Caring for the River

photo of a river winding through a landscape

An increase in boating activity along the John Day River means an increase in the signs of human presence: more fire rings on the beaches, more piles of toilet paper behind the trees, more bits of trash around the camp, etc. The greater the number of people, the more each person's actions affect the condition of the land and the quality of the experience for all.

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.

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

Fire Danger

Safety Tips: Wildfire Along the Rivers

Some of the qualities that make for good rafting, create potential hazards when boaters encounter a wildfire. Steep canyons make cell phones unusable, and limited access makes it difficult to let rafters know a wildfire has started in the area. The following tips can help improve your safety and enjoyment of your trip.

Always check with local agencies to find out what fire restrictions are in place. Remember: A few seconds of carelessness can ruin a fun day on the river.

What to do

  • To Report a Wildfire, call 9-1-1. If you see a wildfire start while you’re floating the river, call 9-1-1 as soon as you get to an area with cell phone coverage. Do not attempt 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, observe firefighter operations from a distance. Stay away from helicopters dipping buckets or other overhead flights.
  • Watch out for other boats and rafts that may be watching the fire and not you. If you have to 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!

Leave No Trace

By practicing a few simple Leave No Trace camping techniques, the signs of human pressure on the river canyon can be greatly reduced. Please help protect the river you know and love by following Leave No Trace techniques for river corridors.

To protect canyon resources and enhance visitor enjoyment, BLM requires the following of all overnight boating parties on the John Day River:

  • The use of a firepan to contain campfires; with all campfire residue carried out of the canyon
  • The use of a portable toilet or human waste disposal bags to remove all solid human waste from the river canyon

Prevent Wildfires - Obey Fire Restrictions

When a fire closure is in effect, all fires are prohibited including the use of charcoal. Propane and white gas are permitted. Portable propane campfires are not allowed. Smoking is permitted only while in a boat on the river or inside your vehicle.

Protect Campsites from Fire Scars - Use a Firepan

Firepans eliminate unsightly campfire rings and their trash and protect the natural environment. When campfires are allowed, use of a metal firepan is required, so that no trace of your fire remains.

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. Firepans are also available from river and horsepacking equipment suppliers. Elevate the firepan with flat rocks to avoid scorching sand or blackening the soil. Locate the firepan close to the river and away from dry grasses and other vegetation.

Burn only wood from home, charcoal, driftwood, or dead vegetation that is collected from the ground. Do not cut standing vegetation, either alive or dead. Carry out all ash and charcoal remains. Burn your fire down to white ash, let it cool completely, and pack out all of the ash with your trash.

Keep a Clean Camp - Pack It In/Pack It Out

Pack out all litter and garbage. Remove food scraps from the kitchen area to avoid attracting ants, flies, and rodents. Pack out all litter and garbage including pistachio shells, apple cores, and cigarette butts. Do not bury trash as animals will dig it up. Strain all dish/waste water through a screen to remove food particles, and pack them out. Scatter strained waste water over a wide area, at least 200 ft. from campsites and 200 ft. from the river. Soap should be used sparingly; even biodegradable varieties take a long time to break down.

Preserve Campsite Quality - Carry Out Human Waste

In arid river canyons like the John Day, solid human waste decomposes very slowly. A river campsite can be transformed into a large "cat box" overnight by just one party utilizing the "cat hole" method of disposal. Imagine how many people use the same campsite in one season, night after night. Current use levels make it unacceptable to leave human waste within the river canyon.

On overnight trips, all boating groups are required to carry and use a leak-proof, portable, reusable toilet system to remove solid human waste from the river canyon. The toilet must be large enough to service the entire party for the complete length of the trip. Toilets using plastic bags are not acceptable, with the exception of the Wag Bag or similar human waste pouches designed for this purpose, which are permitted. Used Wag Bags must be transported in a leak-proof container. Dumpsters are available at Clarno and Cottonwood for Wag Bag disposal. Please do not put Wag Bags in the toilets. 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. Disposing of Wag Bags in a river toilet dump station or vault toilet is prohibited.

At flows above 500 cfs, Leave No Trace recommends urinating in the river (the solution is dilution). At flows below 500 cfs, urinate on the ground, away from camp, in an area that remains shaded from the sun.

