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John Day River: Thirty Mile Creek to Cottonwood Bridge

"Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;"-Romans 1:20

"I'm not so sure about that, but whether or not we all make it through these rapids alive, I'm confident the grading criteria will be fair." - Scott

"Get ready to explore your world without boundaries." - Wilderness Systems Owners Manual

Sunrise found us on the outskirts of Wasco, high on the Columbia Plateau, our 3 vehicle convoy speeding through golden fields of wheat on toward Condon and then West to a 7:30 AM meeting with a rancher who would provide us a private launch site to the John Day river and also execute our car shuttle. 

Startling verdant fields, free of the vestiges of irrigation, belied narratives of drought that punctuated the news. The fresh born morning, still cool to the senses, felt like the fledgling hours of a new creation.

The rancher guided us to the floor of the John Day river canyon.

Kip and Uncle Rico set about loading their boats as usual. I however had a new challenge in that I was expedition outfitting my new Tarpon 140 for the first time. I chose this sit-on-top kayak to be my ultimate photography-beer barge-fishing platform after test paddling three other models. But what is patently obvious to me now is that if you want to compare how kayaks perform carrying 144 beers, you actually need to load them with 144 beers.

Buying 144 beers isn't an insignificant financial burden to sustain each time you rent a kayak for a day, but the point is, I hadn't really packed a sit-on-top with 3 days worth of camping gear before, and as the wise old rancher spied my progress, he slowly distanced himself politely and faded away so as not to witness my inevitable accounting with reality.

There was my boat, loaded with all my hopes and aspirations. Food, shelter, tools and technology, everything I thought I would need to be independent in an unknown wilderness. I told Kip and Uncle Rico that I would carefully document this trip in a little notebook I brought, and that maybe with some good pictures, I could submit our story to a kayak magazine. That's when Kip said, "They've just printed a John Day River isn't very likely that'd they print another one so soon." Well, at least I can write down all the jokes we make and not forget them I countered weakly.

Meanwhile, small mouth bass were jumping at Uncle Rico's hook before he could even put bait on it.  He and Kip were trying to be patient as I tried stacking equipment first one way and then another, but the call of the wild was doggedly echoing from down the canyon, whetting their appetites for adventure.

Though my boat felt kind of tippy, we launched into the gentle current and tied our fates to the whims of a river.

There is a rhythm to rivers. They fall and cascade briefly then level out, fall and cascade and level out.

The level stretches flow slow and meander, but soon, the river begins whispering its warnings and the water becomes textured and the current grabs your boat and pulls and pushes you towards immovable rocks amid narrow corridors and twisting corners.

We started out on a languid level stretch, but at the first simple turn, my top-heavy kayak rocked a bit then tipped over without hesitation. The water was deep so I clung to the hull, legs flailing, until my knees began slamming into rocks. When I was able to purchase footing, I heaved the kayak upright, but it merely kept on turning to flip upside down again, and the rocks rose up like teeth to gnaw away at the submerged cargo, tearing away first the grill and then the ice-chests.

I tried with all my might to stop the kayak - to push it to shore - but the rocks kept taking sucker punches at my knees and shins, and I wasn't able to hold it against the current. It was ripped away. As I struggled to get to shore, I caught glimpses of it taking blow after blow as it drifted away, surrounded by a fleet of jubilant silver beer cans escaping from their ice-chest prison.

I thought Uncle Rico and Kip would save me from the water, but they each paddled past me in a race to recover the beverages.

It took time to stumble-crawl down the edge of the river on treacherous algae covered rocks. Eventually I reached the bend where my kayak finally came to rest.  The others had done a remarkable job saving the beverages, but I had yet to survey all the damage. Among the things that were lost or broken: My fishing pole, the seven detailed maps I had painstakingly printed and laminated, the back of my kayak seat, the grill and of course my confidence. Among the many other hard lessons I learned, an important one is that there is a right way and a wrong way to close a dry bag. Because I chose the wrong way, almost all of my clothing was wet. My toilet paper had become a disintegrating pulpy sponge. My notebook was soaked - all the pages stuck together.

Kip took in the scene, noted the purple blotches threatening to color my knees, studied the kayak a kilter on the bank - all of this within the first 15 minutes of the expedition. He went on to say something that summed up the situation in a really profound and funny way.

Uncle Rico said, "Why don't you write that down in your notebook?"

