Guide to floating the Deschutes River in the summer
During your Bend summer vacation, one of the first questions that doesn't involve beer tasting will be, “Have you floated the river yet?”
While that may conjure up images of white-water rafting and furious paddling, it's not what your new brewery friend is asking about. Wander through Drake Park or the Old Mill District any day of the week, and somebody’s on the river in a canoe or a stand-up paddle-board. But on the great days of summer, you'll see what your brewery friend was talking about- hundreds of people on any device that won’t sink, floating the river.
It seems as easy as dropping an air mattress or an inner tube in the water and letting the current take you where it will. It isn't much more involved than that, but there are a few very important notes.
The first is before you get close to the water- the requirement that any floater under the age of 12 has to wear a life vest and that every floater must have a life jacket with them. Does the Deschutes at this point have heavy rapids? No. Is it very deep? No. But you and I both know that tragic, extremely avoidable things have happened in water shallower and calmer than this. (We'll get to where you can get a vest in just a minute.)
The second is equally as important. About halfway through the floating area of the Deschutes, there's a place where you have to get out. You can't float through it. At least once a year people who aren't paying attention get sucked in through the spillway, and if they're lucky, they live to tell the tale. And every time somebody goes through the spillway, some people want floating on the river banned. You'll know when you get to the area... it's where everyone gets out. (And it’s also where they’re doing construction to, yes, allow everyone to float through without getting out. But that won’t be done this summer.)
Third, alcohol is not allowed on the river. This is a rule just not worth breaking. The people who don't want floaters continually look for reasons to have them banned and illegal alcohol consumption is reason 1-A.
Preparing for the river, I never go barefoot because there are plenty of areas where that just isn't a good idea. Neither are flip-flops, because you'll lose them in about five seconds. Wear those strap-on sandals everyone lives in all summer, or an old pair of tennis shoes. Sunscreen is also awfully important. Not only are you getting bombarded by the sun from above, you're also getting the reflection coming right back from the water. I have gotten sunburns in curious areas because I forgot this.
If you flew in, then buying an inner-tube or air mattress is probably not the best idea. If you brought a raft, canoe, or small boat, that’s perfect for this area of the river. There are several places around where you can rent something, or simply rent a mattress right where most people get in the water- and get life vests at the same time. (Here's some great info about renting float tubs and more from Sun Country Tours)
Riverbend Park (just south of the Old Mill District and Les Schwab Amphitheater) is the big “get in the water location” and over the past couple of years it's turned into an all-you-can-float area. Sun Country Tours provides free life-jackets for kids under 12 from Memorial Day to Labor Day, no other rental required, and they give those above that age a complimentary life-jacket when they rent a device.
Riverbend Park isn't the only place you can get in- there are plenty of other designated spots around the area, especially across the river at Farewell Bend Park. If you've walked the Deschutes River Trail, you'll see the rapids up above and think that you can get in there, but that’s also a big no-no.
The main reason so many put in at Riverbend Park is because that's where the shuttle bus goes! It might be the most brilliant floating the river innovation other than floating the river. Sun Country and Cascade East Transit operate shuttle busses from June through Labor Day that will take you right back to Riverbend Park. It's a buck and a half per person with plenty of space for air mattresses. (Cascade East Transit runs every day, Sun Country goes Thursday through Sunday.)
Once on the water, you're first going to notice that everyone floats at a different speed. To prevent losing touch, some people loop a piece of rope between their rafts to keep together, others just hang on to the biggest raft of the bunch. You could also split up the big group at the very start, and each kid floats with a designated adult. So if Junior wants to take it slow and Jane wants to speed it up, you’re taken care of, and there are no tantrums (at least about that).
That taken care of, just kick back and relax. Enjoy teenagers water-fighting, and see people dining on restaurant patios and wishing they were where you were. But once past the Old Mill stores on the right and the Les Schwab Amphitheater on the left, it's time to start paying attention to where you and the rest of your fellow floaters are- because it's time to start thinking about getting out.
The Colorado Street Spillway is the place I mentioned earlier you can't go through. Getting out on the right is not recommended, because if you try to get to the right too late you'll get caught in the current and… well, that would be bad. The signs on the buoys will remind you that the left is the best place to be, so just hang out there with everyone else. (Walking in the mud, you'll be glad you heeded my advice and wore something besides flip-flops). Head down and around to McKay Park (although if you're tired or what have you, the shuttle busses make stops here, too. So if you want a shorter ride you could even start there).
Because a whole bunch of people get out of the water at the same time, getting in at McKay turns into a freeway on-ramp. But this isn't a freeway on-ramp, it's a river. So get in where you want to. Heck, get in when you want to. Lie on the grass and enjoy the moment. Be glad the park across the river didn't get turned into condos. And when it’s finally time, the water is so shallow you can even grab a little river space by just walking out a couple of extra yards before getting back on.
If you haven't yet said “man, I wish I lived here” on your trip to Bend, there's a good chance it’ll happen soon. For here you will float past houses that border the river. Of course, all are owned by people who enjoy living by the river. Some are musicians, and will gather friends to play on their dock, just for the floaters. Others will just barbeque and wave. Either way, you will understand why the houses on the river go for about a million bucks each. Also on this section, there's a footbridge where it says “no jumping,” so inevitably the kids do. Plenty don't look before they leap, so it's more than a good idea to float on the right or the left side of the river by the bridge.
Once through the neighborhood, you're in Drake Park, and here is the most unfortunate part of the journey- the end. Most people get out just after going under the Galveston Bridge because that's the shuttle pickup point. And really, the last spot to get out if you’re parked at Riverbend Park is just after the next footbridge, at Harmon Park.
Back to Riverbend Park, there’s a decision to make. Sure, you could dry off and enjoy the rest of your day (the shuttles run till 7 pm) somewhere else. Or, get right back in and repeat. You are on vacation, after all. Then, when your next brewery friend asks if you've floated the river, you can say “Absolutely. It floated so nice; we did it twice.” And make plans to float it again the next day.
As always, check our hot deal dates for hotel and lodging discounts to our Bend Oregon hotel!
Contributed by Alex Drude. Alex will be putting his own advice to use a lot this summer. He does other writing on his mostly sports blog, www.sporadicsentinel.com, and co-hosts Central Oregon Sports Talk on KPOV, 88.9 FM, Thursday afternoons at 5:05.