Despite drought, rafting outlook good in CAThe headlines about California are all about water restrictions and a serious drought that has gripped many parts of the Golden State. So the obvious question for river-rafters is: Will there be any water left in the rivers this season to raft on?
Despite some national press to the contrary, local outfitters say there will be plenty of water for rafting this year – although there may be some rivers where the season is shorter than usual, or even non-existent.
One California blogger went on a bit of a rant recently about an article in Men’s Journal that flatly stated rafters should look at other parts of the country this year for their river-rafting, all because of the drought. Jamie Low, who works with All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting, says in his blog there are plenty of California rivers to raft this year – especially during May and June – and he says an article like the one in Men's Journal is misleading.
“We can understand why a national publication might be left with the impression that California’s rafting season won’t have much to offer,” Low writes in a recent blog. “It’s hard to read anything in the news these days without hearing about the drought. And reliable information is tricky to obtain during a year like this…”
Low says river-rafting outfitters have had to attend a lot of meetings and place a lot of phone calls to get a true picture of the water levels and what to expect for the season. He says a big factor is how much water the utilities will release upstream, and that information is only now starting to come in.
“Thanks to the river gods (and an assortment of upstream utilities, government agencies and late season storms) we have plenty of water this year, all the way through to October,” he writes. He admits, however, outfitters have been worried all winter about the potentially low water levels in the rivers and he does not minimize the lasting effects of the drought. It’s just that rafting this year will, in fact, go on as usual, and he’d like to see that message get out rather than what he says was an undeserved brush-off from Men’s Journal.
Low says his company is rafting eight different California rivers this spring, each with enough water to sustain the usual spring season activity through June. A map of those rivers is included with this article, although it is not a comprehensive list of all California rivers offering rafting this spring and summer.
Low says the Cal Salmon, the Merced, the Tuolumne and the Kaweah rivers are all currently being used for rafting trips. Two areas, the North Fork of the American and the North Fork of the Stanislaus, are expected to have shorter seasons because of the drought, according to Low. On the plus side, Cheery Creek – also known as the Upper Tuolumne – will have a spring season this year which, Low says, almost never happens because most years the water is too high to run. This year the river is expected to run not only during spring, but all the way until September.
Low says that preliminary estimates show that the forks of the American River, the Tuolumne and Cherry Creek will be the places to raft this summer. For fall season, it’s projected that the South Fork of the American, Middle Fork of the American and Goodwin Canyon are all likely to have enough water, according to Low.
Steve Markle, from longtime outfitter O.A.R.S., says the positive outlook for 2014 rafting is the result of smart water management decisions by local utilities, as well as agreements that guarantee reliable flows for recreational use on dam-controlled rivers.
One of the state’s most popular rivers, the South Fork of the American River, is a great example of such an agreement and is assured of adequate water because of licensing agreements with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Reliable flows for boating are expected three days a week (Saturday through Monday) in May, followed by five days per week (Thursday through Monday) beginning Memorial Day weekend and lasting through Labor Day. The Middle Fork of the American also is expected to have boatable flows throughout the summer, seven days a week, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
According to an advisory issued by O.A.R.S., rafting on California’s free-flowing rivers is not out of the question.
"Whitewater trips on the Kern and Merced Rivers, which are dependent on seasonal runoff, will be available to rafters for a brief window of opportunity this spring despite snowpack averages across the Sierra Nevada that are well below normal.
"In southern California, seasonal flows for rafting on the Upper Kern and Forks of the Kern are anticipated through early June, while the Lower Kern season is expected to go through early July. Outside of Yosemite National Park, the Merced River currently has boatable flows, which are expected to persist at least through the later part of May."
If you’re considering a rafting adventure this year, there are dozens of outfitters offering a variety of trips on rivers generally stretching up and down the top two-thirds of the state. Various skill levels are required – everything from a calm half-day family float to camping trips down rivers that have Class 5 rapids. In general, the higher the class number, the more difficult it will be.
River-rafting is not necessarily a physical challenge, outfitters say. The higher class rivers will require more strength and stamina but lower class rivers are not physically demanding. Age isn’t a factor, as people in their 60’s routinely raft Class 4 rapids even higher.
According to Lorraine Hall of Tributary Whitewater Tours, the most important requirement is the right attitude:
"You don't have to be in hugely great shape," Hall explained. "It's mental attitude. Some people have a definite fear of the water and some do not. An adventurous spirit will make up for not the greatest of physical capabilities."
Generally, families with children are encouraged to choose Class 1 and 2 rivers such as the lower Middle Fork of the American River, or Class 3 rivers such as the South Fork of the American, which happens to be the most popular whitewater river in the state. There is a fair leap from Class 3 to Class 4 — People rarely fall out of the boat on a Class 3, while it occurs much more often on a Class 4. Of course, even if you do fall out, you're fitted with a high-quality flotation device and guides are trained to quickly pluck you from the water.
For more information on rafting California's rivers, contact Tributary Whitewater Tours at 1-800-672-3846 or O.A.R.S. at (855) 688-4836. Photos courtesy Tributary Whitewater Tours. Map courtesy All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting.
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Rafting lodging and outfitters