Written By: Jo Kemper
I moved to White Salmon in October 2011, and I’ve been slowly increasing my knowledge of the surrounding watersheds ever since. I first paddled the John Day from Clarno to Cottonwood in June 2012, it was the first time I heard there was a rapid below Cottonwood called the Narrows that included a “not boatable” falls called Tumwater [Map Of John Day River, Oregon]. Several more trips on the John Day, and NF John Day, and seven years of curiosity later, I finally went to see for myself what this unrunnable stout was all about. It turned out to be a low water high in an otherwise sort of bleak fall paddling season.
Arial Photo of John Day Narrows | Photo: Niko Peha
The Drop Off Point Lower John Day River | Photo: Jo Kemper
The Dawn Stillness | Photo: Jo Kemper
I had read lower John Day trip reports from flows around 5000 cfs in June 2006, and 700 cfs in July 1999 [Trip Report Link], but to my knowledge, I didn’t know anyone with a first hand report to share. Another dilemma was how to get there, in an effort to not trespass by overland approach, I pitched it to my friends as a forty mile overnighter from Cottonwood to the mouth with thirty miles of flat water, one potentially heinous portage, and a nearly ten mile paddle out on a lake, likely with headwinds. No takers. Another idea I proposed was to attain upstream 9.5 miles from the mouth to reach the falls, and if it looked runnable, carry the boats up and run it, then paddle back to the mouth. Again, no immediate takers.
First Light Impressions | Photo: Jo Kemper
Jair Scouting From River Left | Photo: Jo Kemper
Niko Ferrying Across The Left Channels | Photo: Jo Kemper
In a series of fortuitous events, my friend Niko sent me some aerial photos of the current flow through the falls that he’d managed to take from a work flight in the area. In the casual office banter of the same day, I’d asked my coworker what she was up to for the weekend, and she’d relayed that her husband was taking his fishing boat up the John Day from the mouth to the Narrows with some friends. Without hesitation I requested, and the fishermen kindly agreed to let us join them on this moonlit fishing mission. Despite the early Saturday morning departure, by 4:30 AM we had doubled our anticipated kayaker barnacle load to four, and we were en route to Le Page park, near the mouth of the John Day.
Max Crossing The Island | Photo: Jo Kemper
A Good Sign | Photo: Jo Kemper
Blue Angel Sunrise | Photo: Jo Kemper
October 12, 2019 was cold, clear, and still. The full moon had dipped below the hilltops before we arrived at the river, and our frigid approach to the narrows began in complete darkness, and ended in frozen stillness, just in time for the sunrise. We hiked up on river left to scout the options, waiting for the sun to light up the potential and the ice to melt off our gear.
Laps On Laps | Photo: Niko Peha
Tumwater Special | Photo: Jo Kemper
Niko Boofing The Center Channel | Photo: Jo Kemper
Questionable Efforts | Photo: Jo Kemper
Higher Times | Photo: Sam Davis
Thanks to Max, Niko, and Jair for getting up early to join in the fun, and extra special thanks to fisherman extraordinaire, Sam Davis for the boat ride, and for accommodating our barnacle effect as I originally requested room for two kayakers, and then four of us showed up. I’d still like to see what Tumwater looks like with more water; Sam sent me a photo of Tumwater at higher flows, and it still looks to me like it goes.