Like most rivers in the west this year, the John Day has been full of water and quite the roller coaster including a flood event that peaked at 31,800 cfs on May 16, 2011 (and cancelled one of my river patrols).
I’ve logged five river patrols and 542 river miles on the John Day River so far this season. And as the saying goes, it’s been “never the same river twice.” Conditions on the river have been up and down. Weather on the river has included ice on the boat in the morning, rainstorms, windstorms, thunderstorms, and a heat wave. I’ve floated an 118 mile patrol without seeing another person and on another seen so many folks that I thought we might need to put up the “no vacancy” sign.
My first float of the season was April 28 to May 1 from Clarno Boat Ramp to Cottonwood Boat Ramp (70 miles), launched and ran Clarno Rapid at 7,100 cfs, and took out at 6,700 cfs. After this four day patrol, I alternated 7-8 day river patrols with another river ranger team patrolling Service Creek Boat Ramp to Cottonwood Boat Ramp (118 miles). My second patrol May 23 to May 29 launched at 12,000 cfs, ran Clarno Rapid at 10,000 cfs, and took out at 10,700 cfs. My third patrol June 6 to June 13 launched at 10,700 cfs, ran Clarno Rapid at 11,400 cfs and took out at at 8,720 cfs. My fourth patrol June 20 to June 26 launched at 7,420 cfs, ran Clarno Rapid at 6,500 cfs, and took out at 4,750 cfs. My fifth patrol July 4 to July 10 launched at 2,860 cfs, ran Clarno Rapid at 2,560 cfs, and took out at 1,930 cfs.
Service Creek Bridge
Four rafts have wrapped this year on the center pylon under Service Creek Bridge and all these incidents occurred at flows at 7,000 cfs and higher. At these flows, there is a strong current and a few waves just as you push off from the boat ramp. The river quickly takes you around a bend to the right and to the bridge. I’ve stayed in the current and gone under the bridge to the left of the pylon. And I’ve pulled river right on the oars two or three good pulls and floated under the bridge in the slow water to the right of the pylon.
I figure the wraps involved one or a combination of factors. Like boater inexperience. Or, launching without being ready – cinching up straps or putting on sunscreen and before you know it the current is running you right at the pylon. And, who knows, maybe a little alcohol. Lesson learned, eh?
Clarno Rapid is rated Class III-IV in the Bureau of Land Management’s John Day River Recreation Guide and has given a lot of folks some high adventure this year. I’ve heard stories of passengers being dump trucked out of rafts in large waves, of canoes ghost floating for miles, of various swims, and of boats getting stuck on rocks. And a drift boat was swamped, the family swam, the boat eventually settled in the main channel a mile below the rapid, and, finally, a salvage operator removed the sunk boat hazard from the river.
Clarno Rapid is a 3/4-mile series of boulders, chutes, and a main drop. And it changes at every river flow that I’ve seen it. At high flows, Clarno does not wash out. The river gets faster and the waves get bigger. At low flows, boulders and holes are added to the mix.
When asked how to run Clarno, I tell folks that since I don’t know their boating skill level, they should scout the rapid first. There are two scout points. The first is river left just before the rapid begins at approximately river mile 105.1. As you approach this scout point, you will start to see large, black boulders on the hills above the river, the river will begin to turn right, you’ll hear the rapid, and you will see a trail on river left going up a hill to the scout point. From here you can scout the top section of the rapid and walk the trail a half mile to the second scout point where you can see the main drop of the rapid. If you are an experienced and competent boater, you might choose to keep river left (and I mean way river left) and float down to the second scout point without stopping at the first one. The second scout point is river left near river mile 104.5, has a nice eddy to pull into at all river levels that I’ve seen, and is directly across from an island that is river center. A short walk up a hill here gives a nice view of the main drop and the last quarter mile or so of the rapid.
I have so far chosen to run the conservative line on Clarno Rapid which involves staying river left through the top portion of the rapid, scouting, and running the main drop depending on what it shows.
The top of the rapid has large waves river right at higher flows which can be ran. These become large rocks at lower flows that are generally avoided. If you choose to run these waves at higher flows, then immediately below them you have to pull hard left to avoid being swept into the channels through and to the right of the island where boulders, holes, and unpleasantness await you.
The Main Drop: At flows above 10,000 cfs, there has been a large hole river left that extends out about a third of the way across the river and boulders and hydraulics river right. The line has been river center on a nice downstream-V into some huge waves. At flows 7,000 to 10,000 cfs, there has been a hole river left, another one river center, and boulders river right. The line has been left of center between the two holes again on a downstream-V and into some large waves. Below 7,000 cfs down to 2,000 cfs, the line is still river left and requires maneuvering around boulders and small holes from the scout point down to a chute between holes river left and river center. Below 2,000 cfs, a rock named “Fang” shows up in the chute requiring deft rowing to get around it or a bump off move that I have used. Other options include lining your boat or trying river right. I haven’t tried either of those. Yet.