As part of a fantastic Golfing Vacation in Bend we signed up for a white water rafting trip down the Deschutes River with Sun Country Tours. Sun Country Tours offers several options for rafting, tubing, or paddleboarding and we signed up for their "Big Eddy Thriller" which is a 3 mile white water rafting trip down an "energetic" section of the Deschutes River just a few miles from downtown Bend.
The Deschutes River, which is French for waterfall, begins as a small creek trickling south out of Little Lava Lake in the Cascade Mountains and ends some 250 miles north, dropping over 4,500 feet before it empties in to the Columbia River. One of the most distinguished, splendid rivers of the west, the Deschutes River is often referred to as the lifeblood of Central Oregon. The River is used for water storage, irrigation, and recreation. In fact, the Deschutes flows through downtown Bend and it's very popular for tubing, standup paddleboarding, and kayaking. And sections of the Deschutes are outstanding for white water rafting.
We have white water rafted in Colorado, Texas, and Costa Rica (see our White Water Rafting page) and each time when I see the videos at the outfitter's office, listen to the guides instructions, and squeeze into a wet suit or a life jacket, I get a little nervous. And even more concerned when they say "you're going to get wet so you might want a suitable jacket." After hearing that I always want to ask the guide "how wet is wet?, will I fall in?, how many people didn't make it back from your last trip?" but I'm always too embarrassed to show my fear!
As we were waiting for the rest of our rafting group to arrive, I said hi to three guys sitting around a table in the waiting room at Sun Country Tours and I ask "are your ready for some fun" and to a tee they all chimed in with "not so sure after looking at the videos - we've never been on a white water rafting trip and we're a tad nervous. We're from Dallas!" Small world - I told them I'm from Austin and not to worry - but I'm not sure they believed me as they observed my knees shaking!
We all jumped into the Sun Country Tours shuttle bus, took a short drive up a bumpy dirt road that led us through the forest. The bus driver stopped and said we're here - but I didn't see or more importantly hear the rushing rapids. The terrain was relatively flat - another good sign. We all took a two minute hike down a dirt trail and low-and-behold there was a calm beautiful section of the Deschutes and three rafts waiting for us!
We broke into three groups and we were paired with a nice young couple from California. Our guide was Laura. Now I'm no chauvinist but I'm not sure that I want to raft rapids with a good looking women guide - all of our other guides we've rafted with have been big strong muscular men who were strong enough to use their hands to paddle us out of trouble and they could easily lift me back into the boat. I mean look at her picture on the right - she's cute and fit and experienced but how strong can she be? Turns out Laura was fantastic - very experienced (she was a guide in Columbia on one of their raging white water rivers for awhile); very knowledgeable about the river, the lava flows, and some Bend history; and she appeared very fit - she's hiked to the top of most of the peaks around Bend, is an avid biker, and a true outdoor enthusiast! I wanted to ask her if she has ever pulled someone as heavy as me back into the boat, but I guess I'll just have to trust that she has.
We piled in the boats and Laura gave us our instructions on where to sit, how to paddle, and the worst - what to do if I fell out! Now I'm really nervous as I'm sure all I'll remember is the what not to do - don't stand up, don't panic, don't go under the boat, don't float down the river backwards, etc. But then I looked around and the water is perfectly calm and flat without a ripple and I didn't hear the roar of any rapids - and it's a bright sunny day! This is going to be safe and fun! Laura had us practice our paddling skills and I must admit we looked and paddled like a Harvard Rowing team - Laura would yell "left paddle, right paddle, hard paddle, and stop" and we were well synchronized. As she compliments us we would give ourselves a paddle high five. I'm going to survive this!
So we set off drifting and paddling down the Deschutes with two other rafts one of which was full of a lively group of 7 guys on a business trip to Bend. We got some interesting information from Laura (the water temperature this time of year is around 59, the depth in the calm section is around 15 feet, the name of her favorite restaurant, the fishing is pretty good, the black rock you see is from a lava flow which has diverted the river and created the falls, the best brewpub is Deschutes, etc.). She also said that the river was flowing about 1600 cubic feet per second and at 2000 CFS it's too dangerous to raft! A quick calculation told me we were about 20% away from the highest danger level - makes me a little nervous but I'm fine with that margin of error as long as the dam master doesn't release more water or we don't have a big rain storm (no clouds in the sky) or get a sudden warm spell (it's only 75 now) that melts the rest of the snow in the mountains.
My finely tuned ears could hear some approaching rapids and when Laura ask if anyone would like to ride on the front of the raft (like riding a wild bull like the guy in the right picture below) through the rapids, I was pleased when my fellow rafter answered before I had a chance to say no thanks! As we approached a stretch of Class I rapids he looked a little apprehensive but the 3 us all said at once - "go for it." Aren't we the brave ones! He ran the stretch of rapids sitting on the bow of the raft and he aced it! No pictures because I was paddling too hard to keep heading straight and trying to avoid the boulders and of course my hands were probably shaking!
After that stretch of rapids we gave ourselves another paddle high five and drifted down another stretch of calm water. Then I hear the roar of rapids - I think we're coming to the Big Eddy! I got a little nervous when the lead raft pulled up on shore and we followed suit -Laura said we need to scope out the rapids and she needed to plan her route through them based on the water flow. Oh No! So we took a walk to the head waters of the rapids and the knees started shaking like a leaf when I saw the rapids - are we really going down that!
As we were about to get back in the raft Laura ask "are you ready? Don't forget to paddle and paddle hard! And back row needs to repeat my commands so the front row can hear them over the roar of the rapids!" I reluctantly got aboard (what are my other options - I can't walk home!), kissed my wife, and said I loved her and told her where to find my insurance policy. Why didn't she look scared! Off we went - and what a blast, we were yelling and screaming (whoopee!) and having fun as we power paddled down river, off and around rocks, and into some big dips and falls that got us all soaked. What a fun ride down a series of rapids followed by some stretches of calm water.
There are some official names for the rapids on this stretch of the Deschutes River, but the guides have also named the rapids, some of which include: Big Fluffy, Kenmore (like the washing machine), the Notch, the Souse Hole, Three Stooges, Old Stogie, and Roller Coaster.
All too soon we arrived at the take out point and macho me was ready to do it again! We thanked Laura and jumped on the bus for the 10 minute ride back to Sun Country Tours. By the way, the guys from Dallas loved it!
Sun Country Tours is a well polished and efficient machine and they have grown from a small garage operation to the largest and most respected river outfitters in the Northwest 37 years later. And it's not surprising that they are a Hall of Fame Award Winner on TripAdvisor.They have a fleet of 30 boats and on their busiest days they run approximately 500 people down the river on the 4 river stretches they run. In addition to the Big Eddy Thriller some of the other tours include:
Our trip was perfect - the guide was outstanding (fun, knowledgeable, and very experienced), the office staff was efficient as was the put-in and take-out crew, and the trip was fun and well worth the price. By the way, all of that stuff about being scared is make believe (I'm really a brave, strong, macho man) and to make the article a little more interesting - believe it or not! The trip was safe for kids from 6 years old to 106, the guides are all trained in CPR and first aid, it's not strenuous or constant paddling, and Sun Country Tours has been operating on the rivers since 1978. One of the things I really liked about this trip was that it was painless and the total trip time was perfect (about 2 and half hours door to door) - a 10 minute ride on the bus and back, no carrying heavy rafts, no waiting for unloading or loading of the rafts, no long extended paddling, a one minute walk down to the river and no walk back to the bus at the end of the trip. Hard to beat all that!
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