Annual descent of the Deschutes River

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Three days in Oregon's high desert

Deschutes Descent
October 14-16, 2011
Report by Bob Sauer

We gathered in the parking lot at Catlin Gabel early on Friday morning. We quickly stashed our gear in the bus, and Pat drove us out to our put-in on the Deschutes River on Hwy 26 near Warm Springs. Silas and Travis were waiting at the launch spot with our All Star rafts and gear. We stuffed dry bags with gear, filled three coolers with food, donned splash jackets and neoprene booties, and discussed and demonstrated safety and rafting procedures. The voluminous gear was strapped into the gear raft, and the 12 students boarded the other two rafts to begin our descent. We floated under the highway bridge and into adventure.

The first day was fairly calm, river-wise. That gave us time to coalesce as crews and to appreciate our beautiful surroundings. There was plentiful birdlife – many great blue herons, neat, white collared king fishers, and little groups of mergansers in the eddies. The banks teemed with fishermen, casting, casting, casting but never catching anything that we could see. 

We floated 20 miles down to Whiskey Dick, where we set up camp for the night.  The volunteer dinner crew put together the dinner: southwest fettuccine. The extra southwestern-ness contributed by the inadvertently burned onions gave a smoky flavor that didn’t add well to the overall taste. There was a lot left over. On the other hand, the salsa ensalada disappeared completely. Winter is on its way, and it was dark by 7:30. We were happy to head to our sleeping bags soon after that.

The next morning we were up at 7:00 and enjoyed a pancake breakfast. We broke camp, loaded the rafts, and were under way on the river by 9:30. Just downstream we stopped to scout the Class IV Whitehorse Rapids. We subsequently ran them without difficulty. We passed through areas of extensive grass fires that had burned earlier in the year. Entire slopes of the deep valley were dark brown and a bit forbidding. The black ash wasn’t visible except in the burned areas right along the river. On the higher slopes the dark basalt showed through the sparse ash and rendered the landscape brown rather than black. With the usual grass gone, the spectacular geology was even more in evidence than usual. Alluvial fans debouching from the steep, narrow side canyons showed their spread of rocks openly. The dark, burnt hillsides contrasted sharply with those unburnt, whose napped golden hue was the color of lightly cooked buttermilk pancakes. We stopped at Turtle Rock for some jumping off the high rock of the turtle’s beak into the deep eddy below. We pulled out at Buckskin Mary to camp for the night.

That evening we had build-your-own-burritos for dinner. There were plenty of trimmings to put in them, and everyone ate well. The early darkness again pushed us to turn in much earlier than we would at home. In the night there were several rain showers, fortunately light enough not to drench people or gear left outside. Some animal with sharp claws tried to get into the garbage bag inadvertently left hanging on the table, but it didn’t find much of interest. Another animal (or perhaps the same one) dragged some nesting material into the bottom of one of the empty dry bags. But by morning the animal was gone.

We had 18 river miles to cover the next day, and we had to meet the bus at Sandy Beach in the early afternoon. That meant an early start. We got up at 6:45, when it was still dark. The sky lightened as we packed our gear, and we didn’t need flashlights to eat breakfast. After we consumed muffins and cereal, packing up went efficiently, and we cast off by 8:40. We ran the exciting rapids at Wapinitia, Boxcar, and Oak Springs. Shortly before the takeout we stopped to let those who wanted to float through a rapid. No one had done this the day before at Buckskin Mary, despite the example of another high school group, most of whom floated through the rapid there while some of us watched. This time though, most of our group braved the cold waves to bounce through the rapids, some more than once. The rest of the muffins from breakfast and the leftover Oreos from lunch made a welcome energy boost to the chilled. From this rapid to the take-out was a quick 10-minute float.

With our practiced experience we quickly unloaded the rafts, organized the gear, and set off back to Portland, arriving at Catlin Gabel ahead of schedule. It had been a fun three days, filled with thrilling rapids, napping in the calm stretches, teamwork, camaraderie, and fine self-cooked food. Sign us up for another trip!