Caring for the River

photo of a river winding through a landscape

It is not a secret that the John Day River is a special place. More and more people are discovering the river in search of solitude, connection, adventure, memories, and all the amazing opportunities our public lands can offer. A popular river does not necessarily mean an impacted river. Use limits were designed and implemented to help protect the Outstandingly Remarkable Values for which the John Day Wild and Scenic River was designated for. However, that is only one part of the solution.

Have you ever seen a pristine river camp in the Grand Canyon or on one of the classic floats in the West? Imagine how many people pass through that same camp every year. How is it so clean?

We can do the same thing on the John Day River. Each and every one of us can work together to keep the John Day pristine and beautiful for tomorrow and for future generations. Why? Because we care.

Safety Tips: Wildfire Along the Rivers

In the John Day River canyon, the combination of dry cheat grass, strong canyon winds, and steep terrain is a recipe for high fire danger, where one mistake can quickly erupt into a major wildfire. Due to high fire danger, campfires and charcoal fires are not permitted from June 1st to September 30 each year. An annual fire closure notice is issued each spring closing the river corridor to all fires and restricting smoking.

See the current Prineville Alerts/Notices as well as Boating Safety Tips.

What to do

  • To Report a Wildfire, call 9-1-1. If you see a wildfire start while you are floating the river, call 9-1-1 as soon as you get to an area with cell phone coverage. Do not try to fight the fire yourself.
  • If you float through a wildfire, follow all directions of emergency personnel.
  • If necessary, river rangers may shut down the river to recreation traffic. If this happens, keep your distance from operations, and stay away from helicopters dipping buckets or other overhead flights.
  • If you must stop, pull over on the opposite side of the river from a fire.
  • If possible, avoid walking through a burned area – even if the fire is out. There may still be rolling rocks and holes full of hot ashes left by burned stumps.

Plan Ahead! For Current Fire Restrictions call Prineville BLM at 541-416-6700.

You are our eyes on the river. Do you have information on a human-caused fire? Please contact a Law Enforcement Officer at the BLM!
Campfire Impacts

Prevent Wildfires - Obey Fire Restrictions

When a fire closure is in effect, all fires are prohibited including the use of charcoal and propane campfires. Propane and white gas stoves are allowed. Smoking is permitted only while in a boat, on the river, or inside your vehicle.

Protect Campsites from Fire Scars - Use a Firepan

Every season rangers clean up a large number of campfire rings. The result is a dotted landscape full of burn scars, garbage, and burnt glass. Not only is the use of firepans required when fires are allowed; fire pans keep camps and beaches pristine and prevent campfires from spreading into root systems and causing a wildfire.

A firepan is a metal tray with rigid sides at least two inches high. Oil drain pans, small barrels cut in half, and backyard barbecue grills make effective and inexpensive firepans. Commercially made firepans are available from river and horse packing equipment suppliers.

Elevate the firepan with flat rocks to avoid scorching sand or blackening the soil. Place the firepan close to the river and away from dry grass and other vegetation. Have a bucket of water nearby just in case.

Burn only local wood, charcoal, driftwood, or dead vegetation collected from the ground. Carry out all ash and charcoal. It is not legal to cut standing vegetation, either alive or dead. This includes Juniper branches! There are only so many shade trees on the river, let’s take care of them.

Keep a Clean Camp

Pack It In/Pack It Out

Pack out all litter and garbage including organics such as: pistachio shells, apple cores, orange peels, and crumbs. Consider using a kitchen tarp or sand blanket to catch scraps and empty the blanket into the garbage when packing up camp. Organic waste attracts bees and small critters, which can attract larger animals such as racoons and rattle snakes. Secure garbage at night and when camp is unoccupied. Having a bucket or hard sided container with a lid for garbage and securely packing away unattended food can help keep insects and critters out of camps.

Strain all dish/wastewater through a screen to remove food particles, and pack them out. Scatter strained wastewater over a wide area at least 200 feet from campsites and 200 feet from the river. Use soap sparingly and if used make sure its 200 feet from the river; even biodegradable varieties take a long time to break down.

Pack Out Waste

Pack out all solid human waste, dog waste, and toilet paper

In arid river canyons like the John Day, solid human waste decomposes very slowly. Current use levels along the river make burying human waste unsanitary and unacceptable. Toilet paper behind trees, under rocks, just outside camp, or even sometimes in camp is far too common. We can eliminate this issue by carrying and using a river toilet.

On overnight trips, all boating groups are required to carry and use a leak-proof, portable toilet system. The toilet must be large enough to service the entire party for the length of the trip. Carrying a toilet tent for shelter could help shy party members feel more comfortable, but it is not mandatory.

Only solid deposits and toilet paper go into reusable toilets. Feminine hygiene products and wipes will clog Scat Machines and dump stations. Set aside a bag for wipes and products by the toilet. Having ziplocks available for those using TP to urinate can prevent TP flowers.

Urinating in a reusable toilet can fill it up quickly, making it heavy. At flows above 500 cfs, Leave No Trace recommends urinating in the river. At flows below 500 cfs, urinate on the ground, at least 200 feet from camp and 200 feet away from the river. Pack out all TP.

Scat Machines are located in Maupin City Park and Heritage Landing on the Lower Deschutes River. A list of RV dump stations is available here and is posted at BLM launch site kiosks. Dump stations are not available at John Day River takeouts.

Pro tip: Add water to the toilet at the end of the trip, close the lid, and load it up on the trailer. The sloshing will agitate the mixture and allow for easier dumping at the dump station.

Wag Bags or similar human waste pouches designed for this purpose are allowed, but they must be transported in a leak-proof container. A bucket with a gamma seal lid is a good option. Dumpsters are available at Clarno and Cottonwood during High Season for Wag Bag disposal. Do not dispose of Wag Bags in a river toilet dump station or vault toilet. This creates problems we will not discuss on this website.

River Toilets

Many options exist for river toilets. Commercially manufactured re-usable toilets and Wag Bag systems are available online or at local canoe and kayak stores. An online search for river toilet will provide information about commercially manufactured toilets, home made toilets, and tips and tricks for the river.

Pro tips: It can be useful to carry an ammo can with essentials for your river toilet experience. Recommendations include:

  • disposable rubber gloves
  • 2lb. coffee can/lid for TP
  • extra roll TP in ziplock bag
  • ziplock bags for hygiene products, wipes and used rubber gloves
  • disinfectant spray
  • anti-bacterial wipes, hand sanitizer
  • many boaters also bring a toilet seat and magazines

Items to facilitate dumping (keep a box in car at the takeout):

  • Disposable rubber gloves
  • Anti-bacterial wipes, hand sanitizer
  • For RV dump station compatible toilets: dump hose and fittings

After dumping your bucket or toilet, add water and bleach, put the lid on tight, and let it slosh around on the drive home.