John Day River canoe

John Day River – Clarno to Cottonwood

John Day River – Clarno to Cottonwood

By: Matt Maddalena and Dave Slover

Oregon has many beautiful long stretches of camping rivers with whitewater. For this “Team Alder Creek” staff trip we chose to float the John Day – Clarno to Cottonwood, a 70 mile section of river located in north central Oregon. The tentative launch date was March 6th but by the first of the month with low water levels and highs just over freezing it was not looking promising. We had to postpone. Then a rain storm, a flurry of phone calls and activity. We were locked in for the 19th to the 21st of March.

John Day River
Put In at Clarno Bridge

On the morning of the big day we all arrived at Alder Creek bright and early and headed to the river. We arrived at the river just after noon, broke into pairs and started loading the Canoes with our gear. We had Dave and Meloy paddling a Wenonah Rogue, Alex and Matt in an Esquif Prospecteur 16, and Andrew and Ethan in the Esquif Avalon, all tough royalex canoes. Andrew had grabbed a handful of Can-panion Beverage Holders for the trip and got major props. They were perfect for holding our beverages of choice while enjoying the float. Once we got all our gear loaded it was time to launch. We spent the first few miles getting comfortable with paddling our loaded canoes while chatting away, enjoying the sun, scenery, and the balmy 64-degree day. The river was flowing at a level of 3500 cfs.

John Day River
First rapids below Clarno put in

We were loving the sunshine after an overcast Portland winter cooped up in the shop and enjoying the open views and gently rolling hills of the farmland. We chatted about what was to come and what we were looking forward to on the trip. The only rapid we were worried about was Clarno, the only Class III on the run. Our plan after doing some research before the trip was to run the left side since there was a nice hole and giant rocks on river right. As our journey progressed, we heard rumbling coming from down river. Things were getting serious.

John Day River
Matt on the John Day River

We hopped out up river from the first-class II rapid to scout a route. Each team got together and came up with a plan to make it through. We jumped back in the canoes and executed. We cheered and continued our journey. The river ran lazily around a few gravel islands before coming to the next larger rapid. We jumped out to scout again and try to find a good line through. Andrew and Ethan were looking for the cleanest line. The Avalon had been loaded a little bow heavy and Ethan was having a wet ride in the front. After making it through we started joking about how we were practicing for Clarno, scouting these no name class II rapids along the way. A little further on we decided to go to the right of a gravel island as we continued our float.

John Day river canoeing
Below Clarno Matt and Alex

“All the sudden I’m yelling for back strokes as Alex and I get closer and closer to Dave and Meloy.” Matt says remembering his first look at Clarno. “We dropped into the rapid just behind Dave and barely skirted the right side of the hole. As I breathed a sigh of relief our momentum was taking us to the side of the river. I thought we were going to join the Rogue in a micro eddy when it moved out of the way and my chest seized. Alex and I both yelled ‘Rock!!!’ right before we hit it square on. I was pitched forward as I watched the boat flex outward around me and heard the yolk snap. The Prospector was rebounded back into the flow of the river. Somehow, we kept it up-right but we were completely swamped.

John Day River
Making it to shore with a full canoe

After everyone got done bailing their boats we continued. The sun was getting low and we ended up making camp after only about 10 miles instead of our planned 15. After setting up camp we spent the remaining light collecting firewood, and fixing dinner. We told stories, talked about life, stared at the fire, and marveled at the stars.

John Day Campfire
John Day Campfire

The next morning, we woke to tents covered in frost. Everyone was moving a little slowly. After a hearty breakfast we started packing and getting ready for the day. Matt and Alex had lashed the yolk of the Prospecteur back together and reinforced it with a stick they had found (way to go Eagle Scout Matt – lashing skills come in handy!). The gear was distributed a little better, so everyone would hopefully have a drier day. We pushed off just after 11:00 am and made our way to the only other named rapid on this section: Basalt.

John Day River basalt rapid
Andrew and Ethan at Basalt rapid

The scenery changed slightly; we were seeing a lot more basalt rock up ahead. Our last scouting stop of the trip was for Basalt. Looking from above we were a little tentative. Everyone decided to take a conservative line down the left side instead of running the large wave train down the center. We all felt like “pro’s” riding the main current before making the move to river left. After yesterday’s chaos of letting Clarno sneak up on us it felt good to properly execute the plan that we had prepared in advance.

John Day River
Camp on the John Day River

We spent the afternoon running through some fun splashy water, catching the fastest currents and trying to eat the miles. The temperature started climbing and soon we were enjoying beautiful blue skies on a warm 75-degree day in the middle of March. The cliffs overhead were breathtaking. The terrain had a beautiful mix of reddish brown and black rock surfaces interspersed with the golden yellow of dry grasses and the barely perceptible spackling of fresh growth just waking from its winter slumber. The occasional dark green of Juniper trees concentrated around campgrounds were the largest living things, far outnumbered by tall grass and sage brush.

Riding the current we made our way around the gravel islands and through the canyon until we saw a ripping current ahead. We had gone left around a gravel island and the confluence ahead was not in our favor. Dave and Meloy hit it first trying to sneak as low as possible. A couple BIG braces and they managed to eke it out. Andrew and Ethan were next taking the kayaker approach ferrying out into the main current with some upstream angle. The boat jumped sideways as they merged with the faster water, but they were able to keep it upright. Alex and Matt tried the middle line, a big brace while sideways to the merging current, uh oh…after a short refreshing swim the team got their pieces back together! Our only capsize of the trip.

It had been a beautiful warm and sunny day and our spirits were high. Our progress had been about thirty miles, there were another thirty to get to the takeout. We were confident we could do it and resolved to get an earlier start the next morning. Doing this trip in three days takes commitment – even in canoes, in rafts 4 or 5 would be a better choice at 3500 cfs and even longer as the water drops later in spring.

John Day River scenic
John Day Scenic

The next morning was overcast, as camp started to stir, coffee was made. Dave made a delicious breakfast of egg and bacon breakfast sandwiches. We took our time getting ready, moving efficiently and making it on the water right on schedule, 9 am today! The first hour covered a lot of ground. We reminisce about our experiences so far, marveled at the canyon walls, howling to hear the echoes, and hooting at Hoot Owl Rock. We were in Bighorn country at this point and managed to see a herd of females along a steep bank surrounded by cliffs. The gray skies gave way to a light rain around midday. The river moving us ever forward towards our destination, Cottonwood State Park.

Finally, the signs of civilization appeared. We first spotted a wind turbine in a low point between two cliff faces. Then a bridge, the landmark of our final stop. We had made it on schedule after all. The gear got loaded and it was time to say goodbye to the river and return to civilization.


We can’t thank Suzi enough for prepping all the meals for the trip. When we got to camp we enjoyed easy to fix delicious food. There are some good camp meals out there but having a hearty home cooked meatloaf with mashed potatoes one night and then chili and cornbread the second was a luxury most explorers don’t get.


Boat recommendation: Canoes in skilled hands only, this is not a beginner canoe trip! Consider rafts or inflatable kayaks for a less costly trip. We added skid plates and a new yoke to one of our canoes after the trip at a cost of about $250 for the repairs!


Managing agency:  BLM


Shuttle Service:


Guide Book: John Day River Recreation Guide


Current Flow: Northwest River Forecast Center


Float Season: March through June 500 cfs to 10,000 cfs. But bass fishermen go in summer down to a couple hundred cfs, Hunters go in the fall at low water and steelhead fishermen go at low water in the late fall.