The Big Eddy Thriller is easily the most popular rafting trip in Oregon. After having lived in Bend for five years, I was ready to find out why. This 1.5-hour float is included with the year-round Mt. Bachelor pass, so it’s not just visitors floating the Big Eddy, it’s a go for locals too. Whether you’re new to this whitewater or rode the rapids before, welcome to a memorable splash with a big dose of Central Oregon scenery.
The Deschutes drains the eastern side of the Cascade Range, flowing for 174 miles through Central Oregon into the Columbia River. The river is referenced as three distinct areas — the upper, middle and lower, all with unique characteristics. The Big Eddy Thriller is a three-mile stretch of the Upper Deschutes between Bend and Sunriver.
The experience starts at the Sun Country Tour office in either Sunriver or Bend to check in, fill out waivers (all trips are for ages 6 and older) and grab a lifejacket and helmet. From the Bend office, we load into the bus for the river, a quick 20-minute ride up the Cascade Lakes Highway.
The Sun Country crew is quick to unload the rafts and sort everyone into their boats. Our guide for the day is Curtis Norsen, who is the former Ski Patrol Director at Mt. Bachelor and now heads up operations at Sun Country Tours. First things first, Curtis determines who sits where in the boat and gives us the rundown on paddle commands including forward, back and “relax.” He shares with us the safest body position if we do fall out of the boat (with feet downriver) and explains the safety equipment on the boat, namely a throw bag with rope in it. He then gives us a preview of the float, noting that we’ll stop ahead at the Big Eddy to scout the rapids.
We float along taking in the blue skies, the huge Ponderosas and the quiet of the river. The Deschutes River Trail follows along the edge of the river, with hikers, runners and their dogs enjoying the day. A towering lava flow comes into view on the right side of the river; this is the Lava Butte lava flow which erupted long ago forming Lava Butte, with the resulting lava flow altering the route of the Deschutes River. This volcanic episode eventually formed this section of rapids.
The Big Eddy is not the name of the rapids but rather the calm pool above the rapids where we’re able to pull over and walk along the river to get a preview of the series of four Class III rapids. Whitewater rapids use a grading system from Class I to Class VI, Class III being an intermediate level. Curtis explains our strategy for running each rapid from the angle we’ll guide the boat in, to the hazards we’ll encounter… and how we’ll paddle to avoid them. The youngest rafter in our boat is relocated to the middle of the boat for this section.
This quarter-mile stretch offers four distinct rapids each with its own characteristics and a variety of names given to them over the years. Curtis explains that we’ll have to paddle hard after the second set lest we get sucked into the “bat cave.” The last “Saus hole” is sticky, meaning he’ll need some hard paddle strokes to get through it. After this scouting session, we get back in the boat and head straight into the rapids.
And this is the super fun part. There’s just enough time after each rapid to look at your rafting partners with a huge grin, laughing at the explosion of water before it’s time to paddle through another rapid. We make it through with big smiles, assessing who got the most soaked. It’s just enough rapids to leave you wanting more … or if you discover rapids aren’t your thing, it’s mercifully short.
There’s a wave train of a final Class II rapids, dubbed the Three Stooges, before we empty back into the mellow flow. Curtis offers for the kids on our raft to sit up front and “ride bronco.” They get soaked and we all get some more laughs in. The takeout isn’t far off, and we’re given a chance to jump in the river to cool off. Everyone takes a refreshing dip.
Before you know it, we’re back on the bus and back in town. The whole experience takes just under three hours with tours running throughout the day. If the Big Eddy Thriller whets your appetite for whitewater, Sun Country also offers longer tours including a full day on the lower Deschutes, the North Umpqua and the McKenzie River.
Editor’s note: Sun Country Tours is following COVID-19 health protections including protocols to raft with the group you sign up with as well as wearing masks in the bus ride.