For over 20 years now I have been floating the John Day River in eastern Oregon. It was the first multiday float I ever self-supported and I hope that in the days before I draw my final breath it will be my last. In the early days it took not much more than $30 inflatable rafts, picked up from the local sporting goods store, a fly rod and a dozen great friends to head to the river and find adventure and memories. One year, when budgets were tight, and imaginations (maybe stupidity) were soaring, we (myself included) decided it would be a good idea to group-up in an inflatable swimming pool and use this to navigate the 40 mile Service Creek to Clarno stretch. Needless to say the pool was a terrible idea, and backup plans had to be accelerated after the first day, but as you might imagine, the memory has lasted a lifetime. Our food, back then, consisted of a pack of hot dogs, a can of chili, maybe some ramen, and sandwiches. We'd go to bed late, and wait for the giant desert sun to cook us out of our sleeping bags. After a morning of slow starts and comparing sunburns from the previous day, we'd meander down river powered by laughter and friendship. We were endlessly entertaining to any experienced river runners that would pass us by, but often there would be a shared look between them, like "you remember that one time when we..."
The John Day River is a ribbon of undammed water that cuts through the high desert of eastern Oregon. From its headwaters 9000 ft. above the sea in the Strawberry mountains, to its confluence with with the massive Columbia in the Columbia River Gorge, the river descends over 8500 feet cutting beautiful canyons along its 284 miles of free-flowing beauty. In the modern day, an unobstructed river is something to behold, and with over 8000 square miles of drainage, the river fluctuates from a roaring powerhouse during its flood stages where it can surge to more than 40,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), to an ankle deep wadable 50 cfs trickle in late summer. The John Day is the 4th longest undammed river in the contiguous United States.
Lewis and Clark came across the mouth of the river in 1805 and used their interpretation of the native people's river name, Kekemarke. Other accounts indicate that they named it after a member of their party Jean Baptiste LePage. In 1811 a member of the North West Company renamed it the Torks Paez River. A year later, in 1812, a hunter in the Pacific Fur Company, John Day, was stripped naked at the mouth of the river by natives, and forced to walk 80 miles back upstream, in winter, to the more friendly Umatilla Indians. It is to this John Day that the name is now attributed.
Lewis and Clark were latecomers to the Kekemarke. The land surrounding it has continuous anthropological history dating back at least 10,000 years. It was a critical watershed for both hunting and fishing, and across its history the Kekemarke supported many bands of native people including the Tenino, Umatilla, Wyampam, Molalo, Cayuse, Nez Perce, and the Paiute tribes to name a few.
The breathtaking hills, canyons, and peaks are best absorbed and appreciated over days, weeks, and years. Occasionally reds, tans, and blacks paint the hills like only the Oregon desert can. This land teaches that time is relative to the landscape you inhabit, like an undiscovered footnote in Einstein's theory of relativity. You are among some very old neighbors when walking this landscape. The juniper tree a few feet in height, a towering ponderosa, the mosaic of rocks all placed like puzzle pieces, have lain undisturbed through a hundred blue moons. A dozen species of Lichens populate every exposed rock surface and the grasses and shrubbery lie dormant all summer awaiting the next drop of moisture to fall from the sky.
The beautiful basalt cannons are steep and colorful. At camp, put on some hiking shoes and hike up to a nearby peak to get perspective of the landscape you are passing through. Keep your eyes out for desert wildlife including a large population of eagles and falcons, swallows and duck. Beaver, otter, and a number of small mammal species are populous, but watch out for rattle snakes on the banks and in shady patches. On the bigger side, look up and hope you spot the bighorn sheep, mule deer, and Rocky Mountain elk herds that use this landscape as home.
But what about the water? If you're a kid, you will have a great time fishing - this river has hooked a lot of young rookies on the sport. The bass are still plentiful to the point where a 25 to 30 fish day is possible, catfish lurk in the deep pools, and numerous carp can be spotted, only to elude easy catching. In the fall and winter, the John Day has a world famous chinook and steelhead run that draws anglers from all across the country.
In late spring and early summer the river is primed for group trips. At 284 miles long there are quite a few options for multi-day floats. Best run at flows above 2000 cfs and below 6000, the navigable window can be quite short and fluctuate wildly with weather, so check the flow before you go.
Boaters and fishermen typically float one or more of the following sections:
1) The North Fork - Route 52 Bridge to Dale 2) The North Fork - from Dale to Monument
3) The North Fork at Monument to the main at Service Creek
4) John Day (main) Service Creek to Clarno
5) John Day (main) Clarno to Cottonwood Bridge
6) John Day (main) Cottonwood to the Columbia River
Most popular is the Service Creek to Clarno stretch that has many boat ramps to modify your trip for shorter or longer stints on the river. This water is very family-friendly, and great for the little ones and big ones alike. If you are new to boating this is a great stretch to practice on, but brush up on your safety skills first. Typically this 40ish mile stretch can be comfortably completed in 4 days and 3 nights, though as mentioned shorter options are available if you're in a crunch and want to do a 2 night trip. Vehicle shuttles can be setup through the Service Creek Resort, where raft rentals (but no inflatable swimming pools) are also available. The Lower section from Clarno to Cottonwood is typically a 5 day float depending on flow, and a bit more tricky. A future post will cover that section.
20 years and probably 40 trips in my wake, this river has made a lot of memories. On at least one occasion each year we piece together the same crew that decided a swimming pool was a good idea. These days we cast off a month earlier with the bigger flows in 14' rafts, with 2 coolers, a dry box, and 400 pounds of gear. Not quite the young and free spirit we found in our twenties, but every year this reunion represents the beginning of summer. While the fishing isn't quite as good as yesteryear, the friendships remain the same. Even more special is the gaggle of kids that are learning how to live a lifetime in the wild.
Occasionally we carry a group of "kids" on their first run down the river, and as their fun accelerates as our evening decelerates, I can't help but give them a special pass to carry on. I lie in bed smiling knowing that the next generation is growing up with sand in their sleeping bags and will care for the river after I am gone.
Other Rafting Posts to check out
River communication guide - Critical signals for your group to know to enhance safety