John Day a Second Time Around

Working at a paddle shop, I am frequently helping customers headed to the John Day river. A central Oregon favorite, it’s become highly impacted with people seeking the serenity an overnight trip delivers. Or, seeking an opportunity to get their “party” on, fully equipped with speakers on their rafts. Whatever drives you to the JD, it’s beautiful and our small group was grateful to hit the water before the season really ramps up, as we were one of the only groups on the river! Our foursome had two rafts–one very experienced rower (and fisherman), one learning-in-progress rower, one brand-spankin’-new-never-rowed- before paddler, and one paddleboarder (me). Oh yes, let’s not forget Tio the dog, outfitted with Ruffwear PFD, and the only participant who swam “not on purpose” during the trip.

I’d paddled the JD for the first time in 2018 so I had a general idea of what to expect, having done the same stretch “Service Creek to Clarno”…in total, typically a 3-day, 2-night excursion. The first day and a half offers the most rapids which are rated at II’s with one claiming a II+. Honestly, I’ve never thought the rating system is very helpful as it’s sooooo ambiguous. I’ve seen II’s that are seemingly easy and II’s that I say “holy shit, are you KIDDING me?! With that being said, I was happy to paddleboard it again… so many frisky ripples, and Russo, Homestead and Burnt Rapids. There are a few other “named” rapids but around 4000 CFS they were “bumps”. Maybe at low water this is different, especially in a canoe.

Our crew fell into a groove, me and Topher paddling about the same pace up front, and Michelle and Kelli kicking it in the raft behind, learning the nuances of a rigged frame raft. For example, the distance between oars makes a difference how efficiently you row, and the oarlocks…well they should be symmetrical. Or not, and then it can be harder to paddle. Also, if you have sweet counter-weighted wood/carbon oars, that can really help! As for me, I found I was overdressed in my drysuit, but ready for the swim which I never took, but was reminded how different higher volume rivers feel compared with paddling low-volume. Some of the waves felt like I was driving a Cadillac listening to Led Zepplin “Kashmir” circa 1990. This is a reference very few people in my life would understand but beautiful memories nonetheless. I also felt a little out of practice, but did fine and had a “barrel of monkeys” fun.

We wrapped up the first day easily finding a campsite right below Homestead Rapids which we were initially unsure WERE Homestead rapids since they were pretty small. The group worked well together, Topher impressing me with his extremely dialed kitchen. Michelle helping me with my brand new tent that I was just figuring out (but once I worked out the nuances I LOVE and is really easy to set up alone). Kelli’s tent was…well…nothing short of exquisite. THIS is a chica who has camped before–maybe not a lot of multi-day raft camping yet, but she knows how to outfit her tent. I think we were all impressed (and a little jealous!). Dinner was gourmet-quality with Topher nailing his Dutch Oven eggplant parmesan. Probably the best I’ve ever had–browned to perfection.

Second day we began early but fairly leisurely. Due to the experienced crew we were still on the water before 9am, everyone seeking out and executing the necessary tasks. I paddleboarded until about a mile or two below Burnt Rapids and then finally stowed my board on a raft, and got behind the sticks to alternate with Kelli who had her hands full, first time out, for 42 miles. To be clear, she could have, and would have rowed the whole thing herself without complaint because she is a badass, but it’s still a lot with the wind. Plus, it was Michelle’s birthday and she wanted to be on the boat with Topher and Tio. Sidenote-last time I paddled the John Day, it was Sam’s birthday. Apparently this is a birthday run for me, and cake a must!

We got our river miles in, and easily made it to camp early, on our second night. Set things up quickly and after a short “field trip” to explain where the groover was, we ended up on a hike. Chicken pot pie Dutch Oven for dinner (and leftover, slightly water-logged cake) and then fireside chat. We laughed at our “stoner” conversation about the science of fire, perception of color and vision….yet not one of us was actually stoned. Ha!

Final morning we gave Topher a break from our estrogen, and he fished while the three of us ladies hiked with Tio up to the top of Cathedral Rock. Our efforts rewarded us with INCREDIBLE views and many laughs. This was such an awesome way to begin the day, move about and ready ourselves for the final push to the takeout, on flat water. All a little more relaxed and unplugged from the demands and technology that busies our brains when “connected”.

This was such a great, easy trip I still shake my head at it. I’ve never had a more efficient and quick clean up/de-rigging post-trip either. To my small crew, I give a big thanks, and to those who have questions about the JD please give me a shout (even though you can probably throw a frisbee in Bend and hit someone who has paddled it, and has beta).

Thanks for listening, and maybe I’ll see ya out there on the frisky ripples!

The crew!! (photos by Michelle and Kelli)

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