John Day River – Service Creek To Cottonwood

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Getting Started

Well, we are  finally back from the John Day River kayak expedition. All I can say is that it was an awesome trip! I’ve rafted the Deschutes River several times and been down the Snake River through Granite and Wild Sheep so have seen some whitewater before. To be honest, I had far more fun on this John Day trip in the Ocean Kayak Trident 13. I’m not sure if it was because I was flying solo and the only one in control of my boat or if it was because I felt so close to the water compared to a raft. All I know is that I felt much more vulnerable than I ever have during a whitewater rafting trip. That all being said there is nothing like having your kayak loaded with gear and knowing you are going to be on the water for 7 plus days straight for a adventure kayaking trip to feel absolutely epic!

Since this trip was just Kellie and I, it was just two Ocean Kayak Trident 13s. Neither one of us had done a trip like this using a SOT (Sit On Top) kayak so we didn’t know quite what to expect. After arranging for shuttle service with the great folks at Service Creek and picking up a BLM map, we were off. We headed down to the launch site and started loading up all of our gear.

All gear was packed into dry bags and stowed either in the front hatch or in the rod pod section, with the coolers and Plano containers in the back of the boat.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the rod pod on the Ocean Kayak Trident Series, it is a large hatch in the middle section of the boat that allows elongated access to the hull. This is perfect for stowing a lot of gear down low in the kayak.

When all of our gear was loaded up and properly stowed, we waved goodbye to my trusty Nissan Xterra and pushed off into the swift current. Mind you we were still trying to get acclimated to the new kayaks and get settled in, but after only a few hundred yards we were already on our first bit of whitewater! Kellie was not at all confident with the OK Trident 13 yet and managed to bounce off of two partially submerged large rocks before getting hung up on a third one. The quick succession of these events shook her confidence a bit, but she managed to quickly recover. This type of trip was all new to her, but before the trip was up, she was an old pro at picking out a proper line.

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After getting somewhat settled in we moseyed on down the river, slowly drifting. I was taking this time to do a bit of kayak fishing, with the occasional stop to run a bit of white water. Since we put in rather late, we were only on the river for 3 hours or so before setting up camp for the night to do some more fishing and swimming. (RM 152) Plus we had been warned about Russo Rapids (Class II). Since we were new to this whole thing, we decided to tackle the rapids first thing in the morning.

Day 2 – Russo Rapids, Tap Horn Rapids, Twickenham, The Priest Hole, Wreck Rapids & Burnt Ranch Rapids

After breaking camp and heading down the river a bit, you start to hear the roar of the Russo Rapids. We had been warned to stay on the right side and ran it without issue. We can’t say the same thing for two canoers we saw that got swamped and lost their load against the wall! Needless to say, this was our first “real” bout with whitewater and the OK Trident 13s did really, really well. After getting through this obstacle, Kellie calmed down and a bit and realized that she could do this after all and we proceeded on down the river. About a mile later she was tested again with Tap Horn Rapids (Class I-II). With the water level being what it was, Tap Horn was no real problem and to be honest I don’t remember much about it. From there it was a pretty leisurely paddle to Twickenham Bridge and the launch site there. If a person was looking for a good couple of nights of fishing on the upper river, Service Creek to Twickenham would be a great little weekend trip for bassin’.

