Monday, May 26, 2014

Rafting the North Fork of the John Day River

This past weekend Jason, his fiancé Lindsay and their friends Adam and Mark joined me on a drive out to Eastern Oregon for a weekend rafting the North Fork of the John Day river from Dale to Monument, OR with Dennis Feeney and friends whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, some for years.  It was a great trip through beautiful terrain over mild rapids.  Except for the afternoon of the first day it was sunny and pleasant weather throughout.  Click the title to read on….


After a busy day at work on Thursday and a lot of traffic the 5 of us jumped in two trucks and headed east on I84 towards Dale, OR.  The drive took about 5 hours and we stopped for food along the way.  We arrived at the Tollbridge Creek Campground around 11pm and after a couple beers climbed into tents and truck beds for bed assuming that others on the trip would show up in the morning.  

Unfortunately, when we woke up around 9am nobody else had shown up.  I had been so busy I hadn’t read the entire email chain so I wasn’t sure exactly where we were to meet, put on the river or when people were expected to arrive.  I should have remembered that Mr. Feeney operates on what I call “Island Time”… We got in Adams truck and drove up to the Dale store where we chatted with a nice old woman who told us where several put-in’s were on the river.  After checking out the options and not finding anyone I knew I was beginning to get worried.  Thankfully, when we got back to our campground site Kelly and her friends Michael, Jessica and their dog Hutch had arrived.  Kelly also had a new golden puppy named Luna who was clearly full of energy and infatuated with Hutch the entire trip.

Friday was a long day of hanging out in the sun and prepping the boats at the launch site just down the road from Dale, OR.  We heard an update around 11am that Feeney and others were 3 hours away… so we had some time to wait.  Apparently, I hadn’t read in the email chain that they expected to put on the river later in the afternoon.  Once we had everything loaded up and were just lying around in the sun falling asleep Jason had the idea of driving up the road to the campground and putting on the river there in IK’s for a quick run to wake ourselves up.  Just before we dragged our boats down to the river Feeney and the others began to show up.  It was a quick 2 mile run and the first time Jason had been in an IK.  I think he like it!  

There were 18 of us on the trip - Dennis, Allison, Mark (Kaz) and his new girlfriend Thea, Grady, Jason Schilling, Faron and his sister Nellyda from San Fran, Kelly, Michael and Jessica, Ben Nielsen, Betsy and us, Jason, Lindsay, Mark, Adam and I.  We had thought of shuttling the cars on Friday but because it was so late we decided to just do it on Monday after we got off the river.  This was fine with us as we were anxious to get on the river and get to our first camp site.  Just as we got on the river it began to pour.  The previous weekend Emily and I had stopped at REI and I had splurged on a nice Kokotat Splash jacket and PFD to go along with the farmer john wetsuit I also brought on the trip.  I was very happy about the purchase looking around at others in just shorts and t-shirts shivering in the cold.  Those on rafts above the water were better but I felt bad for Mark and Adam in the IKs with his butt in the frigid water the whole time.  

Our first campsite was in a large field and we had plenty of room to set up some tarps over the cooking area out of the rain.  As soon as we had dinner cooking the rain stopped and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of salmon and pesto pasta that Dennis and Alison prepared for the group.  We got a good fire going in a big pan (leave no trace) and Betsy got on her guitar to really wow us with her voice and playing skills.  Although rainy it had been a great first day.

We got a late start on Saturday morning after a leisurely breakfast in camp.  The five of us had decided to split up breakfasts on Saturday and Monday morning.  Jason was kind enough to buy all the goods as I was swamped at work all week.  He had picked up a ton of eggs, bacon, sausages, fruit, etc and Mark, who happened to have gone to culinary school, was more than happy to help.  By the time I made it to the kitchen area there wasn’t much for me to do to help out and I felt bad I didn’t do more for the trip. 

During both breakfasts Jason and Lindsay, Adam and Mark pretty much took charge.  I asked, but they seemed happy to be handling it all which was ok with me :).  I did my best to help with dishes as I could.  That’s the nice thing about rafting trips for me… people that do it more often have their own ways to do things and often prefer to just do it themselves so it feels like a vacation in the woods for me!  I make sure to offer my help as much as possible but more often then not I hear, “no worries, we got this”…

Every day on this section, was a relaxing float on the river.  This wasn’t a trip of forced drinking and wine bag slapping.  Rather it was a chill float down Class II+ rapids sipping bourbon and the occasional beer and enjoying the views.  On Saturday night when we made camp several people climbed a tall, rocky hillside for better views and we had a great dinner of curry prepared by Faron and Nellyda.  That night I tried to get some star photos but there was a haze over the mountains that prevented any good ones besides some great tent shots and me playing with long exposure with my headlamp.  Once again we had a great fire, music and good company for the night.  

