How to float the Deschutes River

June 3, 2017
How to float the Deschutes River

Navigate the Deschutes safely in Bend and beyond 

As temperatures soar and summer beckons, river floating season has descended on Bend once again.

On hot summer days, the Deschutes River will be packed with all manner of inner tubes, air mattresses and paddleboards as residents and visitors ply the cool water from the Old Mill District to Drake Park.

While this calm stretch of the river through Bend is relatively safe — especially since the reconstruction in 2015 of the Colorado Avenue dam and spillway and the creation of the floaters’ passageway through the Bend Whitewater Park — there are precautions floaters should take to ensure a fun and safe experience.

Are life jackets required?

The park district suggests life jackets for all river users, but they are not required. Current state law requires children 12 and under wear a life jacket and adults carry one in all boats, but they are not required on common river-floating craft such as inner tubes, air mattresses, pool toys and surfboards. Sun Country Tours lends life jackets for free at River Bend Park.

A bill that would have mandated the use of life jackets for river floaters was introduced in the state Legislature earlier this year but failed to make it out of committee and will not become law this year.

Is the ‘safe passage’ safe?

That depends. It’s certainly safer than the Colorado Avenue dam that was removed when the Bend Whitewater Park was built, but several people were dumped from their floats and suffered scrapes and other minor injuries during the park’s first year of operations.

The park district now uses the term “passageway channel” to describe the series of short drops on the left side of the river at Colorado Avenue. Floaters considering their first trip through the channel are advised to get out just above the Colorado Avenue Bridge and inspect it before proceeding. Floaters should try to keep their feet downstream and their tube or other flotation device in the middle of the channel.

Where should I start and get out? Where do I park?

Most floaters start at Riverbend Park, located off Columbia Avenue in the Old Mill District.

The best places to exit the water are at the Bend Whitewater Park or at Drake Park. At the Whitewater Park, floaters can exit either on the portage trail just above Colorado Avenue, or at the end of the passageway channel, both on the left side of the river.

Floaters who continue to Drake Park have the easiest time getting out of the water at the small beach just downstream of the Galveston Avenue Bridge, on the right side of the river.

Although parking is abundant at Riverbend Park, it can be tight at the two exit locations. From June 15 through Sept. 5, Cascades East Transit plans to offer a river shuttle for $3 a day that can carry you and your float device back upstream.

How long does it take?

Water and wind conditions dictate how long it will take to float the Deschutes, but typically, the trip from Riverbend Park to Drake Park will take from 1 to 1½ hours in a float tube.

Can I enjoy a cold beverage as I float?

You mean a beer, right? Well, no.

Drinking alcohol on the river is common but officially against the law. Bend Police Sgt. Dan Ritchie said the law traces back to an incident in 2005, when 20-year-old Michael Wilhite, a Bend Elks baseball player, drowned on the river while intoxicated. The Bend City Council subsequently adopted an ordinance barring drinking alcohol on the river in Bend.

Ritchie said police spend more time along the river in summer when the area is busy but do not make a point of looking for drinkers. That said, it’s safer not to drink and float.

Similarly, state law prohibits smoking marijuana in public, and that includes the river as well.

Will I be comfortable?

Even on the hottest days of the year, the Deschutes River is not like playing in the water in Hawaii or the Caribbean. The river is fed by melting snow and underground springs. It’s cold.

Your choice of flotation device can make a significant difference. Inner tube style craft will promise a wet and cold backside, while other designs can keep you safely above the chilly water. Wear shoes, and don’t forget the sunscreen — by the next day, you’ll be glad you did.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,

Share this post