Written By: Andy Dappen

Juniper and sage add their desert perfumes to the smoke of our fire as we pass the black hours sharing stories from our individual travels. Howie Wallace, a retired teacher living in Wenatchee, gets going on places around Europe where he’s car camped while traveling on the cheap. Suddenly he’s laughing about campgrounds in Italy and France where five tents will be shoehorned into an area the size of a tennis court. That contrasts sharply with our current camping situation where we’re the only people within a few square miles.

Mike Andreini paddling the John Day River.

A big round of juniper smolders in our fire pan and its smoke is sweet and cedar like. The wood pops frequently and sparks pock my nylon windshell with new melt holes. “You know,” Howie says, staring at the radiating embers, “These countries are fun to see, but I’m just as happy visiting places like this around the Northwest.”

The ‘this’ Howie refers to is the John Day River of Central Oregon. Snaking through a deep canyon built on the bones of rusted basalt columns and fleshed over with colorful silts, the John Day feels as if slivers of the Grand Canyon, Painted Hills, Sonora red rock country, and Wyoming ranchlands were glued together into a new landscape. It’s the kind of landscape you’d like to visit frequently–which is why I keep wondering, “How do we paste this part of Oregon into that armpit of Washington between Yakima and Pasco?”

The only way in which the John Day falls short during our river trip is in the fishing category. The river has gained the reputation of being a Texas-styled bass fishery. Smallmouth bass planted in the 1970s followed Biblical advice and went forth and multiplied. So much so that the John Day is now considered a top-flight fishery and bass weighing 5 to 6 pounds are pulled from its eddies each year. Mike Andreini, the avid angler of our group, is so confident in the quality of this fishery he’s planned a group dinner around a main course of bass. Which is exactly why we get re-familiarized with an age-old concept: There’s no surer way to go fishless than to depend on a catch for dinner.

For six days, our small group paddles the 118 river miles between Service Creek, where Highway 207 crosses the John Day, and Cottonwood, where Highway 206 intersects the river. Most of the area is roadless and much of it is either already designated a Wild and Scenic River or is being studied for inclusion into the National Wilderness Preservation System as a “Wilderness” area. Black water canyons, whitewater rapids, rusty walls of volcanic rock, green hillsides of bunch grass, forest green juniper glades, yellow and blue-flowered bench lands, postcard skies… we’re all enamored by this river’s character. Places just don’t get much prettier.

John Marshall, who is paddling with us and is arguably Central Washington’s pre-eminent landscape photographer, recognizes the visual quality of this landscape better than most. Early each morning and late each afternoon, when the light turns warm and the rock of the surrounding canyon glows red, he lugs around a 10-pound tripod and 20-pounds of photographic glass trying to alchemize the magic of place into celluloid. John has photographed hundreds of places around the West, but on the last day of our paddle declares, “This river could easily be a national park. Maybe the working ranches disqualify it from consideration, but it’s prettier than many parks I’ve photographed.”

Click here to see a slideshow of this trip.

Details, Details

Paddling Trips: The 118-mile stretch of the river we visited (Service Creek to Cottonwood) offer the possibility of two short paddle trips or a single long one. Service Creek to the bridge at Clarno (48 miles) requires to 2.5 to 3 days to complete while Clarno to Cottonwood (70 miles) requires 3.5 to 4 days to complete. Paddling beyond Cottonwood all the way to the Columbia River is not a viable option because Tumwater Falls (30 miles downstream of Cottonwood) is a Class 5 to Class 6 rapid and property owners on both sides of the river prohibit portaging.

Difficulty: Most of the rapids between Service Creek and Cottonwood are class 1 with the exception of a handful of Class 2 rapids like Rosso, Tap Horn, Burnt Ranch, and Basalt rapids. Some of these rapids earn a 2+ rating at certain water levels. Five miles downstream of the Clarno Bridge is Clarno Rapids, presenting the only serious obstacle for experienced canoeists. Depending on the water level, Clarno earns either a Class 3 or Class 4 rating. Clarno is generally scouted and portaged on river left but, at most water levels, it is much easier and faster to line canoes through the shallow water and boulders on river right.

