Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Kayak Camping on the John Day River

In 2011, I discovered that I love multi-day wilderness kayak camping trips - especially on the river.  Fortunately Jeff shares this interest so each year we plan our vacation around a multi-day river kayak trip.  This year, we were off to the John Day River in Oregon.
Kayak camping trip on the John Day River.
This year's idea to do the John Day started in October at Lumpy Waters.  A highlight of Lumpy for me is getting to chat with paddlers from all over the Pacific Northwest and hear about their adventures.  When I shared that Jeff and I really enjoyed our trip on Oregon's Owyhee River in the spring, others said that we had to do the John Day River.
Paddling into the Painted Hills on the John Day River.
This spring when we started planning, I emailed with a couple of friends for some beta and ordered up the maps and river guide.  We started planning logistics of how many days, where to put in take out, shuttle, and what to bring.
Trip planning for the John Day River in Oregon.
One of my favorite things about planning trips, is menu planning.  Each trip, seems to get better.  I enjoy creating my own back country meals.  This year I had a couple of new dishes including spaghetti squash with spaghetti sauce and ham.  I dehydrated the spaghetti squash, sauce, and ham separately then combined them when preparing the meal in camp.  It was yummy!!!
Dehydrating spaghetti squash
Dehydrating spaghetti sauce (homemade from tomatoes in our garden)
Another new meal for this trip was my own spin on the Dirty Gourmet's Thai Coconut Soup.  I also started making my own egg dishes for breakfast with OvaEasy powered eggs.  They are actually quite good - especially when combined with other goodies to make breakfast burritos.  For snacks, I had chocolate, trail mix, beef jerky, and of course Huppy Bars.
The snack bag with yummy Huppy Bars.
I packed 10 days worth of food into 5 dry bags which weighed in at 24.5 pounds.  This was not counting the apples, cheese, vegetables, and beverages that we also packed with us in our kayaks.
24.5 pounds of food for 10 days.
The environment of many rivers is sensitive and to minimize human impact, river users are required to pack out human waste.  Our plan for river trips is, I pack it in and Jeff packs it out.  For packing out waste, Jeff made a PVC poop tube that is similar to what RV's use in their pumping system.  We call the tube "Kevin."
"Kevin" is the PVC poop tube on the back of Jeff's kayak.
One of my favorite parts of exploring a new river system is researching the wildlife, flora/fauna, geology, and history of the area.  I download pdf's, books, and aps onto my Ipad mini to use during the trip.  On our way to the river, Jeff and I stopped by the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center to learn more about the geological history of the area.
Contemplating the geology of Sheep Rock Mountain from the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
The John Day River is a tributary of the Columbia River in North Central Oregon.  It flows through the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  The area has a rich volcanic history as well as one of the most complete fossil records in the world.  It is fun to imagine the millions of years of volcanic events and extreme climate changes that have been recorded in the rocks and fossils.
Interpretive exhibit in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
After lots of nerding out, Jeff and I did head to the river.  We enjoyed 118 miles and 9 days and nights of kayaking and camping on the river.  We knew that we would have a bit of flat water and potentially windy paddling conditions so we opted to take our Dagger Stratos sea kayaks for the trip.  They are faster and more efficient than our whitewater kayaks, would be fun on the class II and class III rapids, and can haul enough gear for 10 days.
Packing the Dagger Stratos for 10 days on the John Day River.
The weather on our trip was quite variable.  Rain and cool temperatures were forecasted (lows in the lower 30's and highs in the 50's) which necessitated packing rain gear and warm clothing.  We managed to fit it all in as well as some tasty beverages.
Packing food and necessities for 10 days into our kayaks.
We were glad for the rain gear and warm clothes.  There was frost the first night.
Frost on our kayaks in the morning.
 The scenery of the trip was amazing and diverse.  We traveled through valleys with towering mesas, steep cliffs of columnar basalt and painted hills.
Dramatic scenery on the John Day River.

The painted hills on the John Day River.

Jeff checks out a wall of columnar basalt.
During the first 48 miles from Service Creek to Clarno, we saw a couple of other groups on the river including a boy scout troop.
A group of boy scouts enjoying a sunny day on the John Day River.
On the 70 mile stretch from Clarno to Cottonwood, we didn't see anyone else on the river - humans that is.  Wildlife highlights were sightings of bald and golden eagles, big horn sheep, and a bobcat.  At one of our layover camps, we got to watch a flock of big horn sheep with lambs grazing on the cliffs above us.
Bighorn sheep and lambs on the cliffs above our camp.
At another camp, we watched a Canada Goose tend to her goslings on a cliff about 15 feet above the river.  As we were loading our boats to leave the next day, she flew off the cliff and called the goslings down into an eddy below the cliffs.  We watched the goslings tumble down the cliff and into the fast moving current.  The parents then guided them out of the bottom of the eddy and into the main current and down the river.
Canada goose sits on her nest in the columnar basalt on the John Day River.
Jeff came across a rattlesnake and a scorpion.  Happily I did not come across these critters.
Yes, there are rattlesnakes.

On multiday kayak trips, we tend to have a random pace.  We tend to do fewer miles on sunny warm days when we can enjoy time in camp - hiking, birding, and relaxing,  On rainy days, we tend to do more miles.  One of the most spectacular scenery days ended up being one of our rainy days.  Our rainy day photos from Basalt Canyon and the Palisades hardly do the majesty and beauty of the river canyon justice.
Rainy day paddling on the John Day River.
The current was swift on the river.  The swift current was fun in a loaded sea kayak.  The handful of class II and III rapids kept things interesting.
Cate enjoying some whitewater in her Dagger Stratos on the John Day River.
When we put on, the river was flowing at over 7,000 cubic feet per second.  Rain during the trip increased it through out.  When we took off the river, it was quite flooded and running at 12,500 cubic feet per second.  On our last day of paddling we calculated that we were floating at 8 miles per hour.
Zipping along on the flooded John Day River.
 The best part of kayak camping trips is connecting with the natural world.  We keep the pace of our trips slow so that we can stop and admire the wildflowers, watch birds and wildlife, and daydream as clouds float by.
Taking time to daydream and watch the clouds.
Our 2017 Spring Run Off Trip on the John Day was excellent.  We both enjoy going back and doing it again but are also looking forward to discovering a new river for our next kayak camping adventure.
Beautiful evening kayak camping on the John Day River.


  1. Thanks for posting this Cate! Beautiful photos and lovesd the description.

  2. Haha! funny!

    Great photos & story.