Trip Report: Lower Deschutes River, Oregon

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American Whitewater describes the lower Deschutes as “Oregon’s most popular overnight float trip” for good reason. Roadside accessibility, well-maintained BLM campsites with bathrooms and friendly whitewater make this an ideal first overnighter for kayakers comfortable paddling grade 2-3 wanting to get into self-support trips.

Located in northern Oregon, the stretch we paddled winds 50 miles from Warm Springs to Maupin, Oregon. The river builds in gradient as you go, with the largest rapids located primarily in the last 10 miles from Harpham Flat to Sandy Beach. This fun roadside section is popular with commercial raft trips and also accessible as a day trip.

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The rivers spectacular scenery, diverse wildlife and rapids ranging from gently meandering flatwater to bouncy big water grade three wave trains add to enjoyment the entire way down. It is a rare stretch of river that gives the illusion of “wilderness” without loosing access to “civilization”, but the vivid and varied river canyon of the lower Deschutes manages to offset the railroad and private property lining the shores, giving the feel of raw, untamed country.

My friend Jackie had the genius idea to maximize our river trip time by spending two nights on the water. To do this, we arrived at our Mecca Flat put-in close to 7 pm, with the plan of readying our dry bags and paddling an hour or so to camp for night one. This meant we had the entire next day to spend on the water and would leave only 20-25 miles for our last days paddle.

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We brought take away as our first evening meal to minimize cooking, and the smell of Pad Thai was a strong motivator as we set to work organizing our gear. We loaded up our boats to the amusement of the fisherman watching, put floppy hats on our heads, and floated down stream. Clear weather and starry skies turned into sunshine and we spent the day marveling at the osprey and red winged blackbirds, red-sided rainbow trout, and the geology of the river canyon. Basalt columns and Sandstone formations jut out of rolling green hillsides, the dramatic landscape broken up by houses on river right and railroad on river left. A few larger rapids perked up the pace and kept us smiling. We paddled nearly 30 miles before making camp, where we made friends with a few fishermen from Bend, sharing stories over guacamole and gin and tonics. The last day brought wind and sunshine, and more rapids. Big, bouncy grade 3 wave trains with wide open lines made read and run easy, while boils at the bottom kept you a little on your toes. Highlights of the day were the Oak Springs Surf Wave, and the Waupanita and Box Car rapids, the largest of the trip. We finished up at Sandy Beach, just above Shearers falls, sunburnt and smiling.

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Interested in running this section of river? Here is a quick break down of what we did so you can maximize your fun.

1. Length: This section of river is beautiful! Consider a short first paddle day to have two nights out on the water, rather than one. We brought take away food to not worry about cooking the first night. Mm….. Pad Thai…

2. Shuttle: We paid affordable shuttles (~$80) to pick up our car at the put-in and drop it for us at the take out.

3. Boats: This was the perfect trip for the Karma Unlimited! It has tons of space for overnight gear, and is ideal to cruise through the lengthy flat water-grade two sections. Plus, it was super fun to take through the bouncy wave trains and surf on green waves.

4. Cooking: We took a Jet Boil and a small MSR style stove to make Miso Soup with veggies and Cous Cous stir-fry for dinner. With bacon and eggs for breakfast and Salami wraps at lunch, we were well fed. A short overnighter meant it was easy to bring lots of fresh veg (kale!) and of course, a box of wine and chocolate. (Quick Tip: Crack your eggs into a plastic water bottle ahead of time)

5. Water: We carried in about 4-5 litres of water each, and this was sufficient for drinking, making coffee, and cooking for the three of us over the 2 days. I also had a water-filter as back up, but we didn’t need to use it.

6. Packing for an Overnighter: I used two Watershed Futa Stow Floats for my overnight gear- a change of clothes, extra thermal, a beanie, clean socks, sarong, sleeping bag and pad. I also had a mesh bag with some kitchen supplies, a watershed Ocoee as my day bag with snacks, a t-shirt, first aid kit, etc… As well as an NRS 10 litre drybag full of food. We used old yogurt containers with a bit of duct tape to pack out all our trash.

While I love the futa stow floats, they can be difficult to fit into the stern of your boat. Be sure to criss-cross the buckles, and try to pack them long and skinny rather than short and fat. I always try and put the heaviest things at the top, to have weight closer to me. When you go to load, move your seat forwards to make it easier to access the space behind you, and to offset the extra weight. Personally, I think the NRS 10 litre bags are a great way to go: affordable, easy to slid in, and they come in a clear color so you can see what is inside. Remember that only what needs to stay dry (clothes, stove and camping gear) has to be inside drybags. Otherwise, lightweight mesh bags or even a piece of webbing work well to hold things together. Bring carabineers to clip everything into place.

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7. What to wear: I wore a drysuit and a union suit, and was comfortably warm the entire time. I could happily have had a thinner layer underneath. A down jacket and a beanie were nice to have at nighttime, as it got chilly when the sun went down. The desert like environment meant that wet layers dried quickly, so if you don’t own a drysuit, don’t stress. I also recommend a floppy hat for sun protection.

8. Camping: BLM Campsites with toilets pepper the shoreline the entire way down, which means you don’t have to worry about a Groover set up. The three of us shared a Black Diamond MegaMan, which is a large, tent like tarp, and couldn’t have been happier. Lightweight and small, it was easy to pack and the perfect size for three people and our gear.

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9. Fishermen: It happened to be the salmon fly hatch during our trip, which meant that there were a lot of fishermen out. They were all friendly and courteous to us, and out there to enjoy themselves. Be ready to share the river with them, and you won’t have any issues.

10. Make sure to stop for lunch in Maupin on the way out! The grocery store makes amazing sandwiches.

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