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Low Water Highs | Opening Up The Lower John Day

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 

We returned to fetch our boats, attain as far up as we could, then portage upstream to ferry across a channel to scout the main feature of Tumwater Falls, in the river right channel. In case it’s not obvious that you’ve reached Tumwater Falls there is a sign on the canyon rim above. We had set out with low expectations of finding a runnable drop, and to our delight within a few seconds of laying eyes on Tumwater, we all decided it goes, and started towards the top for sunrise glory laps. After several laps each, we started playing around on the other surrounding features. By 9 AM we had thoroughly explored the John Day Narrows and we started our slow journey back to the mouth. The fishermen had offered us a ride back, but planned to fish until late afternoon. Luckily, the wind was a non-issue on the 9.5 mile paddle out on Lake Umatilla. For about an hour’s drive from home, and a couple hours of effort, I’m a little embarrassed it took me seven years to open up the lower John Day. I am by no means claiming this is a first descent, but rather a slightly overdue personal first, and an arrow in the quiver of paddling options surrounding the Gorge. I can confidently say, at just under 400 cfs at McDonald Ferry, Tumwater Falls is quite runnable. 
Tumwater Stoked | Photo: Niko Peha

 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.

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