We continued on past Twickenham and I would stop to occasionally fish or swim, but primarily just lots of paddling and enjoying the weather. This area was punctuated with lots of deep pools and broken up by nice little sections of white water riffles. There was a lot of ranch land here and not many places to camp. Passed through the Priest Hole and saw folks parked in the middle of nowhere just hanging out and fishing, everything from classic red neck (I can say that being from Eastern Oregon) in his jacked up 78 Ford PU, to a Mercedes Unimog decked out for the steppes of Mongolia. It was sort of surreal. Eventually we made it to Homestead Rapids (Class II). I think Soggy Sneakers called this Wreck Rapids, although the mileage doesn’t quite add up. This rapid ended up being pretty insignificant in that we ran it without issue so it doesn’t stand out much in mind, although I am sure Kellie would argue with me since she got stuck on a rock in the middle of the rapid and had to push off hard with her legs to break free and not wreck. That being said, again, there was A LOT of whitewater on this river for a SOT kayak. Some unmarked stretches seemed far worse than some of the named rapids, at least at the flows we ran. Finally we made it to Burnt Ranch Rapids (Class II & III). We ran the upper section alright, but as it narrowed up it got sort of nasty. There was a large crowd of people watching from the beach and I ended up going for it. Managed to shoot it just right and made it look easy, not sure how I pulled it off. I quickly swung into beach right below the rapid and went to watch Kellie. She got caught up, the kayak swung around and she started going down the rapid backwards. Somehow, somebody must have been looking out for her, because a rip grabbed the bow and righted the boat and she came though without problems. It could have been a real mess otherwise. After getting her calmed down and relaxing for a few minutes we decided to push on down a few more miles to a campsite and call it a night. (RM 130 approx).

Day 3 – Proceeding to Clarno Rapids

We woke up pretty exhausted because of the damn bullfrogs going at it all night, but we had a nice day in store for us. We had entered the Big Bend section of the river which was pretty sweet. Not my favorite section of the river, but nice nonetheless… nice sandy beaches, lots of class 1 stuff, and some nice camp sites, along with some nice stretches for fishing. Around RM 117 you see what was Rajneeshpuram for those of you who remember that during the 80s. I just remember my Grandma getting all worked up over it, although now it has become a youth center.

Around this time we had decided we were pushing hard to reach Clarno Bridge. Finally reached the bridge near 3:00 PM, but not before battling the wind for the last 3-4 miles while in a race with a flotilla of boy scouts in their canoes. Needless to say, even loaded down, the OK Trident 13s one using a Werner Camano paddle and the other using a Werner Kalliste, totally smoked the boy scouts!

When we finally did reach the bridge we started talking to some folks. I guess those boys were about 4 hours overdue and were going to be in some deep shit when they got back to the bridge. Some very unhappy folks waiting on them, not that I can blame them… who wants to wait 4 hours in a dusty parking lot baking in the 100 degree heat waiting?

The one thing that is great were some of the spectacles at the launches. This quote I found online sums it up best:

Another great function of nice weather in this arid, desert climate is the opportunity to wear huge, character building hats. Super wide-brim straw hats that throw a huge shadow are a must on the John Day. In fact the boat ramp scene on the John Day looks like a Tijuana flea market with oars. As you can see, I fit the bill, lol!

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We had debated calling it a trip here. We were pretty beat already and had accomplished a lot, but knew we needed to continue pushing on or we would regret it. We knew that Clarno was going to be a huge challenge though and weren’t sure if we were going to have to portage, line our boats through, or run it.

After using the facilities and chatting with another young couple putting in with a canoe, we pushed off from Clarno Bridge in the late afternoon. We had read about the wind picking up and had already experienced it coming into Clarno, but took the brunt of it head on for the next 3 miles or so until we setup camp for the night as we had no intention of dealing with the Clarno Rapids that day. This was probably the worst camp we had on the river (RM106.5approx), but still wasn’t bad at all. We didn’t really encounter any issues with mosquitoes or horseflies at all during the whole trip. I expected it to be a real concern, but it was fine and we never did use any of our insect repellent.

