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Since having first one then two little munchkins join our lives a few years ago, we’ve toned down the Class 5 Cali creeking and have been on the hunt for good family friendly river trips.  Places where you can load up the raft, bring a hodgepodge of assorted river craft (SUPs, playboats, tandems, a Fun1, etc.) and float for days in warm, splashy rapids underneath beautiful, deep canyon walls.  Oh yeah, and with beachside camps with sand for the kids’ shovels and buckets, plus no-wait, catch-a-fish-every-couple casts quality fishing for extra on-river entertainment. Basically, the full river lifestyling package. We’ve found a couple of these runs now, and we just got off of one of our favorites: the John Day River up in Oregon.

The Clarno to Cottonwood section of the John Day is 69 miles of class 1-2 whitewater with a couple class 3s (all easily portageable). It’s a wilderness run in a desert canyon with deep basalt walls, bighorn sheep, chattering chukar (if you’re from Nevada, you know what those are!), and some of the best smallmouth bass fishing on the West coast. We’ve done it before in 5 days with relatively high water (flows dropped from 6,000-4,000cfs over the course of the trip). But this year we put on with medium flows (2,000cfs; better fishing) and did a 7 day trip over the Memorial Day holiday.  We had 6 adults and 4 little kids (ages 2-4yrs), comprising two families and three generations.  Craft included two 16’ NRS rafts set up as oar frames, a Dynamic Duo (that the kids all fought over), a paddleboard (that the kids who lost out on the Duo got to ride on), a Rockstar, a Fun1, and a creekboat (for Grandpa Mike).

Day 1

We arrived at put-in midday, loaded up the gear, sunscreened the kids, and shoved off. Since we put in on a Sunday, there was lots of traffic taking out at Clarno. But we didn’t see a single other team launching. (From what we have heard, the upper stretch from Service Creek to Clarno is a slightly easier 47 mile run that enables a mellow, multiday experience, but doesn’t have the canyon scenery or deep isolation that the lower stretch has.) We fished and floated our way about 5 miles to where we found a nice spot on river left with pockets of sand for the kids’ shovels, and set up camp.  This put us right above the biggest rapids of the run (Upper/Lower Clarno; class 3) so we could start the next day off with a bang.

Day 2

Breakfast consisted of granola and scouting both Upper and Lower Clarno. When we ran Clarno last year (6,000cfs), the upper rapid was a straightforward wavetrain, and the lower rapid was a little more serious with a couple of big hydraulics that we avoided by running left of center.  This year (2,000cfs) the upper was just splishy-splashy waves that led to a corner with an eddy big enough for both rafts (and all the kayaks) to pull out in. We still ran the left of center line in the lower rapid, but this time it had a couple of rocks sticking out that we had to avoid. What had been last year’s larger hydraulics were now exposed rocks or ledges. Our 4yr-old decided she wanted to run the meat in the tandem with Mommy (not Daddy. . she doesn’t trust Daddy. . .!).  So we decided to run the rapid in two waves.  Group 1 consisted of Team Hunkapiller all in their raft (2 kids + parents), Team Mommy/Azalea in the tandem, and Grandpa Mike in the creekboat. Sweet lines for everybody. . . . even though Azalea declined her paddle and chose to run the rapid armed with a squirt gun instead. . . .this is the advantage of having a Mommy to do the work for you. Group 2 followed shortly in the other raft with Grammie Carol holding 2yr-old Wylie in the bow and Dad manning the oars.

Below Clarno, you finally leave the rolling farm/ranch land and move into the beginning of the rolling hills and canyon section.  The fishing gets much better from here on out and our progress slowed in direct proportion to the fishing quality. . . good fishing = slow rafting.  For all you fisher folks looking to do this run, we found the best success casting with Panther Martin lures (the yellow body with the orange flasher, and black with gold both worked well, ), spinner baits, and floating Rapalas. If trying to fish while floating with a kid in front of you in the tandem, we highly recommend the 2ft-long kid’s Shakespear $8 pole from Walmart.  This proved to be the real fish-catcher set up of the trip. It caught 30 fish in one day before Macy got distracted and tried to boof our 4yr-old over a rock in the middle of a rapid with the pole on his lap and it fell in the drink. . . Tragic.  We also highly recommend the “Frozen Olaf the Snowman” pole – this one took a beating from Logan (the other 4yr old in the team), yet still managed to land 20+ fish. (Yes, all casted, reeled and brought in by said 4yr-old.) It also managed to float long enough for his mom (Julie) to jump in off the raft and rescue it at least once during the trip.  Can’t recommend that floating feature enough. . . 

