Caution urged after massive Sierra snowmelt creates raging whitewater conditions
Pumped up by snowmelt from the High Sierra, the South Fork of the American River was running high, fast and cold when the eighth-graders from Sonoma Country Day School arrived on its banks for their traditional graduation river trip.
So rather than risk sending their 35 kids down the South Fork’s adrenaline-boosting Gorge run - the most popular whitewater stretch in California - the teachers opted for a safe and sane 3-mile float downstream from the 1849 gold discovery site at Coloma.
Their 14-year-old charges made it a blast. “We had a lot of squirt guns; we had water fights,” teacher Jan Le Hecka of Santa Rosa said.
A veteran of more than 20 South Fork trips with her students, Le Hecka said the river delivers at any level, curbed by drought or supercharged by heavy precipitation, as it is this year. “I love that river,” she said.
More than 114,000 people took to the American River last year in rafts, kayaks and inner tubes, plying portions of the 21-mile El Dorado County run from Chili Bar on Highway 193 near Placerville to Salmon Falls at the top of Folsom Lake, with 24 named rapids providing plenty of bounce but nothing so formidable it required an on-land scout before running. Most trips cover either the upper or lower half of the run, with campgrounds and a county park about midway near the town of Lotus.
But this spring, experts are warning that nature’s abundance has thrown a caution, like a yellow flag at a racetrack, over California’s favorite whitewater way and other streams flowing down the Sierra foothills.
The drought-busting storms that soaked Sonoma County in all-time record rainfall also wrapped the Sierra in the second-largest white blanket since 1996, a snowpack rated at 159 percent of average on April 1. The snowpack was 171 percent of average in 2011, then dwindled during the drought to subpar size, including just 5 percent in 2015, the skimpiest snowfall since 1950, according to Department of Water Resources records.
A cool spring delayed the onset of snowmelt, which has fueled a surge of water since the Memorial Day weekend that prompted commercial outfitters to cancel some trips and led to the death of a 44-year-old man who fell out of a commercial outfitter’s raft in a turbulent Kern River rapid on May 27.
The same day, a 54-year-old woman nearly drowned on the South Fork when she came out of her kayak and got stuck in brush with fast water running through it - a hazard known as a “strainer” - downstream from Coloma. She was rescued by a rafter who pulled into an eddy, waded into the river and lifted her head out of the water, with others helping free the woman and load her into a raft, according to American Whitewater, a national nonprofit.
The South Fork was flowing about 6,000 cubic feet per second that day, the same level it was when the Sonoma Country Day School group eschewed the river’s major rapids a few days later. That’s not flood stage, by any means, but it is three times more water than the usual summertime flow of about 1,750 cubic feet per second and more than enough to take an inexperienced boater by surprise.
Steve Welch, general manager for ARTA River Trips since 1984, said it’s the highest springtime water he’s seen since 2011, when the peak flow was fairly brief. This year, the South Fork is expected to run from 3,000 to 6,000 cfs into July, and there hasn’t been a sustained flow like that since 2006, he said.
“It’s more exciting now,” he said. “Bigger, colder and faster.”
Veteran rafters and kayakers will jump on it, Welch said, but relative newbies, such as people who went down the river last summer at 1,200 cfs, could be in for a shock.
At low levels like that, anyone bounced out of a boat at Satan’s Cesspool, a rapid that delivers a moderate punch on the Gorge run, would likely be hauled back aboard in the calm water just below the drop. But at the flows expected for the next month or more, there’s a “good chance,” Welch said, of swimming the next rapid, aptly named Son of Satan’s.
Welch, who’s been with ARTA since 1984, said he knew during the winter blizzards that this would be a “monster year” on the Sierra streams.
“Just be prepared,” said Noah Triplett, a veteran El Dorado County river ranger. “You’re going to find a very different river.”
The waves are bigger, covering many rocks, but stronger hydraulics increase the chances of flipping a raft in a hole, and with a nonstop current - instead of calm pools between rapids - there’s a greater chance for a lengthy swim in ocean-cold water, he said.
Boaters should wear wetsuits and “buddy up” rather than going out alone, Triplett said.