Nighttime, light-up kayaking is a bucket list experience in northeast Oregon


There’s a moment in the nighttime light-up kayak tour, right at the end, when the guide paddles around and turns out the colored LED lights that rim each boat, leaving the group in darkened silence, floating in the middle of Wallowa Lake beneath the stars.

The colorful nighttime excursion has become a bucket list experience in the northeast Oregon tourist town of Joseph, but the local company that runs it, JO Paddle, says the novelty of the boats is just a way to get people into the peaceful environment that surrounds the little mountain town.

Hannah Shoffner, who owns the business with her husband, Joshua, said upwards of 2,000 people sign up for the nighttime kayak tours each season, which runs from June to mid-September. Last summer, the wait list was four weeks long, she said.

“It’s bucket list,” Joshua said, preparing to take out a group in mid-June. “I have people from California who drive all the way here because their barber told them about it.”

The nighttime tour is JO Paddle’s most popular, and also its most expensive: Reservations cost $165 for a two-person boat. This season, the company added more affordable morning tours on the south end of the lake, which also act as secondary options for people who can’t make it to the nighttime experience.

The 90-minute light-up tours take paddlers around the north end of Wallowa Lake, across the shallows in search of fish and big rocks, and out toward the center of the nearly 300-foot-deep glacial lake. Along the way, guides talk about the area’s history, environment and culture, including the legend of the Wallowa Lake Monster.

While the lake is generally placid on sunny summer days, a turn in the weather can make the water choppy and dangerous, Joshua said. Those kinds of conditions will force the company to cancel a tour. The nighttime excursions are advertised for paddlers of all ages and abilities, though some kayaking experience might be helpful.

“It’s recommended that you can paddle because it’s quick, we have to move from spot to spot to spot,” said Joshua, who utilized his experience as a rock musician to craft the experience.

With bright lights pointed down through the clear kayaks, paddlers can peer through the pure waters of Wallowa Lake — at least in the shallows. In the deeper water, the light gets lost, forcing the attention upward, to the silhouettes of mountain peaks and the twinkling stars above.

“The stars, the water and the moon just help to hold the peaceful atmosphere,” Hannah said. “It’s very different, I don’t think I can capture it on my website.”

JO Paddle was started in 2018 by Robert and Tia Nichols, a local couple who sold the company to the Shoffners in 2020 after purchasing the Joseph Branch Railriders. It was the Nichols who first came up with the idea of lighting up clear boats for nighttime tours, but in the last four years, the Shoffners have made their own tweaks and adjustments to the business.

Hannah and Joshua Shoffner said they started by revamping the company’s online presence and perfecting the lighting system on the boats. With a focus on customer communication and satisfaction, they ensured the seats got filled every night, and that people walked away happy. Viral posts on social media have led to a much larger customer base, they said, keeping them busy throughout the year.

“I’m meeting people from all over the world, and when they get off my boats they’re smiling, they had a great time,” Joshua said. “We don’t leave our guests hanging.”

And while the business has been successful, the Shoffners said they are already looking to sell, hoping to move their family to another destination. Hannah Shoffner said they have been fielding offers for JO Paddle this season, but are biding their time until they find a suitable buyer, preferably another family.

Both Hannah and Joshua emphasized the importance of family when talking about their business. For the last four years, they have included their daughters, now 18 and 7, in the outings on Wallowa Lake. The fact that they get to help other families make lasting memories in northeast Oregon is one of the best aspects of the job, they said.

Out on Wallowa Lake, on the clear water beneath the towering mountain peaks, it’s not hard to make memories.

“I just think the lights and the boats intrigue people to come out,” Hannah said. “It really doesn’t matter if you’re in a clear boat.”

“You’re on a clear lake, you’re in clear air, people here are wonderful, it’s peaceful. I mean listen,” Joshua said, pausing to soak up the silence.

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