Catch the cold: Wet suit rafting

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, April 21, 2005

First, it was the skiers’ and boarders’ turn to enjoy the abundance of precipitation this winter. Then came the wildflower enthusiasts, who traveled from all over the world to see the most colorful desert blooms in recent memory.

Next up: whitewater rafters and kayakers. They hope a snowpack estimated at 125 percent to 150 percent of normal throughout the Sierra Nevada will turn into one of the biggest whitewater seasons in years.

Area water managers say the spring flow will be “about average,” due to the ways dams regulate many Northern California rivers. But that hasn’t dampened the spirits of whitewater enthusiasts.

“It’s going to be major kinetic this year,” says Nate Rangel, who operates whitewater tours out of Coloma with his company, Adventure Connection. “We’ve already been taking people out for a month, and it’s going to be a great year.”

Rangel has reason to be optimistic. He is also president of California Outdoors, a statewide trade association for the rafting industry with nearly 50 members. Those members, 35 of whom operate on the American River, are looking forward to a long, profitable season.

“We’ll have extended seasons on the north fork of the American and the Yuba, where we don’t have dams,” he says. “And on rivers with dams, like the south and middle American and the Tuolumne, we’ll be in great shape into September and October.”

The anticipation among potential “boaters” – the industry word for rafters and kayakers – is high. Rangel says that in the course of a recent weekday, he booked nearly 40 spots on his tours. His company takes 5,000 to 6,000 customers down various area rivers.

This year, perhaps more.

“We’re up a lot this year already,” he says. “And many of my members can say the same thing.”

A management matter
The snowpack in the central Sierra is roughly 125 percent of normal, and parts of the southern Sierra are at 150 percent of normal, which means a huge amount of water will be dripping, flowing and then raging down from high elevations into the Central Valley.

On its way down from the mountains, that water has myriad uses, only one of which is recreation:

* Reservoirs and river flows need to be kept at certain levels for fish and other species’ needs.

* The water must be managed by utilities, including the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for hydroelectric needs. There are 17 dams in the American River watershed alone.

* When it gets to the Valley, water is crucial for farming, household and industrial needs.

Thus, water management is a defining feature of California’s natural and political landscape, with dozens of local, state and federal agencies involved in making sure everyone gets a bit of it.

Anticipation of a bigger-than-average whitewater year may be overblown, according to SMUD. While there is a surplus of snow this year, spring flows are much less a matter of nature than a matter of management.

Dace Udris is a spokeswoman for SMUD, which runs most of the dams in the American River watershed. She says that despite the large snowpack, “we expect close to an average year.”

The reason, she says, is most of this winter’s precipitation came in the form of snow, not rain, which means there was less immediate runoff from the winter’s storms. That in turn means reservoirs are at lower levels than usual to start the spring, so a lot of runoff will be held in those reservoirs rather than being released downriver.

“We normally get together with the rafting community and PG&E and discuss what the release will be,” Udris says. “And this year, it will be about normal. Which means we’ll have a typical season, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Tuesday through Sunday. Mondays are a bit lower, since we don’t release as much water on Sunday, because there’s lower electricity demand.”

Just this side of ice
The spring water will be high, but rather than a constant downstream deluge, water watchers say, this year will memorable for boaters in another way: The water that comes down will be cold.

Danny Bolster is El Dorado County’s river recreation supervisor; it is his job to manage whitewater recreation on the south fork of the American.

“The most important thing is to have a wet or dry suit and adequate flotation,” Bolster says.

Bill Center agrees. A veteran outfitter who owns Camp Lotus, an area favorite of boaters, he says, “You could spend some time in the water. And 60-degree water is very, very cold.”

Beyond that, particularly in the spring, Bolster says, flows will be higher than many people who ride the rivers in mid- summer are accustomed to.

“Most people see the river in summer, when it’s 1,300 cfs (cubic feet per second),” Bolster says. “And the river at 4,000 cfs is a different river. It’s important to have a life jacket designed for whitewater use, so if you go for a swim (fall overboard), you will stay above water.”

