Picture yourself in a sun-warmed innertube. You’re bobbing down the Deschutes with toes in the water, a Hydro Flask of lemonade in hand, and a big ol’ grin on your face.
Sounds like heaven, right? And it’s yours for the taking, once you know the ropes for floating the river in Bend.
Get your gear in order
First things first: Your floatie. I’ve seen all manner of objects on the Deschutes River, ranging from pink flamingos to—I swear I’m not making this up—a dude riding his recycling bin downstream. Here’s why I don’t recommend that: Pool floaties aren’t sturdy like the ones you rent from Tumalo Creek, and recycling bins? Ew.
Save Mother Nature from popped plastic and spare your backside the fallout of said popping. As an added bonus, $1 from each Tumalo Creek tube rental gets donated to the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council to help reduce the impact we have on our river.
If you’re determined to bring your own floatie, find a sturdy one with durable seams. Those cute inflatable donuts and pizza slices are fun for pools, but this is a river spiked with branches and sharp lava rocks.
Now that you’ve got your inflatable covered, here’s what else you need:
- Sturdy shoes with straps. Choose snug, well-fitted sandals instead of flip-flops so your footwear won’t become litter in our beautiful river. Definitely don’t go barefoot, unless you like scalding your tootsies on hot pavement.
- Sunscreen, sunscreen, and more sunscreen. It’s easy to underestimate the strength of the sun in our high-altitude desert town, but nothing wrecks a vacay faster than getting scorched like a lobster. Be kind to our waterways and pick an eco-friendly sunscreen like this one from Bend-based AOS.
- Safety gear. State law requires a life jacket or PFD for all boaters, paddleboarders, and kids 12 and under. The term “boat” is broad, and if you lash several tubes together, it’s considered a boat. If you fall into any of these categories, play it safe and pack the PFD. Heck, play it safe and wear the PFD anyway. If you forget one from home, there’s a kiosk in Riverbend Park with free rental PFDs from Tumalo Creek.
- A sealable dry bag for keys and phone. It’s optional, but you’ll need someplace to stash essentials. Secure it to your tube or body so it doesn’t sink to the bottom of the river if you flip. Local boat and recreation shops sell inexpensive, watertight pouches you can wear around your neck. Tumalo Creek sells plenty, ranging from inexpensive to super-duper nice.
Now that you’ve got the right gear, it’s time to prepare.
A few logistics for planning…
Maybe you have memories of strolling to Riverbend Park on a Saturday six years ago, snagging a tube rental, and plopping it in the river?
Times have changed. More than a quarter-million humans float or paddle this section of river between Memorial Day and Labor Day these days, so it pays to plan ahead.
If you’re hoping to float this summer and you want one of Tumalo Creek’s awesome rental tubes (you do!) you can book online. If there’s wiggle room in your schedule, consider a brunch-time float or early evening reservation when crowds have dwindled.
If you want a spot on the Ride the River shuttle so you’re not stuck hoofing it 1.7 miles from Drake Park back to Riverbend hugging a drippy innertube, reserve your spot beforehand.
The Ride the River shuttle starts and ends at Park & Float, beginning June 17 (weather permitting). A $6 round trip pass makes transportation easy for river users with shuttles departing every 15-20 minutes from 11 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. You can buy advanced tickets from Tumalo Creek online. You can also snag them from Cascades East Transit using the Umo Mobile app, or from the bus driver (no change provided).
On the day of your reservation, check-in at Park & Float for a wristband valid the entire day.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering what the heck Park & Float is, it’s across from The Pavilion on Simpson Ave. and Bradbury Way. That’s where you’ll find tube rentals and the pick up and drop off point for the Ride the River shuttle. That’s also where you’ll score free parking, so scope out the map here. From June 17 to Sept. 4, Park & Float is open and renting tubes between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. daily. You can return your tubes as late as 7:00 p.m.
While you can’t rent tubes or catch the shuttle at the Tumalo Creek kiosk in Riverbend Park, you can rent kayaks, SUPs, and life jackets. That cute little trailer is open 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily (weather permitting) May 27 to Sept. 4.
Er, how do I float?
Nope, it’s not a dumb question. If you’ve never floated the Deschutes, you may have no idea where to put in and take out, so here’s the scoop.
The simplest option if you’re pressed for time is to put in at Riverbend Park, float to the Colorado Avenue Bridge, hop out there, and walk just over half a mile on Shevlin Hixon Drive to get back to Riverbend. The whole trip takes roughly an hour, so you may be able to squeeze in more than one trip before walking back to your car at the Park & Float.
Alternatively, you can put in at the Colorado Avenue bridge and float to Drake Park from there, which also takes about an hour. These routes are the way to go if you don’t want to hassle with the shuttle or you’re short on time.
If you’ve got more hours to spare, get yourself a Ride the River shuttle pass and do the full float from Riverbend to Drake Park. You’ll be scooped up at the end-point and taken back to Park & Float. If that’s not in the cards, it’s do-able (barely) to walk the 1.7 miles from Drake to Riverbend, but it can feel weird strolling busy streets in a bathing suit while lugging a big, soggy tube (ask me how I know).
Just please, please don’t do the dual-car DIY shuttle where one person leaves a vehicle at Riverbend and one at Drake Park. Those limited park-side spots have a strictly-enforced time limit, and the Old Bend Neighborhoods require residential permits to park on the streets. They’re cracking down with citations, so don’t kill your happy float vibe with a pricey parking ticket.
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 scan 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 booty) if you’re not on a sturdy floatie. SUPers and anyone in a flatwater boat definitely won’t want to chance it.
Decided to ride the fish ladder? Do your best to keep your feet downstream and your inflatable in the center of the channel. Try to keep space between you and other users navigating the rapids. Do not attempt to stand or get off your tube in this section of swift water.
If you have small children or would rather walk around, just stroll 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, or stroll a block up the hill to return to Park & Float.
What else should you 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. Police will fine you and locals will give you a serious tongue lashing for littering Bend’s precious waterways.
- Don’t tie float tubes together. Not only does it transform your floaties into boats (thereby triggering the legal requirement for a PFD) but it’s tougher to maneuver. Holding your buddy’s hand or the handle on his tube is just peachy, but leave the ropes at home.
- 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.
- While you won’t encounter much swift current on this stretch of river, it’s a good rule of thumb never to attempt standing where the current’s strong. The risk of foot entrapment is real, so save the standing for very slow and/or shallow water.
- 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.
- Stay the heck out of the middle section of the Bend Whitewater Park where the rapids are meant for skilled whitewater kayakers and surfers. That’s no place for a float tube, and it’s easy to avoid as you approach the area.
- 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 from botched bridge jumps, so don’t mess 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 day accordingly.
- Go when it’s slow. As a longtime Bend-ite who floated here 25 years ago with no crowds at all, I get how frustrating it feels to fight traffic and hassle with reservations when I desperately want to go with the flow. But by making reservations or timing my float for morning or early evening, I’ve found I have a much mellower experience, which is always the goal with a river float.
- 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 keep rivers and beaches from becoming wastelands of lost flip-flops and garbage bins brimming with punctured air mattresses, so please do your part.
- Watch where you park. There are major fines for overstaying your limit at Drake Park, and permits are required in surrounding neighborhoods. Stick with the free spots at Park & Float, and carpool if you can.
Got a plan? Ready to float? Same, friend! See you out there on the river.