Day 4 Clarno Rapids, Basalt Rapids & Thirtymile Creek

After waking up bright and early the next morning, we ate a hearty bowl of oatmeal and then headed down the river. We had about a mile and a half before hitting the first section of Clarno Rapids and it was good to get in the feel of things. After a successful run through the top section of Clarno (Class III) we were feeling pretty good. We stopped at a little beach to scout the next section. It was pretty gnarly looking and I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off or not. I ended up deciding to run it and before I knew it, my boat was totally swamped, scuppers couldn’t keep up and I was off the boat. I managed to snag a bow line that I had cleated off to a zig zag cleat zip tied to my handle and then the spare line coiled up and bungeed off the gunwale. The force of the water was so strong it broke those thick zip ties almost immediately. I managed to dig in and get the boat to shore which was a good thing because just 50 yards or so past the rapid was an upturned drift boat that had been abandoned to the rapids loaded with gear and causing a bit of a hazard for the unprepared. I had pool noodled the kayaks up before we left and between those and the hatches, she floated fine. I had a few cups or water in the hull, but I had that every day from the breaking waves from some of the bigger Class I/II stuff we were running. Kellie managed to snag my paddle or that could have been a real mess. The rapid literally ripped my Seattle Sports paddle leash in two. Luckily the only thing I lost was my fishing pole, which really sucksed because I missed some of the best fishing along the whole trip, but it was my own fault for not stowing my pole properly. Like many kayak anglers, I put rod holders on my Plano box and I had a piece of bungee looped over the reel to hold the rod in place. I knew I should have taken the rod and reel apart and stowed it, but we were packed tight already and I had already gone through all of the other rapids. What could possibly happen?! Lesson Learned and I had one HUGE helping of humble pie after Clarno! We ended up portaging the second section of Clarno with my Kellie’s Ocean Kayak Trident 13. She wasn’t going to run it and I wasn’t really ready to run it again either.

After getting all of our stuff back together, we skirted the half sunk drift boat and ran the remaining white water right below Clarno with a nice guy in a canoe with an Ama/Aka setup. Definitely one of those colorful characters you meet on rivers like this. He had a rainbow umbrella riveted to his ball cap and was having a grand time on his trip!

We continued on our way down the John Day River with me being newly humbled. This day was marked with what seems to be in my mind the most white water of any section we ran and the nastiest section of river that we ran. There didn’t seem to be a lot of calm between sections and we were both a bit anxious to get to Basalt Rapids (Class II-III) and be done with the technical stuff. I was also more than a bit pissed at myself for losing my pole. The bass, sensing this, seemed to be rubbing it in as hole after hole we went through they were jumping all over the place, taunting me.

We finally made it to Basalt Rapids sometime in the afternoon and there began probably my favorite stretch of the river. Huge exposed rocks in the middle of the river and it felt like we were winding through a bit of a maze. It felt very remote and was very beautiful. Kellie didn’t like Basalt Rapids as much. She kept worrying that she was going to gut her Ocean Kayak Trident 13 on one of the giant monolithic chunks of Basalt, but she did great and we made it through without issue.

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After this stretch of river, things finally started to settle back down and continued pretty much in the same rhythm for the rest of the trip. The river was a much steeper grade in the second half vs. the first half so we made very good time, especially since I wasn’t slowing us down with a fishing pole in hand. Typically we were in the water by 8:30AM and off the water by 5:30PM. We averaged about 20-25 miles a day or so. The few days I was able to fish, I caught on average 20-30 smallmouth bass a day. All were pretty small, ranging from 8-13 inches. I did see a guy in a raft catch a monster as we paddled on by. With polarized glasses you could literally see bass in the water and there were a lot of times we would paddle up to shore to take a break or grab a bite to eat and you would see groups of 3-5 inchers just hanging out in the shallows. I also saw quite a few large carp towards the end of the trip as the water levels were getting really low.

After Basalt Rapids the river gets really scenic and becomes canyon country in the purest sense. You pass places like The Red Wall and The Palisades. There are petroglyphs to be found and plenty of very nice camp sites to be had. This is also one of those places where there are very few places to take out. One of those places is Thirtymile Creek. For those of you who want an easy trip with fun white water, great bass fishing, remote camp sites, and amazing scenery, I highly suggest Thirtymile to Cottonwood. It was our favorite section of the river. Lots of easy white water to keep it fun and interesting, warm clear water, nice fishing holes, great places to camp and interesting history. Take Thirtymile for instance. A pipeline crosses near there that goes from BC to San Francisco. There is also a ranch there that used to grow tons of hay and used to be rather lush. We stopped and talked to a farm hand there and he said that during the flood of 64’ it ravaged that whole area and stripped all of the rich topsoil away. Now it is just desolate scrub brush with some people trying to eke out a living there.

