Science & Environment

Next-level paddleboarding: Embracing the whitewater of Oregon’s John Day River

By Ed Jahn (OPB)
May 15, 2021 1 p.m.

During the early phase of the pandemic, people spent months waiting for the delivery of stand-up paddleboards, or SUPs. Paddleboards became the REI crowd’s “thing to have” in 2020. Once they arrived, Oregonians struck out en masse to test their skills on every quiet lake and calm stretch of river between Lakeview and Astoria.

Then, some people got good. Good enough to ask, “Can I take this thing on whitewater?”


Imagine, standing vertically and balancing atop something akin to a firm, 9-foot inflatable mattress and bouncing like a Plinko coin through a mile after mile of crashing waves in a river spiked with enough boulders to make you seriously consider your life choices.

No one said it was easy, but whitewater paddleboarding is an option.

A 70 mile, multi-day paddleboard trip down the Clarno to Cottonwood section of the John Day River through Oregon’s high desert is level 2.0 in the skills arena, which makes it a pretty good place to discover whether you’re ready to move beyond paddling the local reservoir. The whitewater is daunting (you are standing up, after all) but it’s not continuous. There are miles of fast-moving but whitewater-free sections, which means you can take in some of Oregon’s finest canyon scenery while practicing the balance you perfected doing paddleboard yoga.

All that said, this is not a river to consider unless you’ve transformed your pandemic pooch into something closer to a six-pack and can do more than stand up on your board without immediately faceplanting. And, if your idea of river running involves popping open ice-filled coolers full of steak and beer and pasta salad at the end of the day, then paddleboarding might not be the joy you’re looking for. Paddleboard travel is more dehydrated food and bivvy tents because the boards can only carry so much without looking and performing like a bloated sea lion.

But, if you have those bases covered and you like your river adventures light on luxury and high on adrenaline, the joy of whitewater paddleboarding in Oregon awaits. And the John Day River isn’t a bad place to start.