2009 John Day River Trip Report
June 12, 2009 at 9:26 AM
The John Day River from Service Creek to Clarno is one of the best floats for kids there is in our area; and that’s exactly what we had. On our trip we had six kids from ages five to fifteen – with three eight year old girls. Along with the six kids were eight adults to make sure the kid fun was maximized. The water was mellow, the flow was good and the kids were great.
At the Service Creek put-in, we had a hint of what turned out to be the only thing that went wrong with the trip – it rained a little on us as we were rigging the boats. We should have taken the hint, as later that evening while Bruce Ripley was cooking dinner it started to absolutely pour on us and we didn’t have a shelter set up to keep us dry. So, Bruce dutifully finished cooking the group dinner in the rain while the rest of us set up Mike Evan’s 20’x20’ tarp which became the best piece of equipment on the trip. I need one – and so do you if you don’t have one; it protected us from rain the first two evenings and provided shade for the third evening.
This section of the John Day is very scenic; it starts out in a high desert with shades of green that line the gently sloping canyon walls. The occasional riffle and class I rapid make the picturesque canyon seem like you are in the best place on earth when placed against the backdrop of kids laughing and having fun.
The afternoon of the second day marks the beginning of the Painted Hills portion of the trip. Flowing through the northeast corner of the Painted Hills, you are provided with multicolored hills, gently sloping terrain and a mellow river with a consistent current to carry you to some of the best camping on the river. In front of camp the second night, the current was just the right pace for the kids to walk upstream and float down to camp in their life jackets over and over again.
Burnt Ranch Rapids on the third day marks the beginning of the third distinct section of the trip. After passing through the Class II rapid, the river begins long pools with occasional swift drops. This is a great part of the river to swim and spend as much time out of the boat as you do in it. One boat had a Paco Pad slide set up so the kids could slide into the river and several of the adults took a swim in the river that seemed to be the perfect temperature.
Camp on the third and final night of the trip was picturesque. Our camp was at the base of a hill that the top has a great viewpoint where we were treated to an incredible sunset and some great views of the winding river. The kids spent the evening hiking to the viewpoint, running around camp playing games and laughing until dark.
The float out on the fourth day was more of the easy floating mixed with kids jumping from boat to boat. Every adult instantly knew the kids had a great trip when we rounded the corner with the take-out in sight and a chorus of “I don’t want the trip to end” chants began coming from every kid in every boat.
John Day River Tips:
If you are contemplating doing this section of the river, there are a few things to consider. There are no dams on this river, and that makes the flow very seasonal and subject to snow melt and rainfall. If you look at historical flows of this river, you will notice the spring provides ample flows and during the summer the flow slows to a trickle. The trick is to time your trip late enough to increase your chances of good weather, but early enough to have enough water in the river to provide a good flow. Although it is possible to float the John Day at much lower flows, I would not recommend a flow at the Service Creek gauge of less than 1500 cfs at the time of your launch. Anything less than 1500 cfs and you will be doing a lot more rowing downstream than drifting.
Also, when setting up your shuttle, make sure to take out at the Upper Clarno (also called East Clarno) boat ramp. This ramp is not useable at higher flows (more than about 12,000 cfs), but if you can use this ramp it will save you about four miles of rowing through frog water.
Lastly, make sure you have a map on your trip. There are long stretches of private land where no camping is allowed. You don’t want to pass the last campsite for several miles at dinner time in the hopes of finding a better one around the next corner and then be forced to go several miles to the next possible place to camp.