A Multiday of Firsts on the John Day River


My cousin Ryan fell in love with paddling at the ripe young age of 39—less than a year ago. Ryan, like all my cousins from the Schmidt side, was raised in the suburbs of Seattle. By no fault of their own, fate had contrived to raise them to be honest-to-gosh urbanites. I hadn’t seen much of Ryan since childhood, but I knew he had a super fun and positive nature, handy traits on any outdoor adventure. So, when he approached me at my wedding and said, “I want to go on one of your outdoor trips.” I was stoked and perhaps a tad incredulous.

We started him out easy on a multi-day canoe trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Here he became intimately familiar with things like rain tarps, gigantic mosquitos and headwinds. Ryan was a sponge, soaking up all the outdoor hacks we could throw at him. Despite my best efforts to expose him to the constant misery typical of my outdoor adventures, I just couldn’t shake his positive nature. Obviously, I needed to up my game.

The John Day River snakes 284 miles through eastern Oregon before dumping into the Columbia. It’s one of the longest free-flowing waterways in the continental US. Like most desert rivers, the topography is incised several thousand feet below the surrounding plateau. As our small convoy of pickups switch-backed down from the small town of Fossil to the put-in at Service Creek, I heard Ryan giggle behind me. “Whelp, there goes the cell coverage!”  Sure enough, we were in it now—the basalt cliffs rising on all sides, pleasantly shrouded in bright green grass and thick stands of Ponderosa.

“I was expecting more of a desert look,” I said.

“It’ll get that way farther down,” said my dad Alan, his mind more concerned with the local pavement than the local flora as he steered his big Dodge and trailer loaded with a hodgepodge of ice chests, rafts and other paddling paraphernalia. “This is a windy-ass road.”

Service Creek offers a modest selection of walk-in campsites right by the put-in, and we settled in for the night after devouring monster burgers from the local store. Rain spattered the tarp over my head as I gently swung myself to sleep in my hammock.

The precip continued, and an already high river swelled even more overnight. Wisps of low-lying cloud clung to the basalt cliffs as our crew launched our quiver of boats—two rafts, a fishing kayak, a canoe and a deflated fishing SUP for later. We had hardly gone 40 feet before I heard the tell-tail whir of a fishing line. Chris was piloting the Slipstream raft and introducing Ryan to flipping crankbait into pools and eddies as they drifted downstream.

“My only experience with fishing was flipping past the Outdoor channel on cable TV,” Ryan mused.

Chris was a different story. Quiet and unassuming, he’s one of those anglers whose well past the hobbyist label. He catches and studies fish for a living. Chris had worked for the Washington State Fish and Wildlife for years doing stream surveys and fish counts.

Equally versed on the river, Nathan sat at the helm of Big Blue, our 14-foot NRS support raft. He expertly worked the oars as we all lost ourselves in the rhythm of the river.

The John Day was flowing high, submerging stands of grass and willow along the banks. We knew there must be sandbars bending out between deeper pools, but the swirling water was dark with sediment and hid most of the river’s secrets, including more than a few fish. Quality smallmouth bass fishing on the John Day is no secret, but it was still only late May and our fears of the high spring flows putting a shroud over the fishing might be a real possibility.

Loose fishermen’s talk floated back and forth across the water. What are you throwing? That spot looks good. Hit that rock wall over there.

I looked back at my father, Alan, in the rear of our Old Town Discovery. “It ain’t gonna be for a lack of trying,” I said.

Chris hit first, reeling in a smallmouth. “Just a dinker,” he said.

“At least we’re on the board!” Jesse said as he slid by in his fishing kayak, an older and near indestructible NuCanoe. He let the boat slowly spin, standing up to cast poppers toward the shoreline.

Up ahead the river turned left, and the distant roar of wave trains started to reverberate off the canyon walls. Shoofly Rapid (also known as Russo) formed standing waves as it crashed alongside the river left wall, but the high flows had swamped out the bigger holes—not to mention a supposedly decent play wave at the bottom. Our crew plunged ahead single file, and the rapids slipped by in a rush.

We quickly settled in at our first camp. With plenty of light left in the late May afternoon, the crew split off to cast their luck from the banks. I had just finished slinging my hammock from the arms of a huge juniper tree when I heard Ryan yell, “I think I got one!”

Sure enough, he reeled in a hand-sized smallmouth. As I wandered over to snap a picture, he shouted, “This is my first fish!”