Center of Gravity - before and after

Metaphorically speaking, I had a horse I needed to sit back on and I felt like Kip and Rico might be viewing me as a liability unless I managed to successfully negotiate some challenging water in short order. Three years before, higher up on this same river, I competently piloted my canoe through similar obstacles and felt like the more experienced river-runner of the bunch.  But now I felt more than a little bewildered and even a little bit scared. Fortunately, the river miles began to pass without tragedy.

As the sun climbed high into the sky, it became clear that the weather forecast predicting triple digit temperatures was going to be accurate. 

Uncle Rico quickly set to work proving that the term 'small mouth' bass is something of a misnomer.

It is always impressive to see Uncle Rico methodically execute the craft of fishing. While it is true that he leverages considerable outdoor experience to succeed at this pursuit, I've noticed that the sheer amount of work he does, the number of casts and the percentage of time the hooks are in the water with appropriate baits - it all contributes to putting the odds in his favor.

I used to think Uncle Rico was a magician, magically catching dinner (and breakfast and lunch), but now I see it is something even more significant. He is a scientist.

In a narrow gradient around the life giving water - in eddies sheltered from the violence of waterfalls and rapids - in the mud that begins to crack and bake beneath the desert sun...

...delicate life finds expression.

Ubiquitous fornicating dragonflies (pairs glued together according to their own peculiar Kama Sutra) alight on any available surface as if desperately searching for a room, but nowhere seems quite private enough. They provide the first clues to the puzzle of the ghost army affixed to the basalt walls of the canyon, frozen in the midst of some vast exodus.

One of my theories: The little pilot of a mechanical insect got into a tough situation and had to eject.

Once the dragonfly life cycle comes into focus, the gossamer webs shimmering on basalt outcroppings take on a sinister countenance

We estimate we'll have to travel about eleven river miles a day to reach the extraction point on schedule. As the canyon walls begin to tower above us, as our roaming phones drop out of their networks, it begins to feel as if we are entering a land that time has forgotten.

It doesn't seem so far fetched to attribute this gigantic nest to extant pterodactyls.

...and these enigmatic messages could be addressed to us, as we journey down this ancient path in plastic 'canoes'.

Our first camp is up-bank from the river about thirty yards on clear ground under sentry like pine trees. There is a picnic table. Traces of a jeep trail lie outside a minimal wire fence that outlines the perimeter of some vast private ranch.

Without the grill, we take stock of our remaining cooking gear and supplies. We have a couple of mountain stoves and pans. Uncle Rico has caught a substantial amount of small mouth bass. Kip has brought a wealth of condiments and luxury food items like avocados and  grated cheese. Interestingly the avocados are encased in plastic containers shaped like avocados. The jalapeƱos, cream cheese and bacon that I meant for the grill are destined to accent the flavor of the rest of our meals. Several plastic bottles of pre-mixed margaritas were rescued from the river. A fish-taco feast ensues.

Technically, the pre-mixed margaritas are designed to be poured over ice. Unfortunately, the ice I brought can't be used for this purpose due to it's initial river bath. I make a short disclaimer about alcohol content and encourage disciplined pacing. I might as well have written it in indecipherable petro-glyphs.

Morning finds me lying atop the picnic table with an aluminum emergency blanket wrapped around my shoulders, the bulk of its insubstantial film flapping noisily around my head like a snagged kite. Because the sun is now visible above the canyon wall, our cool respite in the shade of morning instantly transforms to oven mode.

Like a rusted tin-man, I hesitantly attempt to restore a partial range of motion to my knees. My joints don't exactly squeak like the tin-man's, but the activity does elicit a broad range of old-man noises. Whimpering,  I shuffle away with the communal poop bucket for my morning appointment. Unfortunately for me, I will not be performing the inaugural deposit. While this is not a big deal on the first day of contributions, continued use of the poop bucket will become problematical as the contents of the pitch black bucket bake day after day in the solar furnace.

Slowly we become acclimatized to the rhythms of the river.
The river falls and cascades briefly then levels out. 

...cascades briefly and levels out.

The fishermen secure their rods and bait at the last minute, then kick out into the eddies at the bottom of the runs and fish the deep pools.

I cram my camera into a waterproof bag and stow it in the hatch in front of my seat until I can set my paddle down. Even calm looking water conceals bumpy surprises. 

I try to understand the landscape I'm privileged to see. The canyon walls are made up of layers of basalt. Perhaps each layer represents a volcanic event, a cataclysmic layer of lava flowing west across the state, sometimes even reaching the coast and sending probing fingers (capes) out into the ocean. There is layer after layer reaching deep back into time. It's hard to grasp.

Towards late afternoon of the second day, the 'citadel' comes into view.