Day 3

This day mainly consisted of easy class 2 floating, lots more fishing, and the second largest rapid of the trip (Basalt Rapid, class 3). It’s easy to spot in advance because of the large landslide on river left.  (But last year at 6,000cfs, it came up on us by surprise, and at those flows was actually a solid class 3 rapid with large hydraulics and rocks to dodge between.) Scouting and portaging are both easy on river left. After a quick scout this year, we decided we liked the looks of it, and we ran through it in the same configuration as before. We’d been rotating the kids through the Dynamic Duo in shifts, and by chance, it just happened to be Azalea’s turn in the front again when this rapid came up. Sometimes she likes little waves, and sometimes she likes big waves.  She decided she wanted the big waves this time, so she and Amanda (Mom) went for the left-to-right move between the rocks and came through with splashes and smiles. Clean lines again for all.

We stopped at Red Wall camp for lunch and some surfing.  Macy got some awesome 30-second surfs with the kids on a small wave just upstream of the beach. We made our one “fancy” lunch of the trip (chicken salad wraps with Annie’s Goddess dressing) and lounged while little Grant (the other 2yr old on the trip) took a nap under a perfect shade tree. This is one of the most incredible campsites on the run.  We managed to camp here last year.  If your river miles and luck line up so that it’s available when you come down, definitely take it. It’s hard to beat the combination of front surf wave, sandy beach, shade trees, and flat elevated camping bench. Plus you get to look out at a ~1,000’ basalt cliff face stretching out above you, as well as some really cool columnar basalt cliff columns across the river at water level. This year, our river-mile timing made this a lunch spot.  This actually worked out to be really lucky for us. Right around the corner as we carried on downstream, we saw a large group of big horn sheep, consisting of ~10 ewes and 3 baby lambs. 

A couple miles later, our hot sunshine turned into windy gusts with thunder rolling in from the distance. We found a nice spot on the right to pull over (about 15min before it started downpouring). We hung out under the trees with a make-shift tarp shelter, heating water for tea, while the two 4yr olds ran around karate-sparring each other in life-jackets and helmets and the two 2yr olds tried to keep up. The sparring predictably ended with tears (turns out helmets work against you when you trip and they smash your nose), but dried apricots and hot drinks helped wipe away the tears pretty quickly.


When the rain stopped after about an hour and a half, we set up the rest of our camp and enjoyed the great sunset colors before sending the kids off to bed.  Apparently, late May on the John Day is bullfrog mating season, and by the sound of it, we were at Ground Zero. In the darkness, we could hear the frogs hollering from both sides of the river, and they sounded BIG.  Macy decided to go on the hunt, and grabbed a headlamp, a SUP, a kid’s butterfly net, and paddled off into the darkness. The other 5 adults lounged on camp chairs with a box of wine and watched the bobbing headlamp creep up and down the shoreline on the far side of the river.  We could see his silhouette clearly, and every time the SUP stopped and he put down the paddle, we giggled about whether he was going to snatch a frog or tumble in.  Odds were placed and it didn’t look good (for Macy).  Amanda was the only one who thought he’d be successful, but even she eventually called it and went to bed.  

Day 4. 

Bullfrogs! Three fat frogs were trapped in a bucket right in the middle of camp. (Explains that weird, rumbling, Darth Vader-like croaking everyone heard in the middle of night – frog mating calls echoing in the bucket.) We called all the kids over and lifted the rock off the toy sand-sifter on the bucket and watched with delight as they figured out what was inside. Everyone wanted to hold one, and there were a couple of times the frogs squirmed out of little hands and had to be chased and re-caught. After lots of squealing and giggling, Macy packed them back in the hatch of the SUP (surely what it was designed for) and ferried them back across the river to where he’d found them.

The river portion of the day started with Azalea in the Fun1, Amanda in the Rockstar, and Macy with a rotating cast of kids in the bow of the Duo. Being 4yrs old, Azalea spurned the paddle and preferred to float like a log wherever the river took her, knowing that Mom was right by her side to keep her right-side up. After about 2 miles or so, we switched it up again and this time Logan (the other 4yr old) took command of the Fun1. He was all about the paddling and charged through about 2 more miles of easy class 1 with a few riffles before his Dad (Nathan) caught a bass and he promptly wanted back in the raft with his Olaf pole.

