Johnmorial Day River Camping
It was May 2020, and we were approaching 3 months of social distancing / quarantine / sanitizing our groceries. In Washington State, park usage during the daytime had just reopened and overnight camping still wasn’t allowed. Somewhere in a search to find a legal and safe way to enjoy some time with bikes off the grid, Jonathan and I got the idea to go to a riparian section of Oregon, in the high desert of the John Day River valley.
I was nervous about the trip for a lot of reasons:
- We were in Schrödinger’s legality: BLM land wasn’t explicitly closed the way state park / national park land was. But overnight camping wasn’t necessarily allowed, either.
- Our plan was half-baked at best. We had minimal beta from a watershed expert and had scoured some outdated satellite images to ascertain if there was a bikeable path along the length of our route.
- I had only met Jonathan a few months prior. Was I ready to spend 3 days in a remote Oregon canyon with him?
Jonathan was on point for location and outfitting our bikes for carrying all of our gear. I was on point for driving logistics and food. To be clear, I definitely had the easy task here: I’ve got a wide catalog of backcountry-friendly recipes, thanks to backpacking trips with fellow foodie Anne. I chose two crowd pleasers for dinner — Cracker Barrel mac-n-cheese with the squeezy sauce, and ramen zhuzzed up with peanut butter and sriracha — and plenty of snacky-snacks for breakfast and lunch. Meanwhile, Jonathan graciously loaned frame bag, saddle bag, and 38mm tires for my steelframe and took on an entirely front-loaded setup for his share of the gear.
The first sign of troubled waters were the troubled waters of the John Day River. The river had swollen its banks and was so murky it looked like chocolate milk. As we’ve learned since, it’s not just the visible sediment that makes the John Day a poor water source: the river is rich with agricultural runoff that can’t be filtered or treated. We made do with filtering through a bandana and forcing through a Sawyer Squeeze (which was fully blocked after six or so liters of filtering). The jury’s still out on whether I’ll grow a third arm from the fertilizer I consumed.
After a relaxing afternoon and our first camp dinner (mac and cheese with broccoli!), we settled in for a cozy, quiet night of sleep in the valley.
The next morning, the real adventure began. We departed for our goal: Cottonwood Canyon State Park. A few miles in, we encountered the first obstacle: a gate.
All signs indicated that the other side of the fence was no more private land than where we were currently. With a fast-running river on one side and steep valley walls on the other, there was no option but to cross the gate. One of us climbed over, then we handed the bikes over one by one, and then the other crossed.
We continued past a ranch, around another gate, and through a dried-up bovine skeleton. I had a few tumbles on the chunky gravel and very nearly threw my bike cleats in the river in frustration. Jonathan sensed my frustration and suggested a lunch break. After cheese, crackers, and a cooling wade in the river, we were back on the trail.
But not for long. Just a few yards beyond our lunch stop, the trail was no match for the river which had overflowed its banks. As we push-whacked our bikes through sagebrush and brambles, we assessed our options. Our water stores were dwindling. The sun was relentless and there wasn’t a tree in sight. If we stopped here, what would we do for the rest of the day? I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when Jonathan suggested we return to the car.
The ride back to our starting point flew by. I learned the benefit of flat shoes on chunky gravel sections. We celebrated crossing the last big hurdle (er, gate) with a beer. As the car came back into sight, I knew we had made the right choice.
The rest of the trip was a breeze — we drove to Cottonwood Canyon to fill our water stores and stealth camp under a gorgeous oak tree. We ate doctored ramen and read Edward Abbey. It was the healing backcountry experience I needed after three months of lockdown.
It’s been a year since the trip, and Jonathan and I are planning Johnmorial Day, round 2. In preparation, I’ve been reading up on our namesake, John Day — and let me tell you, his is a character. To hear more, you’ll have to come along for a John Day adventure.