Day 5 – The Palisades, River Pirates, & Hoot Owl Rock

We ended up camping at RM 81.6 or so for the night. One of the things we tried to do for this trip was pack as much energy dense food as possible. While we both enjoy paddling, neither one of us had done this day in and day out and weren’t sure what to expect and just how far those freeze dried meals would go, how much we would consume on the water each day, etc. What we found was that our caloric intake cut way down. We simply didn’t want to eat as much and that whereas we thought we would each be eating one of those freeze dried meals that serve two, we found that we were both only eating about one serving, plus an apple, and lots of water.

The next morning we took off and right away ended getting tangled up with some river pirates, lol. These guys had been running the river for 30+ years and each guy had a fully outfitted raft. They float twice a year and make a vacation of it. They were tremendously knowledgeable on the history and geology of the river and gave us a lot of pointers. They also plowed us with whisky and kept us entertained for a bit. Finaly, they gave us the equivalent of river gold… a block of ice, four cold beers, and some cold soda. Guys, I you are reading this, Jack and Kellie can’t thank you enough, you all were great!!! These guys were roughing it, they had to have fresh shrimp for dinner the night we saw them after having suffered from nice big steaks the night before, lol!

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We headed on down past the Palisades and were pushing to at least Hoot Owl Rock before setting up camp for the evening. We were warned about the wind at Hoot Owl Rock being some of the worst of the river and it was… we hit it in the afternoon and thankfully the river gods let up a bit and let us get through that stretch. The River Pirates told us that there had been years where it was 110 degrees in that stretch, the wind would be blowing up the canyon at 40+ MPH and it was quicker to walk your boats down the river than to attempt to stay on the water. We didn’t have it that bad, but the wind destroyed my ultra large straw shade hat… RIP, you will be missed!

It was right after this area that we saw our first group of several groups bighorn sheep on the trip. There were five rams who scrambled off the water and onto a little bluff. They just stared us down as we floated on by. It was a pretty amazing experience. It was also in this section that I got pushed up into a rock wall and flipped my kayak for a second time. No chance to react, no way to redeem myself… gunwale got sucked under and over I went and the boat with me. I did manage to grab my water bottle though, so nothing lost, lol.

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We finally called it a night around RM 54.7 and settled in for a last meal and made it a feast, cold beer, soda, and ice!

Day 6 – Petroglyphs, Abandoned Homesteads, & Cottonwood Bridge

Our last day was pretty relaxed. We only had 15 miles or so to paddle and knew we would be off the water by 1:30 or so at the latest. Kellie and I did quite a bit of swimming and just screwing around. We stopped and saw some more petroglyphs. The grove of trees on the lower river (chinese trees of heaven) is pretty interesting. There is a remnant of an old windmill here. I guess some guy tried to make a go of it around the turn of the century and failed miserably. When you see the site you can’t even begin to wonder how or why. All that is left of his dream are the trees and the broken windmill laying on the ground.

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Finally made it off the river and loaded all of our stuff up, but the adventure was still to continue. I got into an argument with some guy at the cottonwood launch. He pulled in to the area, took a look around, had a smoke and tossed the burning butt off into the bone dry grass and sage brush. I saw this and scared the bejeezus out of him when I went over and knocked on his window and told him to get out of his car and pick up his trash and he was lucky I wasn’t going to call him in and report him. He didn’t quite know what to think and his wife got visibly nervous. After having not bathed and been on the river for 6 days though, I think I must have looked scary enough for him to not have the gumption to argue. It was probably a good thing. I wasn’t in the mood, especially after carrying out a load of trash with me that we picked up on the last couple of miles of river. Not to preach, but remember folks pack it in, pack it out!

After taking off, we finally headed home but not before getting stuck on I-84 for several hours due to a fire closure of the interstate and then getting stuck on both 205 and I-5 because of accidents. What should have been a 3 hour trip home ended up being 7 hours. All I could do the entire time was curse myself for not staying out on the river for another day!