“Like, ever?” I asked.

Indeed, my city-born cousin had struck scaly gold. I showed him how to grip the bass with his thumb and forefinger, giving basic instruction on hook removal. After prying free his lure, Ryan whipped out his phone and began to snap selfies. “My kids aren’t gonna believe this.”

The next morning, Jesse took the forward casting chair in the Slipstream, and with Nate at the oars, they were determined not to let a single patch of slack water slip by without trying their luck. Chris spent the day on the support raft, and I got a kick out of watching his lanky frame crawl over the raft as he flipped lure after lure into the passing waters.

We had all pulled into a deep pool and watched as Chris hooked into something big. “He’s gonna take me down the river!” yelled Chris as the fish slapped the water next to the raft. All of us took a collective breath. Something big indeed.

Chris continued to fight the fish, careful not to reel in too hard as he maneuvered the big raft closer to shore. Working one-handed, he shipped the oars and jumped into knee-deep water. I mashed the video record button on my camera, yelling at Alan to keep the canoe steady as Chris worked the fish into the beach. Within a few seconds, an adult spring chinook salmon came up in his hands. Not wanting to endanger this special fish, Chris quickly slid the salmon back into the water as we all cheered.

With two paddlers and a trim line, Alan and I had pushed ahead in the canoe. I wanted to get eyes on Fossil Rapid and set up for photos before the rest of the crew charged the wave train. Fossil is a short drop, less than a hundred yards long, but plows directly into a rock on river right.

Alan piloted the canoe down the left side, dodging the bigger holes. We tied the canoe to a stand of reeds and worked our way to about mid-way up the flooded left bank when Chris came into view. With his rods carefully tucked away, he pulled the big boat into the tongue, the raft easily busting through the waves.

Jesse and Nate came on next, hitting the first hole face-on. A spray of water launched up. Jesse grabbed the casting bar with both hands and Nate’s left oar popped loose. They struggled to remount the oar, but by then the rapid had them. The boat spun sideways before losing momentum in the pool below.

Alan and I turned our attention back upstream, watching as Ryan tentatively paddled toward the top of the wave train. The high seat placement of the NuCanoe might have been beneficial for fishing; it was less so for whitewater. The kayak’s nose bit into the first wave, rocking the boat sideways. Ryan flew right out of the seat and into the rolling water. The deep swallowed him, only to spit his head above the surface moments later. His shocked smile spread from bank to bank as he bobbed downstream.

And so, less than 24 hours after my cousin caught his first fish, the river had also provided his first whitewater swim.

With Ryan soaked to the bone and the day beginning to fade, the crew pulled over at the next available campsite. We set to building a fire and hanging hammocks in a stand of fire-scarred pines. A bullsnake darted through the grass.

Later that evening as we roasted chunks of tri-tip steak over the coals, Ryan and I played back the footage from Fossil rapid.

“Next thing I knew, I was in the water!” said Ryan. “I kept my feet up and held onto my paddle just like you guys said!”

As the late May twilight gave way to stars, we sat and chatted about the days to come. I pointed out Burnt Ranch Rapid on the map. This would be our next test.

The next day the inflatable fishing SUP joined the party. I strapped my camera gear’s dry bag to the paddleboard as Nate and Ryan took up position in the Slipstream. Chris maintained his perch on Big Blue while Alan flipped his canoe around backward for solo mode. What a motley crew we were as we let the river take us farther down the canyon.

Over the gurgle of the river, I could hear the singing of casting lines, punctuated by grunts and calls of “fish on!”

Nate continued Ryan’s fishing education as the duo reeled in one after another. I paddled the SUP over to their raft and dipped my underwater housing beneath the surface to capture images of a bass on Nate’s line. Ryan leaned over the edge, hands on the oars.

“You getting the hang of those oars?” I asked.

“Yeah man, this is so cool,” he exclaimed as he spun the raft. “It goes right where I want it to!”

I laughed and told him to hold it steady as Nate released his fish underwater for the camera.

Canyon walls towered up from the banks, the basalt shrouded by a mix of pine and sage. Periodically, the river abutted ranch land with the guttural putter of irrigation pumps breaking the otherwise near-silent noise of the water.

Small wave trains became more frequent, and we slipped through these easy rapids in single file. They came on so frequently that the crew hardly ceased their casting, alternating between paddle and rod to send lures into every bit of fishy-looking water along the way.