River Flows: Preferred river flows for canoeists are below 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and above 700 cfs. Hydraulics are tricky and powerful at higher flows. The need to drag boats over some riffles and the usefulness of Royalex (plastic) canoes will become apparent to low-flow boaters. Above 2,500 cfs canoeists should have intermediate whitewater skills and their boats should be outfitted with spray decks and/or air bags. For water flow information, check NOAA’s hydrograph of the John Day.

Best Season: Early May is often ideal for water flows (good paddling) as well as for colorful flowers and green grasses (good photography). However, the river is cold, the weather can be cool, and the fishing may be bad. June and early July trips offer warmer water and temperatures, better fishing, slower currents, and a browner landscape.

Water: The river water carries considerable silt, cattle dung, and chemical residue (pesticides and fertilizers) so drink lightly and carry a good purifier. It’s better to refill your water jugs at springs found along the way–play it safe and treat that water as well. Start your trip with each person carrying 2 to 3 gallons of fresh water.

Camping: Much of the land bordering the river is public and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). You can camp on BLM land free of charge. Use ‘leave-no-trace’ camping principles. Do not camp on private land. You’ll need maps to determine which lands are public.

Human Waste: Overnight boaters are required to pack out their solid human waste. An inexpensive camping toilet can be fashioned from 5-gallon or 3-gallon food-service buckets capped with a watertight lid. Ask at local restaurants whether you can collect a few of their empty food buckets. The lids coming with these buckets are often waterproof but a better solution is to retrofit your toilet bucket with a Gamma Seal Lid available from the Sportsman’s Guide (800-888-3006, www.sportsmansguide.com) for about $7. A few other tips: 1) spray your bucket with non-stick cooking spray before each trip 2) before using the toilet on each trip, add two inches of water to the bottom and an ounce of a bacteria- or enzyme-based product to control odor and gas build-up 3) only TP goes in the toilet with human waste—feminine hygiene products go into plastic bags dedicated to other trash 4) after disposal of human waste, rinse your bucket well and place water and an ounce of bleach in the bucket for several days.

Human Waste Disposal: It’s illegal to dump human waste into bins headed to normal landfills. For John Day paddlers, the BLM maintains disposal sites for human waste at both Clarno and Cottonwood.

Fires: Campfires are allowed only in fire pans and only between October 1 and May 31. Carry out your ashes with your trash. After the region’s grasses dry out in late spring, you can easily imagine the whole landscape going ‘poof’– which is why all fires are prohibited between June 1 and September 30.

Fishing: The John Day is a popular bass fishery, especially in summer when the water warms up. Diving plugs and plastic worms are successful lures. This river also has the largest spawning population of wild summer steelhead in the Columbia River System. The steelhead are not supported by a hatchery system and arrive in late summer and early fall. They can be caught for sport but must be released. For details about fishing regulations contact www.dfw.state.or.us

Hiking: Most of this country provides ‘anywhere’ hiking, meaning you can pull into camp and hike almost anywhere you want. The vegetation is low, and interesting peaks and dried-up creek beds abound. The one proviso: Stay on public land. Again, you’ll need a map.

Other Regulations: Group sizes must be under 16 people and you must carry a permit. Permits are free, self-issued, and found at the put-ins at both Service Creek and Clarno.

Shuttles: Get a list of the shuttle services at the BLM’s Website for the Prineville area. The BLM makes no endorsements but, in May 2007, we used Donna’s John Day River Shuttles based out of Fossil, Oregon, (541-763-4884). We found her reliable and affordable ($65 per shuttled vehicle).

Maps and Resources: An excellent, waterproof, mile-by-mile map/guide published by BLM is the John Day River Recreation Guide: Kimberly to Tumwater Falls. It marks the roads, river miles, rapids, public and private land, springs, landforms and more. Order it from the BLM’s office in Prineville (541-416-6700). Cost is $5. The BLM can also send you free paper maps of the upper John Day River.

Leave it Better than You Found It. Use no-trace camping principles (pack out your trash and human waste, cut no live trees or branches, keep soap and chemicals out of the water, cook with gas stoves, use fire pans if burning, camp at places already disturbed by others)…Also, strive to leave places better than you found them (pack out trash left by others, pull the noxious weeds you encounter, disperse the fire rings found at campsites).

This post was originally published on 5/30/07. 

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