Portable Toilets

A river toilet should be leak-proof, portable, and reusable. In case of a boating mishap, it must be able to bang against rocks in the river without leaking. It should be large enough to accommodate the entire party for the complete length of the trip (think use-days: number of people x number of days on the river). Plastic bags should not be used, except Wag Bags, Cleanwaste, Restop2, and similar human waste disposal pouches designed specifically for this purpose.

Low Cost Options

  • Standard 5 gallon paint bucket and a Gamma Seal lid ($10-20) - This combination makes a low tech toilet, with a good seal, that holds about 40 use days. The Gamma Seal lid is a double gasket system, with a ring that snaps securely onto a standard 5 gallon paint bucket, and a lid that unscrews for use. It passes the leak test - shaking a full toilet over your head with no leakage.
  • Wag Bags, Cleanwaste, Restop2, and similar waste disposal pouches ($3-5 per pouch, up to 3-4 uses each) - These bags contain a special "poo powder" (like a baby diaper) that decompose waste and allow disposal in a landfill. Used Wag Bags must be transported in a leak-proof container until they are disposed of in a trash receptacle.
    • Where to Dump? Clarno and Cottonwood take-outs have dumpsters for disposing of used Wag Bags. EPA regulations prohibit dumping solid human waste into garbage receptacles and landfills, unless it is contained in a Wag Bag or similar waste disposal pouch.
    • Attention Wag Bag Users: Please do not dump Wag Bags into a river toilet dump station or vault toilet, as these bags cannot be pumped out by our pumping service and must be pulled out one-by-one, at great taxpayer expense.
  • Combination of bucket and bag - For easy clean-up and a sturdy seat, some boaters choose to use a Wag Bag or similar human waste pouch inside a Gamma Seal bucket, transporting the used pouches in the bottom of the sealed bucket.
  • Build your own kayak toilet system - Uses common PVC plumbing parts available at an RV supply store.

Dump Station Compatible Models

  • Eco-safe, River Bank, etc. ($100 and up) - Comfortable toilets that dispose of waste directly into an RV dump station or sewer line.
  • Wag Bags, Cleanwaste, Restop2, and similar waste disposal pouches ($3-5 per pouch, up to 3-4 uses each) - These bags contain a special "poo powder" (like a baby diaper) that decompose waste and allow disposal in a landfill. Used Wag Bags must be transported in a leak-proof container until they are disposed of in a trash receptacle.
    • Where to Dump? A list of RV dump stations is available here and is posted at BLM launch site kiosks.

Where to Buy a Toilet

  • Standard 5 Gallon Buckets (Note: Only the sturdy old-style buckets fit a Gamma Seal lid - the new cheap-style buckets don't fit a Gamma Seal lid and are too flimsy to sit on.)
    • Andy & Bax - Portland - 503-234-7538
    • Big R, Ace Hardware, and Home Depot (color is Home Depot orange)
  • Gamma Seal Lids
    • Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe - Bend - 541-317-9407
    • Andy & Bax - Portland - 503-234-7538
    • Online from www.sportsmansguide.com, and from many pet stores
  • Wag Bags, Cleanwaste Bags, and similar human waste pouches
    • Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe - Bend - 541-317-9407
    • Andy & Bax - Portland - 503-234-7538
    • Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe - Portland - 503-285-0464
    • REI, Cabela's, and online at river supply outfitters
  • RV Dump Station Compatible Models
    • Local and mail-order river supply outfitters such as Cascade Outfitters, NRS, and Wyoming River Raiders

Happy Toilets – How to use a toilet system

Before using any bucket or RV compatible system, spray waste storage area with cooking spray to help remove the waste more easily. Add two inches of water to the container. A splash of pine sol can be added to control odor.

To avoid extra weight and volume, urinating in the container is not recommended, unless capacity allows. At flows above 500 cfs, Leave No Trace recommends urinating in the river (the solution is dilution). At flows below 500 cfs, urinate on the ground, away from camp, in an area that remains shaded from the sun.

The only thing that should go into the toilet is solid deposits and toilet paper. No feminine hygiene products, wipes, or cardboard roll from the center of the toilet paper. Such items are trash and should go into a ziplock bag to be hauled out with your garbage.

Toilet supplies for use on the river (stored in an ammo can or other waterproof container):

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

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, a short piece of hose with a female end

Bucket Cleaning Tip: After dumping your bucket or toilet, add some leftover drinking water and bleach from your river kitchen, put the lid on tight, and let it slosh around on your drive home.