Remnants of a Boyhood Adventure
July 25th, 2017 by Jody Foss

Lee Bouchard recently found the oars he and his friends used on a trip on the John Day River. On one oar is carved, “Remains of John Day Valley River Expedition.”

Lee Bouchard and Harold Hinds stretched out on their sleeping bags with their shirts rolled up for pillows. Camping in the sand on the edge of the John Day River in Eastern Oregon, they stared up at the Milky Way and more stars than they had ever seen.

It was 1958, and the two Life Scouts had a month-long adventure of a lifetime, floating the river on a rubber raft from Mt. Vernon, Oregon, to the Columbia River, well over 200 miles.

Harold, Lee and their friend Larry Saul had planned this journey for a year, searching for maps, gathering gear and convincing their parents to let them go.

Lee was 16. The other boys were 17.

“Our parents trusted us,” says Lee, who these days is a volunteer at the Paleo Center in Fossil, Oregon. “I’m sure my mother worried the whole time. Our parents probably knew if they said no we would be upset with them for life.”

The boys planned to bring back specimens to the then-new Portland Zoo and the Museum of Science. On the river, their cages were lost in the river when their craft capsized in rapids, but they managed to return with a live rattlesnake in a box.

The three mapped geological formations along the way and found a lower jaw of the ancient Oreodont, camel bones, turtle shells and fossilized horse teeth. They took notes, comparing the present wildlife with ancient fossils.

They were working toward their merit badges in botany, geology, paleontology, zoology and herpetology.

After losing their gear and supplies, they lived off the land, shooting ducks, geese, rabbits, a porcupine and a deer with their .22s. They fished for carp and salmon.

Although they started the trip in a canoe, they hit a series of rapids near Dayville, Oregon, and the bottom ripped out on a rock. Harold’s father brought them a military surplus raft so they could continue the trip.

Unfortunately, Larry was seriously injured on Sheep Rock when he lost his footing and tumbled down steep terrain while the boys were digging for fossils. He had to return home to Portland.

Since much of the river was unmapped, Lee and Harold got information about what lay ahead from ranchers they met along the way.

At one point, the two boys plunged over nine waterfalls between sheer rimrock walls that dropped the river 30 feet in a few miles.

“We were into it before we knew it,” Lee says. “It was terrifying, like being in a wind tunnel. We could hear this roar, and then the current got us and sucked us down like a whirlpool, then it dropped off a waterfall into a deep pool. We landed upright, amazingly enough, but everything was wet.”

They portaged around serious rapids to avoid more near-drowning incidents.

Today, the John Day is a different river than it was back then. Rafters can rely on a detailed map of the river these days.

The boys traveled two weeks without seeing a fence, a trail, a house or even a cow. They marveled at the Aurora Borealis, rarely seen this far south.

They saw a doe with triplets and found an eagle’s nest that was 6 feet across.

“We counted 54 deer in one day,” Lee says.

Since they carried no ice chests, they asked ranchers to buy supplies or would buy them at country stores. They drank water out of the river, and got so sunburned their skin was dark brown by the time they reached the Columbia River.

“We had hats but never even thought about sunscreen,” Lee says.

Occasionally, the boys would call home when a rancher let them use their party-line telephone.

When they passed through Kimberly, Oregon, the boys were befriended by the family who owned the Texaco Station there. Lee met the cowboys and the manager at that time, and returned to work at an area ranch for room and board the following summer.

While working on the ranch, Lee says he fell in love with the area’s climate, culture, geology and people.

After high school, Lee spent 33 years in the Army, working his way up to lieutenant colonel. He left Portland and returned to Fossil when he retired in 1993.

“Like a lot of people, I was tired of the rat race, the pollution, the traffic,” he says. “I didn’t need it anymore.”

Lee did not quit traveling after his big river adventure in 1958. He traveled in his career and for pleasure, and has been to all 50 states.

Although the boys went their separate ways after high school and have not kept in touch, Lee says he fondly remembers his adventure, thinking of it just about every time he looks at the river.

“We were just kids, but it was a learning experience,” Lee says. “I think it’s good to let your kids have an adventure. Take a year off after high school and see the world a little bit. Then maybe college makes more sense to you.

“There’s a whole world out there. You can read about it, that’s fine. You can hear others talk about it, but that’s not the same as experiencing it for yourself. See the world, go new places, get off the beaten path. Walk someplace where there is no trail.”