John Day River (Service Creek → Cottonwood)

We pooled permits with a number of families and came away empty.  The backup plan was the John Day River which, as of 2019, was not permitted (note – starting 2020 permits are required).  Coordination with my brother, raft rental from Service Creek Resort, permits from BLM, several hundred pounds of gear packed into duffle bags, a flight to Boise, swift packing of food and repacking of gear and Yvonne, Isabelle and I set off from Boise for the 5 hour drive.  Our plan was to take 4 days to float the 47 mile Service Creek to Clarno section with my brother (Charlie),  and his son Elias, and then take another 4 days and float the 70 mile Clarno to Cottonwood section with just our family.

We launched mid-morning of May 26th on a beautiful spring day.  Temps were in the 70s and the river level was around 5500cfs, which made for easy paddling.  The Upper Canyon is crisscrossed with private land and camps are limited to certain zones in between homes and farms. There are a number of camps just downstream of the launch, but the short distance hardly makes them worthwhile.  The ideal camping distance (15 miles from launch) is private land so we opted to push on to the camps a few miles beyond the private.  We took about 5 hours to float 20 miles to our first camp where we camped in a zone that had burned within the past few years (138.2R).A nice dinner and the kids fell asleep early which gave me time to walk around in the hills above camp where I watched an owl fly silently past and land on a rock outcropping nearby.

Day 2 was a short day on the river.  We floated all of 8 miles and then camped across from a ranch in a nice spot next to a conglomerate tower jutting out into the water (130R).  Above camp was a nice ridge that we walked up for a sunset view of the river below.  Isabelle caught a Western Toad which croaked and wiggled when she picked him up.  It was the highlight of the day.

That evening Elias stepped in a nest of red ants and spent most of the evening with his feet soaking in a bucket of cool water to numb the pain. Later that night Charlie and I tried our luck at cat-fishing.  We didn’t catch anything and mostly just sat around the fire and drank beers – which is mostly what cat-fishing is about anyways.

The next morning we had an interesting encounter.  We were sitting around eating breakfast when we watched a cow elk emerge from the brush across river and start to swim across.  It was a majestic site and we all dropped what we were doing and ran to various vantage points to get a good view of her swimming.

She cut across the river and emerged right next to the raft where she stood around for a bit letting chewing on grass.  We all stood silently but she didn’t seem to care and kept working her way closer to camp.  Finally my brother said “I wonder if I can pet her.”  This prompted stern warnings to the children who were both quickly reminded that you never pet a wild animal (“Elk are dangerous and Uncle Charlie is being foolish”).

Charlie & the elk.

Charlie walked down to the elk and held out his hand… and she walked right up to him and took a sniff and then nuzzled into his hand.  This in turn lead to another conversation with the children –  (Basically, “You should never pet a wild animal…  Unless your parents say it’s okay.”) followed by supervised scratches.  Afterwards the elk walked into our camp where we were cooking dinner and looked longingly at the bag of carrots sitting on the table.  She then curled up under the tree next to our tent and took a nice long nap while we packed up camp.When we packed up the raft to leave camp she walked down and gave the raft a sniff, before jumping back into the water and swimming away as we shoved off.  As we drifted downriver we watched he swim across the river and disappear back into the brush on the other side.

Kids – NEVER pet an elk!

Saying goodbye to Miss Elk.

It was a surreal experience.  The only logical explanation we came up with being that she escaped from some game refuge nearby and now spent her free time attempting to beg treats off from rafters.

Day 3 was another short day on the river.  7 miles down to a large sandy beach at 123.3R that we couldn’t pass up.  We set up the sunshade and hammock spent the  afternoon catching smallmouth and having water gun fights (water guns are mandatory on summer river trips with 6-year-olds) before eating a dinner of hot dogs and spending the night out on the sandy bar staring up at the stars and listening to the river drift by.

Day 4 dawned clear and hot.  It was Charlie and Elias’s last day on the river and our family needed to float at least 20 miles to make up for the shorter days.  We were on the river by 8am and reached the Clarno boat ramp around noon.  We helped Charlie load up his canoe and said good bye and then jumped back in to the river in the hopes of putting in another 5 miles before dark.The first few miles past Clarno are flat water and we rowed hard to make up for time.  It was here that we had a large (over 6’) gopher snake attempt to climb into the boat midstream. Chaos ensued.

Mid-afternoon we reached the crux of the trip: Clarno Rapid.  This rapid – rated III+ is the only difficult rapid on the entire Service to Cottonwood section.  In low water the rapid is renowned for catching boats on exposed rocks and lots of dragging – but at high water (above 5000 cfs – and we were running it at 6000 cfs) there is a sizable hole.  Luckily there’s a nice portage trail – where I dropped off Isabelle and Yvonne with an inReach and bottle of water.  The idea being that in worst case scenario she could walk 5 miles upstream after hitting the SOS button on the inReach.  This was said as a joke – but 10 minutes late after I flubbed the rapid entrance and dropped into a hole 6’ right of where I should have been – the joke wasn’t so funny.

