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The John Day “Experience”
An Oregon Whitewater Raft Review
By PaddleOn

Very few people ever feel something as mesmerizing as the “calm of the river.” Quietly drifting along, feeling a gentle warm breeze, and the sound of the water as it laps against the boat. You, a best friend, and a whole river to yourselves. This is exactly why I try to do the John Day River (based out of Oregon) each and every chance I get. I have been fortunate enough to use my companions boats to test their whitewater or fishing raft setups. Some minimalistic in nature while others are overloaded with every creature comfort to boot.
The analysis and comparison of the boats I’ll mention were so apparent, I couldn’t help but express red flags and thumbs up to other inflatable enthusiasts around the world. Now I understand this is just my opinion, but I have run the John Day River from Service Creek to Clarno and Clarno to Cottonwood many times (at different river flows) to know what makes or breaks it on the beautiful stretch of river. Now to see what stood up to the challenge.
The first raft that comes to mind was a 14ft PVC Vanguard (Yellow/Gray). It was my pleasure to use the spacious and extremely durable unit. It carried the weight of 2 boats comfortably with 21in tubes and was easily the fastest on the river, cruising down the sun-burn alley through the farmland above Clarno with a head wind. This boat was an absolute gem, gliding over rocks through the low points and bouncing off boulders you just can’t seem to see, without any concern. Between the double dry boxes, a large clamshell cargo net, and a cooler that keeps ice for up to 6 days it was an absolute joy for this river. The durability of the D-Rings was tested along with the side handles as we beached, tied off, and carried rafts multiple times in wind. Well built, rigid, and fairly priced this could be the future of rafting for multi-day trips.
Vanguard Pictured on John Day


The next boat ran was a 14ft NRS Otter (Blue) made from Pennel Orca material boasting a nifty custom frame offering ice cooler access under the rower seat, dry storage between the thwarts, and a detachable lifeguard rescue board as a bench seat in the front. This raft proved itself as a boat that does the job well. It is cooperative through unjalations of larger rapids (Class III, IV), enough to keep you out of trouble, handles weight well, and has easy accessible valves for pressure adjustment for the morning pump. It does get caught in the head wind quite a bit more with an aggressive angle front to back, but nothing a little rowing can't fix. Being as wide as it is the bonus storage is great and any passenger will feel comfortable throwing a line out even in semi fast water. The material cleaned off easily, the self bailing floor cleared of dirt with one little spray of water, and the color didn’t seem to take marks or scuff. I can see this boat being on any river, ferocious whitewater or lazy horseshoe bends, and still doing its job, time and time again, without frills.
NRS Pictured on John Day


Finally we come to the troubled child, or a good reminder that boats have come a long way in design. This old (Early 90’s model) Hyside (Blue/Yellow) has seen its fair share of the sun. At under 13ft this boat makes you aware that size does indeed matter on a multiday trip. The lack of space, even with a single 6ft tube frame, made cargo cumbersome to load or retrieve on the river everyday, causing fishing to be less of a joy. This boat anchor of a raft may have stood the test of time, but caused it to drag in the water a lot. With the daily flux in pressure from the temperature of the day I became aware that the inflatable was a ticking time bomb as I heard the military valves squeal. At camp a D-ring was strapped on the beach but a light wind caused delamination, luckily the boat wasn't taken by the river. The Hyside or as we like to call it the “Chum Bucket” didn't stand a chance in a head wind while rowing and I can officially say I was pushed up river, there was no sail on this raft. No amount of rowing was going to address this issue, causing a forced campsite and an early dawn to scoot down the river to beat the named enemy of the trip, the wind. Maneuvering came as a challenge for this brick. Even class III rapids, and Clarno, what seems like a low level IV was intimidating because the river dragged this boat to whichever direction it felt, eddies included. With the constant problems piling up it was top off with a floor beam delamination during a rapid, I couldn't wait to escape this boat for land and load it on the trailer. The owner stated “it was a real good deal” but I think for the headache of future trips it's not worth the time. The local whitewater outfitters' gear boat will give you a wave with a smirk as they float on by carrying the cargo of 10 people, is a laugh in itself. In this raft you’ll have to store your gear and food in a friend's boat because 2 dry bags is probably to heavy, and that's without a drybox. Unfortunately, the raft will still be dragging in the water leading you to hit every rock along the way. A constant reminder that this could be the old Hysides last day, just isn’t worth it to me. Yes it may have been durable for 30 years, but is it enjoyable now? Does it add to the overall John Day Experience, I’d say no. Stick to day runs with 5 paddlers with this inflatable.
Hyside Pictured on John Day

Review Sheet (Scale 1-3, 3 Being Best)
LengthWidth Inner/OuterMaterialTube SizeRaft WeightCostDurabilityManeuverabilityCargo WeightWindy DaysOverall Multiday
Vanguard14ft 2in39in/6ft 8inPVC21in144lbs$3,395Rank 3Rank 3Rank 3Rank 3Rank 3
NRS14ft45in/7ftPennel Orca20in126lbs$4,595Rank 3Rank 2Rank 3Rank 2Rank 2
Hyside12ft 10in36in/6ft 10inHypalon19in135-150lbs ishA Real Good DealRank 2Rank 1Rank 1Rank 1Rank 1
 

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I have a friend who guided for nearly 20 years on the Grand. Given the choice of any raft it's the Vanguard 14'2"... Best price, great performance in white water, and fastest in the wind. Plus the 3600 denier full wrap floor will glide over most anything.
 