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I’ll close with this… while not the ideal vessel for this trip, the Ocean Kayak Trident 13s did a GREAT JOB! We couldn’t have done the trip on a SOT kayak without the gear space that the rod pod allowed. I do wish the hatches sealed better (twist lock hatch setup). The OK Trident 13 is a lot tougher than it looks. My hull is not nearly as smooth as she once was (new a few months ago), but she came through much better than I had anticipated. If any of you are looking for an offbeat kayak camping, expedition kayaking, adventure kayaking, or kayak fishing trip this really is hard to beat!

For more photos of paddling the John Day River CLICK HERE

8 Responses to John Day River – Service Creek To Cottonwood

  1. Dean says:

    Great story – thanks! I’m wondering if you know what the flow (cfs) was when you ran the river? Or what dates you did it?

    We’re thinking of running it in ocean touring kayaks and wondering how it might be at lower flows (500-900 cfs).

    • Jack Ingram says:

      Dean,

      I’ve ran it anywhere from 1800cfs to 1200cfs at the Service Creek gauge. Dates always vary as the whole trip really is dependent on flows. When we ran it at the lower end of things, you can and will run into shallow spots in the lower river. Mind you that was with wider SOTs as opposed to a traditional sit in touring/sea kayak where you might draw a bit more water. Clearly this is all a bit more of a challenge this year since the BLM put in permit system in place and it is first come first serve. Unfortunately it is a shared pool of permits with commercial operators.

      What section were you thinking of doing? My suggestion would be to run it at a bit higher water somewhere between 2000 and 1300cfs depending on where you guys are putting in and how far you are looking at going.

      Also, be prepared that when you run Clarno, Basalt, etc. that they may pose real issues to you in a sea kayak, depending on your rough water skills, length of the kayak, etc., unless you are in something like the Jackson Rogue. If you would like to chat about this further use the contact form on the site and I am happy to fill you in a bit more.

  2. Grant says:

    I am fairly new to kayaking, but I have heard nothing but good things about the John Day. I am more interested in the fishing than I am the kayaking and wanted to know if you would still recommend the Service Creek to Clarno if I only have an 11 foot fishing kayak. Thanks. Thinking about waiting until next year to do this trip as it is getting late into the June season.

    • Jack Ingram says:

      Grant,

      The SOTs we have taken down the John Day are actually angler models by Ocean Kayak. Ours are Trident 13s and your 11 footer should be fine. The biggest challenge for you with that run is storage and packing enough gear to do the trip. Without the rod pod on the OK angler models it can be a bit of a challenge. If you want to get your feet wet and try it out without being overly committed, I suggest Service Creek to Twickenham.

      The other thing to consider is that the BLM now requires permits to run the river and these are limited. Unfortunately it is a shared pool of permits with commercial operators.

      The river is still pretty high… and would certainly be doable if you wanted to do it this year. My suggestion is shoot from 1800-1200cfs to start at Clarno in a SOT kayak.

  3. Linda says:

    How many days would you give thirty mile to cottonwood? (your advice about best part and no class 3 rapids) Thanks for all the info! Thanks!

    • admin says:

      Sorry for the VERY delayed response Linda. It really depends on how fast you paddle and what you plan on taking down the river. If you are leisurely 2-3 nights, 4 tops. We paddle quite a bit and stay on the water all day so it is hard to judge without knowing your pace. If you do the trip, drop us a line and let us know how it goes!

      Jack

  4. Terry says:

    A group of us are floating Thirtymile to Cottonwood. Two of the guys have RV’s, one a fifth wheel 32 ft and the other a 27 ft motorhome. Do you know of any place where they can park those vehicles and do the float then shuttle back to pick up their RV’s?

    • admin says:

      You can park them at Cottonwood Bridge without issue and then shuttle up to launch. You won’t get down into Thirtymile, at least if the road is still as rough as it was.

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