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.

Inner-tubing the readily accessible 5 miles of river in the Coloma Valley, a popular summer sport, is not advised at this time, he said.

River flows may not come down to normal until the middle or end of July, Triplett said.

A snow sensor at ?8,750 feet in the American River basin shows there is still 3 to 5 feet of snow, the amount that would typically be on the ground in May. “So a lot of snow is hanging in for a long time,” said David Rizzardo, chief of the Department of Water Resources snow surveys section.

Snow melt runoff will likely continue into July, with melt-out by August, he said.

Runoff will probably continue well into August, if not later, in the Central and Southern Sierra that feed the Stanislaus River south to the Kern River, Rizzardo said.

That would include the Tuolumne River, flowing west out of Yosemite National Park and offering an 18-mile stretch of highly technical whitewater in a deep, roadless canyon where boaters are truly on their own.

The T, as it’s known, is a mecca for boaters who savor pure wilderness, with sandy beaches for camping and white-knuckle action on the water, starting with a trio of tricky rapids in the first mile offering several opportunities to “wrap” a raft on a rock, pinned by the force of the current.

Clavey Falls, about ?5½ miles down, requires a thorough scout from the right bank to plot an entry point and a course through a cauldron of roaring whitewater while coping with the anxiety of soon being in its grip. O.A.R.S., an outfitter founded in 1969, rates Clavey among the 10 most notorious rapids in the world.

“It’s an amazing experience,” said Welch, whose ARTA office in Groveland is at the top of the road leading to the Tuolumne put-in. “It’s intense.”

Flowing at or above 10,000 cfs for the first two weeks of June, the Tuolumne was about five times its normal early summer flow and 10 times larger than last year “Not for the faint of heart,” Welch said.

ARTA is screening passengers and has canceled trips because of the high flow, and the company’s guides made training runs last week because most “hadn’t seen the river at such a high level in a long time, if ever,” Welch said.

The Tuolumne is likely to stay at about 10,000 cfs through July 4 and then come down quickly, he said.

There are shallow riffles but no rapids on the Russian River in Sonoma County, yet officials are cautioning boaters and swimmers to be wary of a flow two to four times normal for this time of year.

Current in the seemingly languid river is deceptively strong, especially in narrows where the flow is concentrated, said David Robinson, Sonoma County Regional Parks programs manager. Someone casually wading in the green water could step into an unseen hole and “you’d really be moving,” he said.

Parks crews plan to start erecting the summer dam at Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg next week and to fill the swimming lagoon by July 1.

Meanwhile, the snow-fed Sierra streams offer hardy souls a once-in-a-decade opportunity, said Triplett, the American river ranger.

“High water is great,” he said. Go with an experienced boater or commercial guide: “You’ll have fun.”

Guy Kovner has been rafting rivers in Northern California and beyond since the 1970s.

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