Rafting the American, Truckee rivers
June 21, 2007
“Forward!” a guide shouts over the growing din of upcoming Class III rapids on the South Fork of the American River.
A seemingly unnecessary command, there is clearly no other option for this raft of seven people about to tackle a series of sheer rock-lined rapids known as “The Gorge.”
The announcement does inspire a flurry of coordinated paddling that slides the raft into a line passing straight through a potentially treacherous stretch of river, ripe with large rocks, quick drops and mouthfuls of water for those at the front of the raft.
Areas surrounding Lake Tahoe boast several options for river rafting, a sport which ranges from lazily sunning down stretches of tree-lined river to eye-widening moments of thrilling uncertainty.
Many of the most popular drainages, like the North Fork of the American River and the Carson River, have already dropped to impassable levels, but dam-controlled stretches, like the South Fork of the American River and the Truckee River are expected to remain available to rafting throughout the summer.
“Well, the Carson River is a done deal. It’s a spring run that lasts through mid-June at best,” said Lorraine Hall, with Tributary Whitewater Tours, on Thursday. “This year’s pitiful snowpack didn’t help us much, but we will still be running into September.”
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Accessible at many points outside of Placerville, flows on the South and Middle forks of the American River are controlled by regular releases from upstream dams.
The Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District and Pacific Gas and Electric ensured these flows with a re-licensing agreement signed on Jan. 29, 2007, after five years of negotiations between state agencies, federal agencies and conservation groups.
Seven day a week flows have been secured for the Middle Fork of the American River, which has some Class IV sections, until Sept. 27.
Six day a week flows, with no guarantees on Mondays, are secured for the South Fork until a September date which has yet to be specified, according to Hall.
These releases cause the river to swell for a brief time, giving rafters a window of time to the run the river with more intense rapids and fewer chances of getting stuck by the few shallow sections along the river.
On busy weekends this window of opportunity can create some hold ups because it requires all rafters to stay in a long chain, bunching up before rapids that often must be taken one raft at a time.
While the American River boasts Class III and IV rapids, those looking for a mild rafting trip will want to check out the Truckee River, which is also dam-controlled, but not nearly as challenging.
“We’re gentler than the American River. Children as young as two can raft with us,” said Judy Bell, co-owner of Mountain Air Sports, on Thursday.
While the rafting season has been cut short in the past because of low releases, this summer looks to be a full one on the Truckee River.
“As of yesterday, we have great water,” said Bell referring to a 57 cubic feet per second increase in water releases from the Lake Tahoe Dam in Tahoe City.
These releases put the flows in the Truckee river up to about 227 cubic feet for second, plenty for an easy float.
Like the American, the season on the Truckee River is also likely to last into September.
Hall recommended making rafting reservations in advance, as the 4th of July weekend on the Truckee river is filling up quickly. She said their are still plenty of spots available for rafting on the American River.
International Whitewater Classification System
Class I (easy): Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. The river has few obstructions which are all obvious and easily missed with little training. The risk to swimmers is slight and self-rescue is easy.
Class II (novice): Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.
Class III (intermediate): Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare and self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims.
Class IV (advanced): Intense and powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. The rapids may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. Scouting is usually necessary the first time down. The risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult.
Class V (expert): Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Rapids may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. Scouting is recommended and may be difficult. Swims are dangerous and rescue is often difficult even for teams of experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential.
Class VI (extreme and exploratory): These rapids have rarely been attempted and exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability, and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. These rapids are for teams of experts at favorable water levels. After a Class VI rapid has been run successfully several times, its rating may be changed to Class V.
Source: American Whitewater
How safe is white water rafting?
Careening down rushing rivers in a glorified inner tube may not seem like a safe activity to many, but the perceived danger of whitewater rafting has remained largely unsubstantiated by national accident statistics.
Out of the estimated 10 million Americans who took whitewater rafting trips last summer, 50 people drowned, making the chance of death from such excursions approximately 1 in 200,000.
Of course, taking proper safety measures and refraining from unnecessary risks are key to a safe experience.
California has no laws requiring specific safety measures on whitewater rafting trips, according to a September report by CNN, but all of the guide services on the South Fork of the American River on June 2 were requiring rafters to wear life jackets.
Even those rafters and kayakers who were not using guide services, opted to don a life preserver and some were wearing helmets.
Helmets are also starting to become required accessories among some outfitters and a brief run down of how to react to possible emergency scenarios is given before rafts head down the river.
Eight fatalities have been reported in the United States so far this year, according to news reports and statistics compiled on the American Whitewater Web site.
None of these have occurred in the rivers surrounding the Lake Tahoe Basin.