Skip to main content

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 jalapeños, 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.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

Test Paddling the Tarpon 160 (finally)

The problem with 'objectivity' is that it's usually 'subjectivity' cleverly disguised as objectivity.
I've wanted the Tarpon 160 ever since I saw it sitting in the rack at the kayak shop. However, I'm trying to take the universal advice of the broad community of kayakers who suggest that choosing a kayak is a personal choice based on how a particular boat fits one's body and objectives, and so, going through the motions of due diligence, I've finally come to the day when I actually get to paddle my dream boat.
It doesn't escape my attention that I seem to have a Wilderness Systems' bias. The first kayak I ever sat in was their 12 foot plastic Pungo which delivered me down the SandyRiver without making me a candidate for the Darwin Awards. The first kayak I ever bought (so far the only kayak I ever bought) was their Tsunami 125 which has, over the last eight years, patiently taught me everything I know about kayaking except for that bit of advi…

Test Paddling the Thresher 140

Wilderness Systems has broadened their sit-on-top offerings this year with the introduction of the Thresher (this includes a 14 and 15.5 foot version). The Thresher seems designed to bridge a gap between overly stable, relatively slow fishing platforms and sleeker more touring-orientated craft, all for the sake of fisher-people who need to cover significant distances to reach their intended fishing locales, whether that's in the middle of a huge bay or out beyond the breakers in the open sea

The characteristics that make this boat a good fishing option, should also make it a killer expedition photography platform/beer barge. I knew my test trials wouldn't be complete until I auditioned this state of the art bid for kayak fishing supremacy.

I've probably been remiss for not highlighting this before, but the reason I've been able to rent and evaluate various sit-on-top kayaks is because of the reasonable and renter friendly policies of the Next Adventure team at the paddle…

Miller Island Expedition: Columbia River Ghost Cult

My brother Fred sent me a checklist of things he didn’t want to forget for our second attempt at a Miller Island Expedition.

Foil pans
Beer or whiskey/tequila
Bug spray
Ghost repellents

Scouting Miller Island from the Lewis and Clark Highway (Washington side of river)

“Ghost repellents?” I asked.

Well, it turns out that Fred had been doing some research and found an old article from American Anthropologist by Wm. Duncan Strong called The Occurrence and Wider Implications of a “Ghost Cult” on the Columbia River Suggested by Carvings in Wood, Bone and Stone. The article, written in 1945, revealed that bone carvings depicting figures with prominent rib cages, a symbol of death, were found in old cremation pits on Miller’s Island.

Excerpts from the article:

“It can be shown that among these peoples there was an old belief in the impending destruction and renewal of the world, when the dead would return…”

“One of the most striking features of Northwest Coast m…

TILIKUM CROSSING, Bridge of the People, Portland OR


I saw the comment in a social media forum - a private group for hikers. I was yet unaware that the group was a loose confederation of fairly opinionated if not quite warring factions. The comment seemed innocent enough. It was a veiled plea to start a civil debate about editing waterfalls. The gist of it was this, “...the smooth water effect looks very unnatural. Almost looks like it’s trying to trick folks who don’t have the opportunity to go and see waterfalls themselves.” As the post began to generate more and more comments, the ambiguity of “Almost looks like…” slowly became more explicit as in “ is intentionally deceiving people who have not seen the waterfall... Just curious to hear if anyone feels the same way.”
The “smooth water effect” refers to the silky, blurred look that happens to moving water in long-exposure photographs.

At about a hundred comments into the thread, the original poster had distilled his viewpoint to this: “It’s negative in my mind because it’s an inac…

Eagle Creek Fire Jumps Over the Columbia: Childless Adults Even More Thankful to be Childless.

The Columbia River Gorge 09/05/2017 at 3:00am (As viewed from the Cape Horn Viewpoint on SR 14. Phoca Rock visible in middle of river.)

The Columbia River Gorge 05/31/2010 (from Cape Horn Viewpoint)

I've aligned these images based on the positions of Phoca Rock and the navigational structure in the middle of the river to estimate what areas are burning.

When I arrived at the viewpoint, it seemed I had missed the explosive advance of the fire's front. Still, as the wind gusted, and photographers scrambled to secure their tripods, one or another tree or other combustible item would explode like a solar flare.

The smoke stung my eyes. The buffeting breeze reminded me of speeding through central Oregon on a 104 degree day with the windows down.

Whenever the breeze lagged, voluminous, billowing smoke would hang briefly, as if in collusion with the ravenous flames, attempting to cover their sins of gluttony.

Starting around 4:00am, I started receiving emails indicating that the fire had j…

IF I DON'T GET PAID, DOES THAT MAKE ME — PROMISCUOUS? : I Perform an Unsolicited Review of the Danuu WingMan Kayak Fishing Seat Accessory Pack

I carefully chose my kayak to be my ultimate photography platform, beer-barge, expedition capable, multi-tasking water-craft, and it has exceeded my expectations.

One thing I hadn’t foreseen, however, was my evolution as a fisherperson.  At first, pressured into fishing by my growing awareness of what I’ll term a sort of ‘karmic imbalance’…

…I soon began to experience brief bouts of not just ‘fishing’, but also ‘catching’, and the catching part turns out to be — really, really fun.

But much like photography, the activity of fishing soon suggests a plethora of accessories and additional tools that need to be juggled in the confines of the kayak cockpit. Obviously, there’s fishing poles and lures and baits and anchors that need to have their places — places where they can be easily and quickly acquired.
The manufacturer of my kayak (Wilderness Systems) is way ahead of me here. They’ve thoughtfully included something they call the SlideTrax Accessory System and of course, a molded cup-holde…


(Formerly, Used Home-made Solar Filter for Sale: Only Used Once!)

In the Pacific Northwest, I’ve become accustomed to spending many a meteor shower shivering in the dark beneath opaque cloud covers.
So there are clouds.
Then, as the media began hyping a once in a lifetime opportunity, the prospect of a million or so extra commuters on the road to Salem made a 99% solar eclipse sound pretty good.
So there’s traffic.
But Mr. and Mrs. P began helping me chip away at these objections until all that was left was the question of equipment.
I had access to two possible camera choices. A Panasonic point-and-shoot with a lens boasting a 600mm focal length (35mm equivalent) or a Canon digital DSLR /Sigma 70-300mm zoom lens combo. Because the Canon’s APS-C sensor has a crop factor of 1.6 the 35mm equivalent is approximately 480mm.  Neither of these  choices has enough ‘reach’ to create images in which the sun fills the frame, so I started giving extra credence to articles that encouraged NOT taking ph…

MARY, JUNER, JURLY, & AUGURST (Just some of the many months with 'R' in them).

Uncle Rico did a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation. "144 beers." he mumbled, "assuming we each drink 12 beers a day". "I assume bringing water would be entirely out of the question?" I broached. But he just looked at me as if I were entirely crazy. I didn't know about Kip for sure, but I was having a hard time fitting the concept of 12 beers a day into a low carbohydrate eating routine. I was also having a hard time fitting 48 beers into my kayak.
In an act of unparalleled beneficence, Uncle Rico stacked my ice chest on the towering pile of gear extruding from the cockpit of his stable fishing platform/drilling rig/aquapod, relieving me of my ill conceived plan to tow it in a leaking rubber raft.

We set off around the sheltered south side of Long Island on water so smooth you wouldn't even think it was WillapaBay, where 9% of all oysters in the United States are grown (thank you Wikipedia entry on WillapaBay).

Pinnacle the distance.

We had …