Kip diligently attempts to match GPS coordinates for campsites with our current location. Uncle Rico  takes yet another opportunity to fish.

Hoot Owl Rock, a distinctive landmark, gives us a positive location.

The position of the sun makes it difficult to read the river. I repeatedly mistake submerged rocks for standing waves which is a pretty serious mistake.

Photo copyright 2015 by Kip

I do what I can to make Kip and Uncle Rico feel good about their paddling skills. On the bright side, I can boast more experience than anyone else at getting back into a tipped over kayak, and by the end of the trip, I was somewhat of an expert.

Uncle Rico deploys the catfish lines at our camp across from Citadel Rock.

The long rays of the setting sun illuminate west facing walls beyond the shadow of the citadel.

Kip, with the balance of a cage fighter, gracefully deploys the crayfish traps.

Small mouth Bass and Catfish

Hunger sated, I fall asleep beneath the sky ablaze with moon and stars. I leave my tripod and camera out for the moment when the moon sets and leaves the milky way transcendent in the dark, but once my eyes drift shut, I enter the uninterrupted dreamless sleep of a weekend drunkard.

Photo copyright 2015 by Kip

The sun wakes me.
It's too warm for a blanket, but the blanket is the primary defense against insects.
I shake the spiders out of my clothes - a morning ritual.
I only find it slightly creepy that Kip is taking pictures of me while I sleep.

Photo copyright 2015 by Kip

Kip has brought potato shaped plastic containers that contain...potatoes.
Fish and chips for breakfast.

Another day begins.

Photo copyright 2015 by Kip

A rare picture of me actually upright in my kayak.

By now, alarm clocks, phones and televisions are fading from memory. Conversation becomes more like telepathy.

Time is measured by the sun and moon - the harsh heat of mid-day and the soothing breezes hidden in evening's shadows.

Traffic signs consist of textured water and rocks. 

Entertainment is discerning the nibble of a fish, the snort of an otter, the rare misplaced footstep of otherwise silent mountain sheep.

...appreciating the anomalous spot of green in the middle of the desert.

We have difficulty finding our last campsite. We settle on a gravel bar that has no shade trees, but the strategic placement of a mountaintop promises shade with the passing of time.

...and we are patient enough to wait for the shadow to advance until we can unload the boats, protected from the heat.

The Zen of cleaning fish.

All this funny commentary...lost in time, like tears in rain...because my notebook is still wet.

Uncle Rico surveys the 'doomsday wall', the last significant river obstacle in our path.

Finally, the time comes to remember where we've stashed our car keys.


  1. Hijinks: Ancient runes, ancient loons! Another classic, Scott! -c

  2. I think there should be a caption contest for that picture Kip took of the subordinate mammal 'presenting' while draped over your kayak.

  3. Awesome read! Do you think this segment could be done in 2 days?

  4. Unknown,
    As noted in the account, we averaged 11 river miles a day over 3 days. Do I think you could achieve 16.5 miles per day over 2 days? Well, there are a lot of variables. Foremost I guess is how fast the river is flowing. We launched our watercraft in the river at the very end of June, long past the peak rafting season. At the time, rental companies wouldn’t rent their rafts for this segment because the water was too low. This translates into long stretches of paddling, not bad for long kayaks, but not altogether ideal because of the way these boats handle in the relatively infrequent fast-flowing rocky sections. Besides flow-rate, there are other trade-offs to consider with low water volumes. For instance, none of us are expert river-runners and none of us had ever seen this section of river before. We looked pretty seriously at the ratings on rapids it was said we would encounter, and that’s part of the reason we started where we did, bypassing some rapids that might have been beyond our skill level. As it was, the low water, I think, probably reduced the risk we faced when encountering river obstacles. If we had encountered the Doomsday Wall during high volume flows, we may have been ground against the tooth-like basalt walls like potatoes being grated. I guess what I’m saying is you might want to consider some kind of speed to danger ratio in your calculations. Also, during a good portion of the trip, you will be at the bottom of a deep canyon. The warmth of the sun will arrive late and leave early – not a problem when you’re experiencing triple digit temperatures during the day and starting late because of hangovers, but even at our purposely designed lackadaisical pace, I remember some uneasiness as evening approached about whether or not we’d find a nice campsite before it got dark. Finally, what is your goal? If you are something like a tri-athlete, pushing yourself to achieve extremes in physical performance, then yes, you can probably do this segment of river in 2 days with no problem…and enjoy it. But if you want to fish a little bit, or do photography, or create and eat the world’s best fish tacos while lounging around a fire beneath a sky whose stars cast shadows…then you might feel a little rushed.


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