I think we all have this idea that an epic vacation might act as a pressure release valve to mitigate the stress we accumulate in our lives. With an S.I. injury I'm desperately trying to stabilize the logical solution seemed to get as far away from work and boating as possible, so I headed to Costa Rica....
....where I was promptly bitten by a dog, contracted a bacterial infection, went to the hospital, and then spent the rest of the time trying to no avail to extract the hospital bills from the dog owner. Returning home, and vowing never to leave the country again, I thought to myself, at least that's over. Two nights later I was back in the hospital, this time with the infection spreading to new and exciting parts of my body, after which I had to teach a whole class in pain. Still in pain the following week, I landed back in the doctors office who really couldn't seem to offer much beyond a third course of antibiotics.
Convinced I would probably be dead soon anyways I decided my SI injury was the least of my worries so I called my buddy Don who is always up for my ill advised schemes to remote and hazardous locations.
"Bro," I said, "Lets go on a trip."
"We have to go tomorrow, I'll be dead soon."
"Nevermind, I think we should do the upper section of the John Day in sea kayaks."
"I'll see you at 7am."
I threw a couple F1's on the car and spent the afternoon outfitting my F1 as a kneeling boat to take some stress off the injury. From that point on packing was something of a lackadaisical affair, a couple cans of tuna fish, some apples and oranges, some nuts, a couple energy bars, sleeping bags, warm coat, headlamp ect... I showed up at his house the next morning with boats and a reasonable pretext of camping gear and figured I'd let the open road take care of the rest.
Driving out the Columbia gorge and into the sunshine of the Oregon desert, I worried about the infection and what it might cost if I had to go back to the doctor. Either way I knew I'd rather be miserable on a river than miserable at home, and there is something about long desert drives that is perfect for contemplative states of mind. I love the ancient rusted out cars, spooky abandoned shacks, half collapsed barns and old creaking windmills, contrasted with thousands of massive modern futuristic wind turbines, like ships from an alien invasion.
Arriving at the Service Creek boat "ramp" the process of packing the F1's for our 50 mile 3 day trip takes about a half hour. We dropped our car off with the lovely folks at Service Creek Stage Stop who provide a shuttle service for 80 dollars, and also have river maps for sale. Permits and other information are available through the Bureau of Land Management website.
I'm pretty sure I could be excommunicated from the guild of sea kayakers for this cockpit scene, but then again, anyone who tells you their boat never looked like this on at least a few occasions is lying. Heaving my deteriorating carcass into the completely untested kneeling seat of my modified F1 and clicking the knee straps closed, we peeled out of the eddy and crossed into the current, the flow pulling our noses downstream.
This is probably where I should confess that I did about 10 total minutes of research on the John Day, which is not generally considered a sea kayaking destination. Scenic desert canyon.... close to home.... 4000cfs.... class II rapids.... the last two bits of info translated in my mind to "rapids probably deep enough not to bash up the boats too bad." Which turned out to be mostly correct, and even if it wasn't, the boats are tough.
The F1's handled the class II beautifully, bobbing merrily along the same way they do on a rough day in the ocean. Don only paddles every few years when we go on trips and had no trouble with the stability. I was a bit tiddly six inches higher up in my kneeling saddle, especially not knowing if I could roll it yet! I finally gave it a go and couldn't quite get the job done. (thanks for the bow rescue Don!) Not keen to inhale anymore agricultural/ranching runoff I decided to try later in cleaner waters.
Don heads into burnt ranch rapids class II+ I will say that with 40lbs of gear and 50lbs of water on board maneuvering is just about impossible in a rapid. You pick your line at the top and commit to it. On the plus side, you can punch through holes that would stop a full sized raft!
Alternating between ranch land and canyons, the upper Service Creek to Clarno section of the John Day isn't the most remote or spectacular river in the world, but there a lot of beauty, and well worth the float. Sea kayaks were nice to cut through the flat slow sections. The section up to the ranching community of Twickenham is great (as is the name Twickenham!) and after this slow ten miles section through farmland the canyon steepens up again.
Day two: we covered about 15 miles through lovely canyons with a fast current sheperding us along with the occasional rapid to keep things exciting.
People will often push their luck on this section to find the campsite at cathedral wall occupied so we decided to stop a few bends earlier, across from this huge wall formation swarming with cliff swallows!
I sat for hours and watched the frenzied activity of these tiny birds building mud nests one beakful at a time. Fascinating little creatures, they worked tirelessly transporting and sculpting all day long until late afternoon when the whole chirping swarm shot skyward. I lay on my back beneath the multilayered cloud of birds watching as they devoured insects pulled up to them on the thermal air currents.
Unlike a lot of desert canyons, the John Day is surprisingly hikable, and a forty minute jaunt of steep grass slopes brought Don and I to this viewpoint. Watch out for rattlesnakes though!
Many canyon river trips consist of a deep canyon which slopes up to a rim surrounded by flatland. There is something magical about the soft hilly landscape here.
I love the spring wildflowers and am kicking myself for not getting a shot of the lupines!
Fishing is popular here. The river teems with little smallmouth bass which can be caught continuously. They don't hook themselves deep and so are easy to cut loose with a minimum of violence. Next time I'll crimp the barbs down on my hooks to make it even easier on them.
Our last day. A couple more miles through pretty canyons and the impressive basalt columns of the cathedral wall and we were back in open country. Floating out the last ten miles we encountered rain and headwinds that would have been hell in a raft.
The sea kayaks performed great on the mild whitewater river. My kneeling seat really helped take the strain off my back, although I did switch back and forth when my feet went numb. To be honest the infection and it's assorted complications are still an issue, but Illness and injury aside, it was just nice to be back on the water.
An avid paddler, builder, and teacher, I'm passionate about sharing the strength, lightweight, and beauty of skin-on-frame boat building.