Steve Evans is the conservation director for Friends of the River, a conservation group started by guides. He says his organization is offering refresher courses for guides, emphasizing extra precautions to be taken in high, cold water.

“We may be requiring people to wear cold-water gear into the summer instead of T-shirts and shorts,” he says. “I think people will have to be wearing wet suits much later in the year.

“I don’t want to scare anyone,” he adds, “but the water’s going to be bigger and colder later, because there will be more snowmelt later in the year.”

Economic impact
Some advanced boaters are so eager for big water that they will watch dam releases on the Internet – is a popular site- and time their visits to get to a spot just when the high water does, much as landlocked surfers do when they have to make the most of their trips to the ocean.

Says Center, “Someone can be in Sacramento, and by watching the Internet, they can get to the river at the same time that the water does, because of the time lag. They’re serious.”

Regardless of the size and temperature of the water, 2005 is shaping up to be a very good year in the areas where white-water rafting has become big business.

Plentiful water is particularly good news in Coloma, where much of the local economy is based on visitors lured to the area by American River boating opportunities.

Val Jensen is owner of the Coloma Club, a local coffee shop and bar.

“It’s great news,” she says of the high water. “When the water doesn’t run, our business goes down quite a bit. When it’s good water, we all do well, so we’re feeling lucky. I can’t complain.”

But if it doesn’t pan out quite that way, Jensen says, she’s not worried.

“If the weather’s nice, we get people,” she say. “We get a lot of bikers in. And it helps to be the only bar in town. With a bar and a band, if there’s no water, people just say, ‘Let’s go get a beer.’ ”

Float your plans by these Web sites
Here are some Web sites that cater to whitewater enthusiasts, offering photos, water-release schedules, outfitters and lots of advice for everyone from novices to experts.

* – A great place to start, this site has hair- raising photos and myriad links to other Web sites.

* – This outfitters association site asks good questions, guides visitors to the right outfitters for different rivers and is generally a good place for beginners to start.

* – This site focuses on the three forks of the American, monitoring releases virtually up to the minute, and has links to government agencies, restaurants in the area and the like.

* – This is the most comprehensive site for information on the flows of rivers all over California – almost too much information.

* – If you really want to geek out on river flows and other hydrological concerns, the Web site of the California Data Exchange Center is the place to go.

Northern California whitewater

For boating purposes, rivers are rated Class I-VI, a scale of increasing difficulty. Ratings are based on volume of flow, steepness and obstacles. Wear a life jacket and helmet. Consider a wet suit.

Class I – Easy for anyone. Flat water.
Class II – Beginner paddlers, guides and kayakers. Little current or drop, few obstacles. For those who want an easygoing run.
Class III – The level most people run. These are fun, bouncy rivers; suitable for children 12 and up. For beginning paddlers, intermediate guides and kayakers.
Class IV – These rivers have challenging rapids and runs with more technical difficulty. For brave-hearted paddlers, advanced guides and kayakers.
Class V – White-knuckle boating. Big waves, strong currents, obstacles and violent drops. Requires almost constant, intense concentration. Celebrate after the trip, not during. For expert paddlers, guides and kayakers.
Class VI – Considered unrunnable. For stuntmen only.

NORTH YUBA (Off the beaten path, Adrenaline junkies)
Class: IV-V
When: Now to July
Details: Crowned by rapids like the roller-coaster “Maytag,” the Yuba is gorgeous. Unbelievable, sea-foam green water, pouring over exciting rapids, offset by calm pools, forests and granite walls. Run this river to expand your river worthiness and escape crowds. For real heartstopping fun, run the upper, “Rossosco’s Ravine.” Nonstop Class IV and V white-knuckle rapids. Both runs top the list of great river runs.

MIDDLE FORK AMERICAN, LOWER STRETCH (Off the beaten path, Families with kids, Great fishing)
Class: II
When: May to September Details: Mellow run. Perfect for the family. Enchanting wilderness, great fishing and relaxation. Suitable for younger children. Beware: There’s a mandatory portage just beyond the Mammoth Bar takeout.

