Three Adventurous Days on the John Day River

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An adventurous group of upper school students joined the Outdoor Program for an incredible three days in the sun on the John Day River in Eastern Oregon.  Over the course of our trip, we floated nearly seventy river miles and completed many side hikes on the second longest undammed river in North America.  On Friday, we met at 6am in the Cabell lot, where we loaded the bus with our personal and group gear for the weekend.  We headed out of the lot by 6:20, and Pat Selman drove us to the put-in in Clarno, OR, taking I-84 and then heading S on Hwy 97 through Shaniko and Antelope.  We met our rafts at the put-in at 10am, and transferred our equipment to dry-bags, coolers and other somewhat waterproof containers.  We were momentarily set back when we realized that the rafts needed much more air in them, and we only had small “wonder” pumps (as in, "I wonder why I brought this lousy pump") to top them off with.  Once we were loaded up, we had a long safety talk before starting down the river.  We put on the river a bit before noon, and started floating in the very swollen river.  There were many other boaters putting-in at Clarno.  Five miles downriver, we pulled out in an eddy to scout Upper and Lower Clarno Rapids, and to eat lunch.  Seth ran the gear boat through a hole in Upper Clarno rapid to see what we could expect with the paddle rafts.  It proved not to be a problem, and after spending some more time scouting, we loaded the paddle rafts and ran the most formidable rapids of the trip without any problem!  There was a lot of splashing and good excitement.  We completed 18 river miles on the first day, and the weather was partly cloudy and beautiful, but we were all getting a bit chilly in the afternoon, as the wind started to kick up.  We found a glorious campsite partway through Basalt Rapid, and set up our camp amongst the large juniper trees and beautiful basalt boulders on the shore.  We hiked up to a rocky outcropping above camp and took in the wild scenery before playing Bacci ball and feasting on a large spaghetti dinner.

Saturday was a big day, complete with two hikes and thirty-three river miles.  The river was pretty docile for this long section of river, but the canyon steepened around us and the scenery was dramatic.  The day started with some exciting waves on the remaining portion of Basalt Rapids, and we floated eighteen miles before stopping for lunch and our first hike.  We stopped at the eastern tip of Horseshoe Bend and ate lunch before hiking up to the saddle where we could see the river on both sides of us.  This was a truly magical place, and the combination of sun, exertion from the hike, and relaxation from the long float created the perfect recipe for a peaceful nap.  A few miles downstream Peter’s boat pulled out at Potlatch Canyon to see a panel of petroglyphs.  Seth’s boat missed the eddy, but pulled out a few eddies downstream.  Peter’s half of the group hiked to the petroglyphs and a side adventure that paid off with the discovery of an old settler’s home that had gone untouched for many years.  David and Seth led the other group up a jeep track that looked as though it would connect with Potlatch Canyon.  The trail passed a pretty spring and exited Buckskin Canyon before following a contour that headed toward Potlatch.  We discovered a full cow skeleton bleached by the sun, and Annika discovered a rattlesnake, up close and personal (complete with a warning rattle!).  The trail toward Potlatch looked long, and it was hot, so we headed back to the boats, and Peter’s boat appeared upstream in a matter of minutes.  The group pushed on and we floated many miles before pulling out at the distinct Hoot Owl Rock - an impressive formation that sits atop a sharp ridge on the canyon and looks like a hunched bird .  We arrived at camp at 6:30pm.  We played Bacci ball, cooked an amazing fajita dinner, baked a cake in the dutch oven, and had group refelection time around the fire before bed.

Sunday, we woke early and snacked on cinnamon rolls before breaking down camp.  We were pushing the boats off shore before 9am, and we had nineteen miles to cover before reaching the take-out at the Cottonwood Bridge.  There is very little whitewater on this stretch of river, and many interested students had the chance to learn how to steer and captain the rafts.  We stopped at Owen’s Plain and hiked up to an old windmill and stone corral in the (relatively!) fertile valley.  We stopped for lunch on a pretty gravel island where a group of Canadian Geese were lounging in the sun.  After lunch, the girls decided to skipper their own boat to the take-out, leaving the boys in the other raft.  We made it to the takeout at the Cottonwood Bridge, and Leroy was there in bus #23 again, and we arrived back at Catlin at 5:15pm, a bit tanner and with a wonderful adventure under our belts!