On Sunday we got another late start after another great breakfast, this time it was pancakes prepared by Betsy.  We saw some geese on the river today which was the first sign of wildlife we’d seen in days besides some songbirds.  There really wasn’t much for life on this river, with the exception of the beautiful spring wildflowers on the hillsides surrounding us.  Luna and Kelly took one of the IKs for part of the day which was super cute to see the puppy riding along in front of her down the gentle rapids, not scared at all.  Nobody had any luck fishing yet on the trip despite a lot of time trying until Sunday afternoon when we passed the middle fork section entering ours.  

There was much debate Sunday where we should camp.  The first spot we stopped at seemed a bit rocky and primitive and there was even a rattle snake under one of the logs we tied attempted to lash the boats to.  After some talk we decided to keep going and shorten the day on Monday.  We found a pretty decent campsite up on a hillside.  Half of us went up to set up our stuff while the other half lashed their boats together into “raftzilla” in “the bay of iniquity” where they proceeded to finish off the rest of the booze on the trip (or so we thought).  

Adam, Mark, Jason and I decided to go for a walk up a hillside to a Juniper tree Jason had spotted below.  The slope was really steep and we had to cross some barb wired fences to get up it but it was covered in various spring wildflowers and the view from what we thought was the tree (it wasn’t the right tree) was amazing.  We could see down the river as it twisted its way through the hills.  We were glad to be on this section during the spring as in a few months everything would be dead and brown.  

On the way down Jason almost stepped on a rattlesnake which he clearly heard rattle as he went by.  Others had hiked up a different ridge and got different views from us.  They told us they could see us going up the hillside and that there was a deer following us and watching us the entire way.  We never saw the deer.  The wild flowers on the hillside were brilliant.  I wish I had a better understanding of what the different species were.  It is sad to think that they are only there for such a short time period in the arid environment.  The remnants of old forest fires could be seen on the hillsides throughout the trip.

Ben went on a hike of his own and came across a stray cow that startled both of them as it ran off quickly.  Wildflowers were abundant and several brought back bouquets which we stuck in beer cans at the camp site.  That night we had a great Mexican dinner of fajitas and burritos with various ingredients before another night of fireside music and good company.  Someone (Grady I think) even broke out a bottle of bourbon he had stashed to pass around.  I had been in pain all day due to a very sore wisdom tooth so I had taken it easy all day and went to bed a bit earlier than others.  

On Monday morning Jason and Lindsay took charge at breakfast with raison bread french toast, bacon and sausage and the usual coffee and fruit for everyone.  Dennis and Allison returned to camp with some news from their tent up on the hill but I’ll leave it at that… That morning I got to try out Feeney’s pack raft which I absolutely love.  Being so tough and less than 5 pounds it would be perfect to take on a hiking trip to return via river.  Jason used it the entire trip but now I really want one of my own as it can clearly take up through class III rapids and packs down to nothing.  

It was yet another easy day on the river Monday with a quick stop for some snacks at an old homestead alongside the river.  Today we saw a few ospreys and Eagles as I spent the late morning and early afternoon snoozing in the IK floating down the river.  Betsy, Jason and Dennis were able to snag a few fish from the river as well but threw them back as it was the last day anyway.  When we got to the takeout at Monument, OR 44 miles downriver from Dale we quickly got the boats and gear out of the water and spread out in the son.  I put my music on Jason and Lindsay’s Jambox and we relaxed for a few hour waiting for Jason and Adam to return with the trucks.  
From there it was an easy ride back.  I offered to sit behind Adam and Mark in the truck as I am short and didn’t want Lindsay to suffer there again on the long ride home.  At the mouth of the John Day river into the Columbia River we found one of the few scat machines in the state to clean out the groover that we had absolutely filled on the trip!  It was super gross but Jason put on rubber gloves and manned up for the task.  


It was a great trip and I was super happy to hang out with everyone whom I hadn’t seen for many years.  It was great to get to know Grady and Jason Schilling better.  I was super impressed to hear that Jason had recently completed a few first ascents in the Himalya.  Professor Rice was doing great at her job and had a great boyfriend who was a professional guide off climbing Denali in a crazy 7 day trip and her new puppy Luna was awesome.  It was great to meet Michael and Jessica and their dog Hutch and to catch up with Ben Nielsen and Betsy who I hadn’t seen in many years.  I would love to say more to Dennis and Allison but will keep my mouth shut :).  Hopefully, next year Emily will be able to join us on this fun trip if they decide to do it again!

1 comment:

Jason said...

Great photos Jon and even better account of what went down, thanks for that! Lindsay and I had a great time out there on the river with you and everyone else. Thanks for the invite we'll have to get out there again real soon!