So, as you can see, if you can find the intestinal fortitude to venture onto the wild side, winter, spring, summer or fall, and you still fit into your 7mm cold suit, you’ll find that even here, in the chilly and foreboding waters of Southern Oregon, exist underwater experiences not to be missed.