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  • Writer's pictureScott Nechemias

Columbia Plateau Route Thru Day 1: Lower John Day Wilderness Study Area

In a straight north south line the LJD extends 15 miles, though of course traversing it cannot be done in anything approximating a straight line as that area encompasses ten named canyons and 2 named basins on the east side of the river, and countless significant drainages. Further adding to the difficulty of travel is the lack of many significant wide benches and public land outside of the drainages on the canyon rim. When flat straight ahead walking is to be had it is on the banks, brief sections of travel seemingly incongruous with the overall difficulty of traversing the LJD. Sidehilling and steep climbs await anyone seeking to travel the LJD overland.

Leaving Highway 206 and walking the plateau towards the river, I descended towards the mouth of Devil’s Canyon, and the character of the LJD is on full display right from the start.

Immediately following the 1500 foot drop to the river, I climbed up 1200 feet to contour around to Owen’s Basin, and dropped into the basin via a jeep road.

Where Ferry Canyon meets the John Day there is denser vegetation, and I pushed through that to reach the cliff wall at the Gooseneck. There is loose rock and scree underneath the cliffs, generally a couple steep contour lines wide. Below it is a narrow strip of choked up shoreline. Despite the ankle rolling, uneven rock nature of the route below the cliff walls, it’s definitely the easier path. The steep cliffs on the east side of the Gooseneck offer an opportunity to get an up close view of cliff swallow nests.

Rounding the Gooseneck it was time to climb once again, this time around 1400 feet. Leaving the Gooseneck there is a broad level beach with a few pretty juniper trees, but I know from experience as it rounds towards Indian Cove a sheer rock face, which cannot be climbed around, plummets straight into the river. On a fall scouting trip I had simply waded along through this section of the river, but in spring the water here is deep, cold, and swift.

Descending to the river on a typically mixed rock steep grade for my evening camp I kept hearing a skittering of rocks to my right. Peering over the side of this hill was this guy, and his friends pictured above:

I hung out for a bit to watch them climb around towards Piano Box Canyon, definitely jealous of their speed, agility, and stamina. Continuing the descent I made camp on the river on a gray evening. Though tired it was a fitful sleep, thoughts of the coming week of hiking restlessly stirring my slumber.

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