Luckily I had 20 gallons of water lashed under the table in the front of the raft and punched through the hole without incident.  The only thing shaken was my ego and Yvonne’s faith in me as a boat captain.

I met them at the base of the rapid and we continued downstream for another couple of minutes before pulling off river right at Mulberry Camp / 103.7R where we relaxed after a long day of river travel.

Clarno Rapid. Don’t go in the hole….

Below Clarno Rapid.

That afternoon Isabelle caught an American Bullfrog.  This invasive species has wreaked havoc on native species – and we should have grilled him up for dinner – but attempting to explain to a 6 year old why the State of Oregon wants to control invasive species like bullfrogs, but simultaneously protect the (invasive) bass population is a losing proposition.

On Day 5 we put in a 25 mile day.  We were on the river by 8am and given the high water level easily made our camp at 77.7L by 3pm that afternoon – even after stopping for a long lunch.  This was a wonderful day of travel.  We had a handful of rapids – including Basalt – a fun Class II wave train that shot past a huge basalt boulder sitting in the middle of the river, and the canyon walls are steep and isolating.

Isabelle employing the water gun to the face coolant method.

We stopped for lunch at a huge sandy beach and camped at another huge sandy beach where we had water-fights and spied a 3’ long catfish that much have weighed 25 lbs.  This promoted us to put away the smallmouth lure and toss out hot dogs chunks for the rest of the evening in the hopes of catching it.  Sadly we only caught small catfish and never landed the monster we had spied.

There was a nice ridge above camp and in the evening I scampered up and took photos of the river and then stayed up late shooting star photos until finally collapsing into bed.

New Moon on the John Day River

Day 6 was another 20 mile day.  However with the high water the current was cranking and we floated the entire 20 miles in 4 hours. By now we were in the part of the canyon where parties stack up on each other and we spent a lot of time jockeying to find a decent camp.  We finally reached an empty camp at mile 55.4R.  The camp had 2 lone juniper trees that we cowered under to avoid the hot afternoon sun while Isabelle spent the afternoon catching crawdads in the shallow pools in front of camp.

We saw a herd of bighorn sheep and later that evening I scrambled up the ridge above camp for sunset views of the canyon.

Day 7 was our learning day.  The river was still cranking fast and we floated all of 10 miles before we realized that if we didn’t camp we were going to reach the take out a day early (which we couldn’t do since we had a prearranged shuttle time for Day 8).

Isabelle around mile 50 with her eagle feather. Compare her to this photo.

The lower river doesn’t see much traffic and most of the camps are overgrown with tamarisks and we ended up camping on a gravel bar with zero shade. We had a shade shelter – but afternoon winds risked tearing it apart and we spent a long time in the hot sun trying not to burn.

Mile 44 camp.

Dinner at our last camp.

Isabelle and I spent our time fishing and dunking ourselves in the water – Yvonne spent her time moving around from one tiny patch of shade to the other.  The fishing was great (at one point I caught 40 smallmouth in 40 casts) – but the lack of shade was miserable.  We welcomed the setting sun and vowed to never attempt to camp again on an open beach in the desert.

And finally, our last day, Day 8, was another speed run in the still swollen river, to the take out, where our car and the shuttle company with trailer in tow to gather the raft.  We unpacked, stuffed the car and then drove back to Boise tired and happy.

Yvonne rowing us home.


Permits: High season is now limited by lottery. Outside of high season there’s no limit to user days, but you still need a permit. Go here to get a permit.

Guidebook: Get the John Day River Recreation Guide / Kimberly to Tumwater Falls spiral-bound waterproof floater’s guide.  You can order it directly from BLM here.

Shuttle / Raft Rentals: Service Creek Resort rents rafts and arranges shuttles. Their rafts are decent but their frames are flimsy and bend easily. If you are going in high water (April / May) consider finding a company that rents a raft with a decent frame or at the bare minimum inspect the frame so you don’t find yourself repairing it mid-trip.

Recommended Reading: This is the perfect trip to revisit David James Duncan’s The River Why. I read it in college and 20 years later I was just as enjoyable as the first time around.  One can imagine certain scenes from the book taking place on the John Day and his message resonates when you finally leave the canyon and confront the “smug ingratitude” of the developers behind the Sherman Country energy belt. Furthermore you’ll probably be fishing the whole time you’re on the river which is all the more reason to reread his work.

If you have young children ​The Oregon Trail / Race to Chimney Rock​ is a choose your own adventure book modeled after the computer game.  I would read it to the kids every night and they would get in arguments over what choices they should make.  When one chose poorly the other would always act smug.  I’m happy to say several of the choices lead to dying of dysentery – a fate that two 6 year olds could not stop laughing at.