SOUTH FORK AMERICAN (Families with kids, Great views)
Class: III
When: Now to October Details: One of the top rafting rivers in the West. From midsummer on, an ideal introductory river for beginners and kids 7 and up. The river flows right by the site where gold was first discovered in California in 1848. The full 21 miles can be done in a one-day or overnight trip, or split up for a halfday trip. Beautiful wilderness full of granite walls and fields of wildflowers.

UPPER TUOLUMNE, CHERRY CREEK RUN (Off the beaten path, Adrenaline junkies)
Class: V
When: July to October Skill level: Expert paddlers and guides only. Details: One of the most difficult runs in the West. Intense, nonstop Class V rapids such as “Jawbone” and “Catapult.” Paddlers and guides must be in excellent physical shape with strong swimming skills – unplanned swims often are taken here! Cut your teeth on smaller runs before attempting this run. An unforgettable trip.

LOWER TUOLUMNE, MERAL’S POOL TO WARD’S FERRY (Off the beaten path, Adrenaline junkies)
Class: V
When: Now to September
Details: The “T” is considered California’s premier whitewater run. A river for the brave-hearted. Fierce whitewater will leave you breathless and full of adrenaline. Paddlers, be prepared to work. Exciting and demanding run, coupled with gorgeous wilderness beauty. Exhilarating drops followed by deep, green pools for swimming and fishing. If that’s not enough, another “T” feature: long, technical, slalom-type rapids. Take a break and do side hikes to natural swimming pools. See old powerhouse site. A must-do river for the adventurous. Run in one- or two-day trips.

MERCED (Families with kids, Adrenaline junkies)
Class: Upper is Class IV with a seven-mile Class II stretch; lower is Class II
When: Now to July
Details: West of Yosemite Valley, the Merced River remains a California favorite. Put-in is outside the national park where the river picks up into a beautiful adventure. Nonstop rapids start you off with a bang. Full of wild and fun crests and holes. Demanding paddling. Unparalleled scenery. Fishing later in season. This river has a relatively short peak season. Do it in May or June for the best water and wildflowers. Combine it with some time in Yosemite National Park.

EAST FORK CARSON (Families with kids, Great views, Off the beaten path, Great fishing)
Class: II
When: May to June
Details: Awesome highdesert river blessed with natural hot springs. Twenty two-mile wilderness run is best done as an overnighter. Perfect river for children and families, or for those who want to relax while being rowed down this meandering jewel. Putin is near historic Markleeville, site of Grover State Hot Springs. From an idyllic alpine setting, the river winds down between orange and red cliffs and rock formations. Unique river experience. Lots of solitude. A must-see canyon.

MIDDLE FORK AMERICAN, UPPER STRETCH (Adrenaline junkies, Great fishing, Off the beaten path,)
Class: IV
When: May to September Details: This 26-mile wilderness run offers a little of everything: small Class II and III rapids, punctuated by hair-raising Class IV+ rapids, such as “Tunnel Chute,” a man-made rapid created long ago by gold miners who dynamited a hole through the mountain. The “Chute” rages for more than 100 yards, then ends in the surrealistically calm and safe tunnel. Superb scenery, side hikes. Wildlife sighted often, including blue herons. Run in one-, two- or three-day trips. One portage near run’s end.

NORTH FORK AMERICAN (Adrenaline junkies, Off the beaten path, Great views)
Class: IV-V on upper stretch, Class II from there
When: Now to June
Details: A challenging run. Lots of large technical rapids through this narrow granite gorge. Rapids such as “Slaughterer’s Sluice” and “Bogus Thunder,” with maddening, twisting drops. Beautiful wilderness, crystal waters and wildflowers. Gorgeous side hikes to waterfalls and hidden pools. Usually done as one-day trip. Class II section begins below Shirttail Canyon.

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