Wednesday night I got a text from my friend Dan Ransom “Hey we are paddling the North Fork of the John Day, putting in Friday at noon, can you make it?” With only 1 day to prepare for 3 day trip, would I be able to pack in time and drive 4 hours to the put in? Can I sneak out of work for a day? I slept on it and woke up Thursday morning and wrote back “Let’s do this!” We texted back and forth a few more times really quick. “It’s a class 3 run” “We have a shuttle set, so just meet us out there” and “we are all doing our own thing for meals so you’re on your own”. It was very little detail but I trusted Dan that it would be awesome. The best detail of all was Dan promised there would be Northern Lights on the trip too. I was really surprised because I thought you could only see it in places like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, etc.

I started packing up my gear Thursday after work. I ran to the grocery store to grab some food and snacks. Then headed out East towards the John Day River and camped out in my truck at the take out. I woke up and worked for a few hours until Dan, his wife Lindsay, their pup Stan and their friend Ben and showed up. I hopped in his truck and we headed to the put in.

Lindsay and Ben were both rowing big rafts and Dan and I were in our packrafts. I was in my new Rodeo packraft and I was really excited to see how it paddled on a long trip fully loaded with gear in the TiZip.  We got everything packed and rigged up and launched at around 1 in the afternoon. We had great flows and the river was really moving. The first day had 4 class 3 rapids. All of them were super fun and very straightforward read and run rapids. There was always an option to run a spicier line or sneak around the bigger holes and waves.


We got to camp at around 4:30 and set up our tents and camp kitchen. I forgot a chair but luckily Ben’s cooler was light enough to pick take out of his raft so I could use it as a seat while we hung out and ate dinner.

As the sun set we kept looking north for any signs of the northern lights, but the moon was out and it was hard to tell. Dan swore it was starting to go but none of us believed him. We stayed up til about 10 pm and we saw a few little glimpses of green but we decided to go to sleep because it wasn’t happening.  Then at 11 pm Ben yells “Guys wake up it’s going off!” So we scrambled out of our tents to one of the coolest sites I’ve ever seen in my life.


Watching the aurora borealis was so wild. First it started off very faint and grey. The streaks across the sky almost looked like an approaching rain storm. But then after about 15 minutes the colors started really showing up of vibrant pinks and greens.


The most unique thing about this solar event was that almost the entire sky had some features but the most prominent was directly above us and it wasn’t just limited to the northern horizon.


We stayed up for hours watching the colors dance across the sky. Until they finally faded out at around 1 in the morning.


The next morning we slept in a little bit but it’s always tough when the sun hits your tent at 5:30 in the morning. There was a lot of condensation in our tents so we used our throw ropes as clothes lines to let everything dry out before we packed it away for the day.


The second day on the water was mellower with a few class 2 rapids. But there was current the whole time so we never had to paddle any long flat slow sections.


We checked the map and scouted a few camp sites but decided to push on a little longer. We found a good spot on river right and decided to call it home for the night. We unloaded the boats and set up our tents and again waited for round 2 of the northern lights.


The second night started off really strong and earlier. We started seeing it at around 9:30 and got so excited that it was going to be better than last night. But sadly after about 30 minutes it slowly faded away to a normal night sky.


The next morning we got up around 8 and started making coffee and chatting about what mulitday river trips we wanted to do next. We packed up and launched at 9:30. We only had to do about 8 miles and with the fast flows it only took 2 hours til we got to the take out. We broke down the boats, packed everything up, and then headed home. 


The North Fork of the John Day is a great short multi day trip. I’d really recommend it to anyone who wants a mellow whitewater trip or as a first multi day packrafting trip. Another bonus is that it isn’t permitted like some of the other big rivers that require a lottery or reservations. Just simply show up and fill out a simple self issue permit at the put in. The river has great scenery and lots of camping. It’s definitely worth putting in the list!

May 13, 2024 — Tristan Burnham