Backwaters | 100 Miles on the Lower Deschutes
Exploits of a Duffel Bag Paddleboarder
Photos and words by Paul Clark
It’s the last week of April. Snowmelt should be flooding the rivers in Oregon. But this year, there isn’t much snow to melt. It’s chilly but not cold. Days are growing long with light, filling the shadows of river canyons with a hint of warmth. Ospreys are improving their nests and geese are herding their little yellow fuzz ball goslings. Fishing season hasn’t begun yet. Nobody’s on the river. It’s the perfect time for a SUP tour of the Lower Deschutes.
The "Lower D" always provides an awesome SUP adventure. It's home to some challenging whitewater, with more than a dozen rapids Class III or above and many more fun wave trains and bumpy corners to navigate. There’s also some excellent swift water for more mellow runs and novice paddlers. I once did the 100-mile section between Warm Springs and the Columbia River Gorge in 16 hours. It set a new record for the run. But it's nice to take things slow and enjoy the solitude of the river on overnight tours.
My routine expedition on the Lower D involves a four-day trip, leisurely paddling 25 miles per day on average. That’s about five hours a day on the water, but I try not to conform to any particular time restraints. That allows me to eddy out on a whim, find little surf holes and take some gorgeous overland hikes. Being solo on a paddleboard means I have the opportunity to move as quickly, or slowly, as I want and set up camp in the tiniest of nooks.
On this trip I bring a soft-sided Yeti cooler. I strap all 22 pounds of the Yeti with ice and food to my deck along with my 65-liter dry bag. Since this is more of a leisure expedition than a survival mission, I usually don't focus on an ultralight setup for this trip. But, I still need to cover miles and run rapids. Rigged correctly with weight center and forward I am able to punch through whitewater surprisingly well on my 10-foot inflatable SUP.
My halfway point is where most trips on the Lower D either begin or end. The portage of Class VI Sherars Falls is mandatory for every watercraft. Portaging is one of the things I recognize as most valuable about river paddleboarding. It’s relatively easy to pick up and walk. The official portage is nearly 3 miles along the road from Sandy Beach to Buck Hallow. But if you're a savvy map-reader, it's possible to shave a bit of distance off by detouring from the portage's beaten path.
Throughout this 100-mile run, long stretches of quiet flatwater are punctuated by fierce legs of demanding whitewater. There are at least 15 rapids Class III and above, including Sherars Falls, which is a mandatory portage for every watercraft. The rapids are mostly straightforward pool drops over ledges or lava rock boulder fields. Wave trains and turbulent corners are to be expected around every bend. The river is swift and cold. You can paddle over 10 mph in some sections, and I have been mildly-hypothermic after long swims even in the heat of the summer. The board could be easily swept away if you swim without a quick-release leash.
Some sections are an ideal place for a paddleboarder to learn how to run swift water. Other sections are a true test to the experienced paddler. Linked together, the Lower Deschutes is nothing less than a perfect destination for a river SUP trip.
A railroad parallels much of this remote river, and freight trains rumble through frequently, though mostly at night. Maupin is the only town along the river, and it's the hub of commercial whitewater activity.
Most people on the Deschutes are in drift boats or rafts. They do day sections or multi-day trips, typically fewer than 50 miles. A paddleboard is the fastest vehicle on the river, with the exception of jet boats, which are allowed near the mouth of the river at certain times of the year. But the paddler can cover a lot of miles quickly. The thought of doing all 100 miles of river in a single push is unfathomable to most people, mainly because of the portage at Sherars Falls. But with a SUP and light gear, the portage is much easier than boats requiring vehicular support.
Be sure to get a boater’s pass. I spaced getting the $2 per day pass from www.boaterspass.com and was busted when I reached my takeout. I was fined $160, ouch!
View maps generated by Paul Clark’s Garmin 910xt.