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What to know about floating the river in Bend during the 2020 COVID pandemic

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Jun, 24 2020

What to know about floating the river in Bend during the 2020 COVID pandemic

Floating the Deschutes River is one of the most popular pastimes in Bend, and in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, it’s a wee bit different for the summer of 2020.

The good news: You can still float the river. That’s no small thing considering COVID-19 has cost us other summertime pleasures like concerts, rodeos, races, and events.

The challenging news: No tube rentals in the park. Also, no shuttle service.

Floating the Deschutes River

River floaters practice safe social distancing on the Deschutes.
(photo courtesy of Bend Park and Recreation District)

Here’s where I’ll raise a timid hand and point out that when river floating started surging a couple decades ago, we had neither of those things. I once watched a guy float the river in his plastic recycling bin, and I’ve done dozens of awkward post-float bikini trudges back to my car.

This summer calls for plenty of creativity, compassion, and kindness for your fellow outdoor enthusiast and Mother Nature. Here’s what you should know about floating the river in the age of COVID-19.


Start with the right gear

First things first: Here’s what you’ll need to safely, legally float the river:

  • A high-quality, durable floatie. With tube rentals off the table for 2020, this is more crucial than ever. Look for floaties with durable seams that are meant for river use.  Those cute inflatable donuts and pizza slices are awesome for pools, but that’s not what you’re dealing with on the Deschutes. Odds are good you’ll bump up against branches and sharp lava rock, so be sure your device is tough enough to handle that.
  • Proper footwear. It’s always crucial to have snug, well-fitted sandals instead of flip-flops so you don’t run the risk of your footwear flopping off to become litter in our beautiful river. With no shuttle service this year, it’s crucial to protect your feet for the walk back to your car or bike. The put-in point at Riverbend Park is studded with sharp gravel that hurts like heck if you tread barefoot on it while carrying a heavy paddleboard (er, so I’ve heard). Keen, Teva, Merrell, Chacos, and plenty of other brands make water-safe sandals that cinch tight to your feet and won’t come off in the water. Strap some on before starting your float.
  • Sunscreen. Plenty of visitors don’t realize the strength of the sun in our high-altitude desert town. Nothing screws up a vacay like torching your bod early in the trip, so slather up with the SPF. You’ll thank me later.
  • Life jacket/PFD. State law requires that each paddleboard or boat carry one Coast Guard approved life jacket for each person on board, and children age 12 and under are required to wear them. If you lash several float tubes together, that counts as a boat. Play it safe and bring your PFD, or snag a free rental life jacket from the Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe kiosk in Riverbend Park. While the kiosk isn’t renting float tubes this year, they’ll have life jackets for all ages, plus kayak and SUP rentals.
  • A dry bag. This is optional, but if you need a safe spot to stash your mask, car keys, phone, or other important gear, local boat and recreation shops sell inexpensive, watertight pouches you can wear around your neck. They’re also handy for carrying necessities like a small bottle of hand sanitizer or your athsmatic child’s inhaler.


You’ve gotta plan ahead

Much to the surprise of some river users, the Deschutes does not flow in a circle like a carnival ride. That means you need a plan for how you’ll get back to the vehicle you’ve left at the starting point, and with shuttle service off the table in 2020, prepare to do some walking.

Deschutes River float

Ahhh, the beautiful and mighty Deschutes River.

The simplest option in my humble opinion is to put in at Riverbend Park, float to the Colorado Avenue Bridge, hop out there, and walk just over half a mile along Shevlin Hixon Drive to get back to your car. You can do this loop as many times as you like. Alternately, you can put in at the Colorado Avenue bridge and float to Drake Park from there.

If you’re determined to do the full Riverbend to Drake Park float, it’s a bit more of a walk. You’ll also be toting your floatie and feeling mildly awkward about strolling roughly 1.7 miles in a bathing suit along busy roadways, but if that’s not an issue for you, rock on with your summer lovin’ self.


To ride or not to ride?

Regardless of whether you’re doing the shorter float or a longer one, you’ve got a decision to make.

At the Colorado Avenue bridge resides one of Bend’s coolest attractions, the Bend Whitewater Park. It has three distinct channels including a habitat area for wildlife, a whitewater channel for surfing and whitewater kayaking, and a fish ladder meant for fishies and river floaters. 

When you reach that point, hop off your floatie and walk along the portage trail to check out the series of 12 small rapids that make up the fish ladder. They’re a bit bumpy and could wreck your ride (not to mention your backside) if you’re not using a sturdy floatie. SUPers and anyone in a flatwater boat definitely won’t want to chance it. 

Ready to ride the fish ladder in your durable floatie? Do your best to keep your feet downstream and your inflatable in the center of the channel. Try your best to keep space between you and other users navigating the rapids.

If you have small children or would rather walk around for whatever reason, just hoof it along the portage trail to the put-in point at McKay Park, where you’ll continue floating into Drake Park. You can also call it quits here and walk the .6 miles along Shevlin Hixon to get back to Riverbend Park.

Floating the Deschutes River

What else should I know?

A few more tips to enhance your fun and help you avoid breaking the law or being a butthead:

  • Alcohol use is illegal on the river and in parks. Ditto that for cannabis. The fines are hefty if police catch you using either one.
  • If you’re enjoying a cold soda on the river, don’t even think about sinking cans or bottles in the water, and please leave the glass containers at home. Not only will police fine you, but locals will give you a serious tongue lashing about littering Bend’s precious waterways. Check out our Visit Like a Local page for more tips on being a responsible visitor.
  • Keep in mind there are no lifeguards on the river. Watch children and non-swimmers closely. Also, remember life jackets are required for boaters, paddleboarders, and kids 12 and under, and generally just a good idea for everyone else.
  • Remember that the water is COLD. It can feel good on a hot day, but it can shock the ever lovin’ snot out of you if you’re expecting swimming pool temps.
  • Resist the urge to jump off any of the bridges you’ll pass under while floating. Not only is it illegal, but extremely dangerous. We’ve seen serious injuries and even permanent paralysis result from botched bridge jumps here, so don’t mess around with this.
  • The float from Riverbend Park to Drake Park takes roughly two hours. The float from Riverbend to the Colorado Avenue Bridge is about an hour. Plan your outing accordingly.
  • Remember the pack it in, pack it out rule. If your floatie pops, don’t abandon it at the river’s edge or stuff it into overflowing trash cans. It’s up to all of us to make sure our rivers and beaches don’t become wastelands of lost flip-flops and garbage bins brimming with punctured air mattresses, so do your part to pick up after yourself.
  • Looking for ways to be a good steward and help protect the river? Go here to learn about the Enjoy, Protect, and Respect project.
  • With the shuttle not running this summer, parking lots at Riverbend and Drake Park will be more insane than normal (and yep, authorities will be ticketing). Carpool or bike if you can to avoid the chaos.

Got any COVID-specific tips?

Floating on the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon

Have fun out there!

We all know avoiding big crowds is key right now, so how do you do that when enjoying Bend’s most popular summertime activity? Here are a few hints:

  • Try going at a slower time of day like morning or evening when it’s less crowded.
  • It’s okay to cluster up with immediate family, but do your best to keep at least six feet of distance between you and adjacent parties of river floaters. 
  • While Riverbend is obviously the most popular put-in spot, consider alternatives like Farewell Bend park (just upstream and across the river) or McKay Park.
  • Tuck a bottle of hand sanitizer and mask in your dry bag.
  • Whenever you can, please wear your mask in public, especially if you cannot distance yourself properly. This will ensure that Bend stays open and avoids a future shutdown.

Above all, have fun and stay safe out there, friends. Enjoy your summer!