There was good moving water at camp that night, and it was 80+ degrees even that late in the day, so the first thing we did after tying off the rafts was to hike back upriver about a 200yrds and swim down with the kids through the moving current. The 4yr olds couldn’t get enough of it.  The 2yr olds were skeptical after the first lap, but couldn’t stand to be left behind while the older ones did it again. So we all did about 3 laps before setting up camp and cooking dinner.  This winter we made the call to purchase our 4yr-old daughter a new 4-3 wetsuit (4mm thick in the torso, 3mm thick in the extremities). She gets cold easily. But with this wetsuit, she was always the last one to want to get out of the water. Piece of advice: If you’re going to be swimming on the river with young kids, get them a good wetsuit. We have found that the 2mm wetsuits just don’t provide enough insulation for our little kids.

Day 5

This was another really scenic piece of the river. There were still lots of cliffs on either side, mellow splashy rapids to float through, and more than enough fish for everybody.  Wylie (2yrs old) got to reel in 4 fish from the raft in a particularly good eddy.  Macy put Azalea’s 4yr old counting skills to the test, and caught 30 fish in the Duo with the kids, before he charged for the ill-fated boof and lost Wylie’s $8 kid pole over the side. But this day was really all about getting the 2yr olds their chance in the tandem.  Each of the boys (Wylie and Grant) probably spent about 3hrs each in the front of the tandem running rapids, catching eddies, and helping Macy catch fish. Grant preferred to pet the larger fish and hold the smaller bass before throwing them back in.  Wylie, on the other hand, liked to slap the fish out of Macy’s hand as his means of catch-and-release! 

We have found that getting our kids out in the tandem at an early age not only helps give them better balance (edge control) in the boat, but also gives them an early advantage with other sports.  We were really surprised to see that Azalea was able to edge and lean appropriately with her skis right off the bat last winter.  By her fourth day out (2mo shy of her 4th birthday), she was independently skiing off her harness and fully in control (turns + stops).

We covered a lot of miles this day in order to make our last day a shorter one that would allow us to de-rig. When we reached what we finally thought would be a good campsite, Macy got out of the tandem and walked a little ways up a path to check out the bench for tent suitability.  He got about 30’ up, when he heard that sound you never want to hear on a desert river.  Rattlesnake!  The snake was coiled only about a foot off the trail, 5ft past where he had walked.  Like every other rattlesnake we’ve every stumbled across in years of boating adventures, it just gave him a warning and didn’t try strike. We actually saw another one last year just a little further upstream.  We try to remember to talk to our kids every now and again about what to do if they hear that “tk-tk-tk-tk-tk” rattling sound.  There are lots of good answers, but we focus on teaching them to freeze, yell “snake!”, and move away (if they know where it is). With lots of little kids on our trips, this is actually also one of the reasons we carry an emergency satellite beacon. 

Day 6

Another great day of floating, toddler tandem charging, and lots of on-river napping for all the kids. Julie rocked the SUP through countless class 1-2 rapids (as she was doing the entire trip), and Grandpa Mike took a turn at the oars.  As we lost more and more fishing lures, our downriver speed picked up, and eventually our floating took us to a great Paco Pad Rafting spot complete with sandy beach.  We were about 6 miles from the take-out, which we decided would set us up perfectly for a half day on the last day. Since the weather was still nice and hot, we hiked up river a couple hundred yards and floated the camp’s class 1 wavetrain with the kids on our paco pads.  The water was so warm that the paco rafting turned into a 30min swim session at the sandy beach.  The kids eventually got cold, and we tossed them in warm, dry clothes, read some stories, cooked up some dinner, and headed to bed. The closer you get to the Columbia Gorge, the more the wind really picks up in the canyon. That night we had strong winds blowing most of the evening, and we had to fortify the rainflys with lots of tie-downs to heavy rocks. But it all worked out, and everyone got a decent amount of sleep.

Day 7

When you go seven days straight with little kids, they tend to get a little crispy towards the end.  Wylie crashed out early on our raft.  And by the time it was Logan’s turn in the tandem, both he and Grant were out cold, napping on the floor of their raft.  Azalea was the only kid who managed to fight off the nap. She was armed with a squirt gun in the front of the tandem, and she liked telling Amanda to chase Grandpa Mike while she squirted him. It was good that this was just a half-day on the water since the de-rig ging takes our crew a while since we not only have to de-rig, but also feed and keep watch over all the munchkins. We ended up taking off at 1pm, but not actually leaving the ramp till probably ~5pm.


All in all, it was a great trip. (We highly recommend it!) It’s really hard to beat the combination of fishing, warm swimmable water (if you catch it during good weather), long miles of splashy rapids, and beautiful canyon scenery – especially when you’re avoiding the reality that you have to be back to your 9-to-5 job by Tuesday morning. Thankfully, we have a 2wk long rafting safari coming up in early July to look forward to. . . .

Hope your summer floating is going well, too!

–Amanda, Macy, Azalea (4yrs), and Wylie (2yrs)