John Day River – 5 Days by Packraft & Canoe [Video]

The John Day River, located in north central Oregon, made for a great 5-day paddle with friends last week.

The John Day is a national Wild and Scenic River, an Oregon Scenic Waterway, and is the second longest free-flowing river in the continental United States.

Three of us paddled Alpacka packrafts, and one a Clipper canoe. We put-in from Clarno the day after a flood, which had the river flowing at 13,500 cubic feet per second (cfs).  We took-out 5 days and 69 miles later at Cottonwood Canyon Bridge.  Day 1 included skirting around Upper Clarno Rapid. Day 2 involved portaging around Lower Clarno Rapid and getting through Upper and Lower Basalt Rapids at 10,500 cfs. Day 3 included more paddling under massive basalt walls, while the highlight of Day 4 was mountain sheep spotted on cliffs just above the river. Finally, Day 5 was just a short 5 mile sprint to the take-out.

John Day River flowing through central Oregon desert, Oregon, USA (Brad Mitchell Photography)

John Day River flowing through north central Oregon desert

John Day River flowing through desert canyon, north central Oregon, Oregon, USA (Brad Mitchell Photography)

John Day River flowing through desert canyon

Male bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) on basalt cliffs above John Day River, north central Oregon desert, Oregon, USA (Brad Mitchell Photography)

Ram bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) on basalt cliffs above John Day River

Logistics for Floating the John Day River

  • A boater’s permit is required to float the John Day River during the busy season (around May through July).  Check the BLM website to check current availability and for latest info.
  • Check the river’s flow forecast from NOAA.  BLM recommends the following minimum flows based on type of boat:
    • Drift boats: 800 cfs
    • Inflatable rafts: 500 cfs
    • Canoes: 300 cfs
    • Inflatable kayaks: 200 cfs
  • The American Whitewater page also has useful information, and recommends flows in the range 1200-6000 cfs.  Our trip started at 13,500 cfs and finished at 6600 cfs.
  • The river is very silty and collects runoff from farms and ranch lands.  Pack your own water.  I consumed about 3 liters/day.
  • You are required to carry out all human waste.  I used Cleanwaste GO Anywhere bags stored in a dry bag.  But bring additional TP and hand sanitizer to supplement the tiny amount that comes in each bag.  Those with larger boats should consider carrying something similar to the Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Portable Toilet.
  • Campfires need to be contained in fire pans.  So be prepared to cook on stoves.  See BLM website for specific information.
  • The Outdoor Project has good map indicating location of some campsites.
  • Bring binoculars to scout for wildlife up on the hills.  We saw mountain sheep, deer, gopher snake, vultures, barn owl and lots of other birds.
  • The hills around camp make for great day hikes.  But they are steep, so know your limits and be prepared.  Help is a long way away.

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