Massive snowmelt creates an epic river rafting season in California.
California’s American River is experiencing some of the best whitewater rafting in years, with the rapid conditions matching the names of some of the most dangerous spots, such as Triple Threat, Deadman’s Drop and Satan’s Cesspool. Historically heavy snowpack is melting and creating a spring runoff that is replenishing rivers and reservoirs and fueling an epic whitewater season. The area has been in drought for the past three years, but now cascading volumes of water are flowing into various rivers at rates not seen in years thanks to the recent record-breaking rain and snow that California experienced.
Jessica Wallstrom of OARS, one of dozens of rafting companies offering trips on the river, confirms that even with the snowmelt only starting, the American River, which originates high in the Sierra Nevada just west of Lake Tahoe, is already seeing over three times the volume of water compared to previous years. Wallstrom notes that the water’s velocity creates a series of challenges, with some portions of the river that might seem mellow proving dangerous once a rafter’s in it.
But with the increase in water, comes an increase in risk, and rafting companies have responded by giving their guides additional safety training and swift water rescue courses. They have also identified which spots to avoid while continuously monitoring the constantly changing water flows. Guides also look for river eddies, spots where part of the river doubles back and slows down, offering an off-ramp from the surging current, as a way to keep clients safe.
The epic whitewater season is providing a contrast to recent years which were the driest on record. Schedule releases of water from upstream dams and short seasons that end in late summer were the norm, but this year rafting companies are planning to operate seven days a week and extending the season well into the autumn. Even with the water being at an all-time high, rivers vary widely, and guide companies are still finding safe places for families with children to enjoy.
In the Southern Sierra, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux issued temporary closures on Thursday for parts of the Kaweah, Kern and Tule rivers, as well as nearby river running locations, due to the cold, swift water, restricting access to only experienced rafters and kayakers. Officials in neighboring Kern County also warned people not to raft on the county’s Kern River stretch independently but stopped short of issuing closures. Last week, National Park officials temporarily closed a portion of the Yosemite Valley after forecasters warned of flooding from the Merced River, which is also popular for rafting.
Rafting is expected to become more advantageous in the coming days and weeks. Guides believe that as long as people remain sober, follow their instructions, pay attention, and actively participate, the season holds the chance to be the best ever.