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[QUO
“Clarno is 5 miles from the put-in and rates class III/IV” cited from American Whitewater
I think Coop is playing on the notion that a "class IV" rating given to many rapids is a poor representation of actual class IV water. Blossom Bar, Oak Springs, Clarno, Hells Half Mile and Warm Springs come to mind. Being a wiz in these "class IV" rapids does not imply you are ready for class IV rivers like Owyhee, Jarbidge, Selway or Illinois.

We had one of these guys on a Cataract trip once, touting his "class IV" experience on class III river. He flipped early, swam long and didn't say much after that. Good times.
 

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[QUO

I think Coop is playing on the notion that a "class IV" rating given to many rapids is a poor representation of actual class IV water. Blossom Bar, Oak Springs, Clarno, Hells Half Mile and Warm Springs come to mind. Being a wiz in these "class IV" rapids does not imply you are ready for class IV rivers like Owyhee, Jarbidge, Selway or Illinois.

We had one of these guys on a Cataract trip once, touting his "class IV" experience on class III river. He flipped early, swam long and didn't say much after that. Good times.
Sounds like he was “that guy” on the trip. Haha I agree with Coop too, nothing surprising on the John Day, except for the exceptional bass fishing and scenery!
 

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Sounds like he was “that guy” on the trip. Haha I agree with Coop too, nothing surprising on the John Day, except for the exceptional bass fishing and scenery!
He was totally "that guy". That trip was interesting because nobody in the party had experience with Cataract. What we did have was a thick book which we read around camp the night before. A portion detailed the nature of the rapids, not from a boater's perspective, but in the form of natural history. It included matter of fact statements like "a water feature known as Little Niagara produces a wave that falls back on itself from a height of 22 vertical feet" and "a pool between rapids 22 and 23 was measured over 90 feet deep". Statements like these strike fear into any boater who has awareness of their place in the universe.

The more we read, the more camp got silent. We had a jet boat coming in the morning to take half our party up to Moab. The other half was to run Cataract and take out at Lake Powell. Some who declined the jet boat were second guessing their decision but not Mr. "that guy". Noooo, in the weight of the moment as everybody is pondering their soon demise, he sits back in his chair, puts his hands behind his head and says....

"I'm not worried. I've run Whitehorse and Boxcar. I've run Oak Springs. I'm not going to flip." He was dead serious. 12 hours later, he discovered the difference between a 5k family run and 33k of the West's most raucous whitewater.
 

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I think Coop is playing on the notion that a "class IV" rating given to many rapids is a poor representation of actual class IV water. Blossom Bar, Oak Springs, Clarno, Hells Half Mile and Warm Springs come to mind. Being a wiz in these "class IV" rapids does not imply you are ready for class IV rivers like Owyhee, Jarbidge, Selway or Illinois.
I will say all this with a grain of salt and while knocking on wood, as now I will probably flip on my next class III trip. I think on a lot of rivers where there are only 1 or 2 features that deserve respect, rapids are rated higher than they actually are, or when rated III/IV, the IV is for either extremely low or high water. I get mildly annoyed at videos that are like "Class IV Whitehorse rapid run" when it's a 4-6k flow and a wave train with an entrance move. I think Whitehorse is sometimes listed as a IV because if you don't make the move at lower water, or if running a hard boat, you can get pretty boned in terms of equipment entrapment. A lot of folks on youtube/forums will just say that they ran the highest rated class for a given rapid. American whitewater list that section of the John Day (Clarno to Cottonwood) as class II/III and that seems more accurate to me.

In terms of a review, I don't think mentioning a boat going through a class IV rapid with ease is really helpful in this context. The John Day is a great river, but I feel like it doesn't really provide a test of how a boat performs in rapids.

Just from the pictures it looks like the Vanguard has a really high center of gravity with the seat position of the rower and that massive tall cooler. I wouldn't want to take that set up through any sort of rapids like you would find on Hell's Canyon, Rouge, or even the Salmon as I imagine it would flip or spit out the rower fairly easily if you got a bit sideways on a lateral. All of those rivers I would say fit in "III/IV" water at normal flows.

I was being a bit snarky, and appologies for that, but if you are trying to give an accurate review with useful information I think your review could mislead people who haven't been down the John Day into thinking its a river with "class III/IV" rapids, which isn't the case.
 

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Clarno at flood stage....scouted, saw big hole on left, threw up, got back on cat, ran clean, screamed and yelled that we had lived....this was when we were nubies, running the entire 118 miles by ourselves, so Clarno SEEMED huge, at the existing water level, in total isolation, not seeing anyone on the river for a week
 
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