Water adventures
Three great ways to get you out on the water

Springtime in California means it's time to have fun once again on the water. Whether you head for one of the state's many rivers, lakes and streams, or take advantage of the vast blue Pacific, it's not hard to find a water adventure that you'll long remember.

We've come up with three unique adventures -- everything from sightseeing to adrenaline inducing water sports — that you can put on your upcoming calendar.

A gentle canoe ride

Sonoma County's Russian River is a Huck Finn type of getaway that is neither expensive nor difficult to get to. For decades people of all ages have made their annual pilgrimage to get a river-level view of some of the best scenery and wildlife California has to offer.

The Russian River flows through such famous Wine Country destinations as Geyserville and Healdsburg before it makes its way out to the sea through gentle hills covered with thick redwood forests and teaming with rare birds and other wildlife. About a 10-mile stretch of the river from Forestville to Guerneville is ideal for calm-water canoeing or kayaking and a local company called Burke's Canoe Trips helps make it even easier by providing canoes, kayaks and a shuttle service that will return you to your car near Forestville.

The Russian River, in this case, is not exactly the "rushin'" river. If you're looking for a lot of fast water and river rapids, there are other California rivers that will fill that bill, but not this one. In fact, the water here is so tame that it's really not all that good for inner-tubing because in some parts you can't keep enough forward motion without a lot of paddling. For that reason, canoes and kayaks -- which seem to glide over the water with little effort -- are ideal.

It's not that you won't get a few thrills. As the people from Burkes' Canoes told us, there is just enough fast water to make things interesting. There are a few points in the river where channels of current can carry you into tree branches along the shore, or get your canoe turned around in a whirlpool if you don't guide your canoe to the right area. But the good news is that, even if you flip, the water's relatively warm, not very deep and you'll be carried forward to a calm area in literally just seconds.

We opted for a canoe and spent four hours or so alternating between negotiating some of the stronger currents — or what you might call very small rapids -- and quietly paddling on a beautiful blue-sky spring day. We stopped only for a few minutes to have a sandwich on a spectacular sandy beach — although we're told most people linger at these beaches to swim, sunbathe and just hang out with their fellow travelers for hours on end.

Russian River canoe trips are a great way to see river scenery in a spectacular part of California where you'll enjoy both redwood forests and abundant wildlife. It's also a social experience since many people do the trip in groups.

For more information on Russian River canoe trips, phone 707-887-1222 or visit www.burkescanoetrips.com.

River rafting

April through June is prime rafting season and river rafting companies offer 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 outfitter 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.

One recommended river is the East Fork of the Carson, known as a good outing for families who will enjoy a gentle Class 2 float along 21 miles of wilderness. 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.

For those seeking a few more thrills, the Class 4 Yuba 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.

For more information on California river rafting, phone 800-672-3846.

Whale-watching

There is something magical about viewing sea creatures in their native habitat, and maybe one of the best examples is the opportunity to watch gray whales off the California coast. Just as predictable as Pasadena's Rose Parade, a "parade" of some 20,000 gray whales is ready for viewing each winter and spring in waters easily reached by tour boats.

Some may have the impression that these huge mammals only travel in deep waters far from the coastline, but the reality is it's even possible to see whale spouts from some points on land. In the San Diego area — where we spent an afternoon whale watching from a boat — the whales are just five or so miles off the coastline.

The big question for us was whether our trip would indeed yield any whale sightings. The second question was whether we would get seasick. The public relations people at the boat company made a point of warning us to take seasickness medication ahead of time if we thought we'd need it.

We showed up about a half-hour early for our 1:30 p.m. departure to ensure good seats on the railing of the outside decks. The 100-foot Marietta offers plenty of outdoor seating — enough, it seemed, to accommodate almost everyone on the cruise. Heading out through San Diego Harbor, a naturalist from the Birch Aquarium took the microphone and began a three-hour narration that was packed full of information. We had expected many details on the whales but also included were sightseeing tips about the harbor area and San Diego in general.

We learned that, between November and May, gray whales migrate 10,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in frigid arctic waters to the warm lagoons of Mexico. If you want to see the gray whales, the season in Southern California lasts until early April, sometimes longer. But blue whales and other fascinating sea creatures are spotted on wildlife cruises throughout the summer.

After leaving the harbor, our boat began some moderate rolling in the increasingly larger swells, but we were pleasantly surprised that the Marietta seemed to handle the water just fine. We looked for any reaction from our fellow passengers, but everyone seemed to be enjoying the sunny weather with little care about the swells.

Sure enough, we did have several whale sightings during our excursion. The gray whales are up to 45 feet long and weigh 30 tons so you might think it would be easy to get good pictures. The reality is that you really need a high-powered telephoto lens and a little bit of luck to catch one with a good part of its body above the water. Most times we could see the back and barnacles, but we only saw the classic tail fins on one or two occasions.

But overall, for us, this turned out to be a very successful day: not only did we enjoy numerous whale sightings, but we left our lunch in our tummies right where it belonged.

For more information on San Diego whale-watching, please visit www.sdhe.com or phone 619-234-4111.

Photos, from top: The calm Russian River; Class 4 rapids on a California river; whale-watching cruise from San Diego Bay

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway; rafting photo courtesy Tributary Whitewater Tours

OTHER DESTINATIONS: Be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.

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