Up ahead, the river took a hard left against a cliff and we all heard the reverb of cascading water echo off the rock wall.

“Must be Burnt Ranch Rapid!” I yelled over to Alan.

One by one, we beached our boats on river left and walked down the bank to scout.

The guidebooks mention a large rock at the top center of the rapid, but all we could see was a deep hole right below where the rock should be. The river flow was that high, creating a jumble of waves stretching across the width of the river continuing downstream for several hundred yards.

We stood at the bank, discussing the merits of different lines as we mentally rode through the rapids.

“Well, only one way to find out.” said Chris. “I’m going to try and sneak down on river right.”

I stayed on the bank to film. Chris, then Jesse, nailed their lines, with Jesse windmilling his paddle to punch the NuCanoe through several waves. Noticing that neither boat took on much water, I stowed my camera gear with Ryan on his raft, fired up the GoPro and charged straight down the rapid.

I love paddling a SUP, and whitewater only adds to the fun. As the board dropped into the first wave, I slipped into a stable surf stance and dug my paddle hard into the raging water. Halfway down, I crested a wave and my arms flailed as the paddle bit into nothing but air. Thrown off-balance, I threw my foot backward, disco-dancing to regain my stability. As I eddied out Jesse stood up, laughing with his camera in hand. “Damn, I thought you were going down for sure!”

Photo: Jesse Coble

“Ha! Me too!” I replied as I pulled the board up on the bank, scrambling to get the shot as Nate pulled the Slipstream into the rapids. Ryan stood up front, hanging onto the casting bar as the raft plunged up and down the waves.

They eddied out below us, and I signaled to the guys to get the throw bag ready as Alan lined up as our last paddler. In his open-decked canoe, any misstep would likely bring a significant amount of water over the gunnels and swamp the boat.

The canoe bounced over the first several waves. Alan was nearly in the clear when his bow hit a hole hard sending a torrent of green water over the side. The canoe listed, but a strong paddle stroke kept the boat upright as Alan slid into the pool below.

We cheered as he made his way into the eddy. He grinned up at me while he used a cut-off plastic jug to slosh another gallon of water back into the river. “I just stuck to the line I saw during the scout, and it worked!”

Photo: Jesse Coble

That night we camped below an impressive ridge line. As the sun settled behind the hills, bands of yellow and red rock glowed above us. A small stand of pines was more than sufficient for Alan, Ryan and me to hang our trio of hammocks. We had been lucky in this regard. Alan was dubious that we’d have enough trees on the trip to sky-sleep, but the upper John Day was blessed with just enough timber along its banks.

Paddling trips always seem to enter a realm of being entirely present after the third or fourth day. With no cell service deep in the canyon, we grew more in tune with the environment around us. There is no time like river time. I could have easily kept paddling in this state for days, but I knew our remaining time was limited. Only one more camp remained before a long last day of paddling to reach the takeout at Clarno.

Ryan had taken up a more or less permanent position at the oars of the Slipstream, allowing Chris to fully focus on the fish. He sent out topwater for two or three casts, only to grab another rod rigged with a worm jig. Ryan deftly maneuvered the raft, not even needing to be told where to point the veteran angler up front. He still howled every time a big fish splashed to the surface.

Chris’s success backed by Ryan’s enthusiasm was infectious, and the rest of the guys were also reeling in more and more fish. Most of the bass were considered dinks, but as Alan said as he flipped one off the hook and back into the water, “doesn’t matter the size, these fish sure are fun to catch!”

Later that afternoon I convinced Jesse to take a spin on the paddle board. He took to it quickly, flicking his flies as the board slowly spun underneath. The river continued its snake-like route between steep rock canyon walls. We scanned the overhead rocks for bighorn sheep and listened to coveys of chukar cackle back and forth.

Our last camp was perhaps the best of the trip. A long flat peninsula crowned with a tall stand of ponderosa pine trees. With several hours of daylight left, Jesse and Chris took out the Slipstream and worked a shallow bay alongside the point until long after the sun had dropped behind the rocky cliffs. Not many fish landed in their boat, but one couldn’t deny the awesome setting. Ryan had walked up the bank, and I settled in next to him, snapping the occasional photo.

“Dude, this is so awesome.” He said, performing a near expert cast into the wind. The bail clacked, then hissed as he reeled in the line. “So, where are we going next summer?”