Just when California river outfitters were anticipating a "normal" rafting season in 2006, along came Mother Nature to dump copious amounts of snow in March and April. The net result: This year's rafting season is going to be longer and wetter than ever.
The 2005 season was unusually long because of the large amount of snowmelt that dramatically increased the flow in many of California's rivers. Now, judging from recent measurements that show nearly twice as much snowmelt as usual, this coming season is expected to be even better.
"A lot of snow is up there," explained outfitter Lorraine Hall of Tributary Whitewater Tours, "so consequently a lot of water has to come down."
The increased water flow changes when and how the outfitters run the rivers. It lengthens the season and helps to even out the flow on some rivers, but it also can be more challenging during the early part of the season. With water coming down the South Fork of the American River at 5,700 cubic feet per second in late April — compared with a normal summer flow of 1,200 cfs — outfitters are encouraging beginners and families to take their rafting trips a little later in the season after water flow has decreased.
"We're probably going to have to turn some people down in the early part of the season," Hall said. "It may be that, even on Memorial Weekend, a lot of the rivers will still be too high (for beginners and small children)."
The good news is that the season on many of the rivers probably will run a month or so longer than usual — well into July in some cases. For outfitters and guests normally accustomed to donning wetsuits for their spring rafting, these late-season warm weather trips will be especially appealing.
"The North Fork of the Yuba, for example, will be running well into mid- and late-July when the weather is warm," said Mike Doyle of Beyond Limits Adventures. During that time of year it may even be warm enough to go without wetsuits, the outfitters say.
Professional outfitters caution against floating this spring's higher-than-normal rivers without the proper equipment and instruction provided by a competent outfitter. Typically the high water attracts amateurs who can get into trouble and then create bad publicity for the outfitters. Reputable outfitters are constantly assessing the safety of any given river at any given time and will alter their trips to avoid any unnecessary danger.
Currently there are about 60 river raft companies offering trips on a dozen or so rivers stretching up and down the northern two-thirds of the state. These companies have put together a diverse menu of trips that are designed to match the various skill levels and physical capabilities of the participants. There is everything from a half-day family float down a calm Class 1 or Class 2 river to extended overnight camping trips along Class 5 rivers where white-knuckle rapids are suitable only for the most adventurous.
The outfitters say that river rafting does not necessarily have to be a physical challenge, although the higher class rivers require more strength and endurance. Age really isn't a factor either, as people in their 60's routinely raft Class 4's and above. According to Hall, 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 fromClass 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.
When asked to recommend specific trips for the unusual season ahead, outfitters Hall and Doyle came up with these suggestions:
East Fork of the Carson — This one is recommended for families who will enjoy a gentle Class 2 float along 21 miles of wilderness. Normally run just through May, this year the Carson may be open into early July. A bonus on this particular trip is the hot springs you encounter about half way down that flows into the river. This is one of the few east-flowing rivers in California that is used for rafting.
North Fork of the Yuba — For those seeking a few more thrills, the Class 4 Yuba will likely be running at least through June. This river is a favorite with river guides and combines lush forested banks with ample whitewater. The Gold Rush is alive and well on the Yuba where you likely will float by gold miners. Nearby Downieville is still an active gold rush town.
South Fork of the American — This trip serves as an introductory to whitewater and has rapids that build throughout the trip. Since this is a dam-controlled river, the water this particular year will be more consistent than most years. One outfitter describes the Class 3 rapids on this river as "exhilarating but not intimidating." The put-in is near historic Sutters Mill in Coloma, and the trip is known for spectacular California scenery.
Merced River — This Class 4-plus flows out of Yosemite National Park and has high water for the first few weeks of the season. But it "holds the water really well," one outfitter explained, and it never gets out of control. The trip is "kind of like going through the Grand Canyon." The river meanders along the valley floor through Yosemite and continually builds into whitewater. It's a steep river with sweeping bends and has long straight rapids and big rolling waves.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Good rafting rivers are located in most parts of California, reaching from the Kern River near Bakersfield to the Cal-Salmon near the Oregon border.
WHAT: River rafting is a great way to have fun outdoors, enjoy natural scenery and experience a wide range of thrills — from gentle paddles on placid streams to challenging torrents of whitewater. It can be an excellent family experience.
WHEN: The season this year will continue through October, with most rivers projected to have higher and faster water well into the summer. Many rivers will have adequate flow for a longer period this year.
WHY: For the adventure of it.
HOW: Tributary Whitewater Tours is located in Grass Valley and can be reached at (800) 672-3846 or at www.whitewatertours.com. Beyond Limits Adventures is in Riverbank and can be reached at 800-234-RAFT or at www.rivertrip.com. Depending on the outfitter, prices begin at about $88 for a half-day trip, with weekdays less expensive.