Whitewater is its own country. It's a magical realm that, Brigadoon-like, can only arise with the fall of precipitation. So, naturally, a drought year shall always make its appearance a tad problematic.
However, this 2014 season is nowhere near as bad as the avid fans of riding whitewater rapids might have feared. In California, the rivers that don't enjoy dam-controlled flows could hit ride-able levels in mid- to late spring, then quickly subside. But those with reservoir feeds will, in the main, last throughout the entire summer -- thanks to cautious policies by managers with hands on the taps. So this popular and refreshing form of recreation will be easily attainable to those enabled with the know-how to seek it out.
And that, as it just so happens, is this story's main and only purpose: to serve as a guide to the would-be whitewater-savvy.
Not all river drainages are created equal, and subsequently, they are treated rather unevenly by the whims of the weather gods. Streams up by the Oregon border now boast a level of near 70 percent of average precipitation in their watersheds, whereas those in the southern Sierra have recently strained to rise above 20 percent.
Consequently, some outfitters on the Kern River, down near Bakersfield, have decided to keep their doors shuttered. But not Tom Moore of the Sierra South whitewater company.
"Right now, it looks like the Upper Kern will run late April into June, so we'll be offering paddle-raft trips on the Class IV stretches," Moore says. "When water drops, we offer tours with inflatable kayaks and custom inner tubes on the Class II areas. Those are the things that got us through last summer, and we're a bit better off now than we were then."
However, the forks of the Kern Class V run will likely have good flow for days, not weeks, and the Lower Kern's Class III to IV runs will not be working at all.
By comparison, watersheds to our far north are fairly awash in aquatic wealth. Rich Wilkinson says that his Rogue Klamath River Adventures outfit will serve up trips on the mighty Rogue in southern Oregon from the end of May into September -- pretty much a regular season. Even the scenic, high-desert runs on the Owyhee River in Oregon, which takes flows from Idaho and Nevada, has trips scheduled starting in May.
And in California, Wilkinson plans to mount trips on the Class II to IV Smith River, our state's most pristine, undammed stream, late April into June, with clients camping among the redwoods at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and picking which of three forks of the Smith they will jump on each morning.
He expects a season on the California Salmon River to last through May. But the mighty Klamath to which the Salmon is a tributary, will have run-able flows on its upper, middle and lower stretches throughout summer. The Klamath is dam-controlled, and pulses are sent downriver to serve agriculture, with usable whitewater recreation as a much-appreciated byproduct. Another Klamath tributary, the Trinity, will also experience moderate dam releases that will take it through summer. Paralleled by Highway 299, its banks dotted with campgrounds and lodges, the Trinity makes a fine place for any family to plan a multiday river vacation.
That leaves the middle of our great state available for discussion, a region that includes the three forks of the American River, particularly its South Fork -- the most popular recreation stream in the West.
"People in the media were really yammering about California's drought in February, but our conditions have improved a lot since then," says Arnie Chandola, owner of American Whitewater Expeditions. "It's pretty healthy on the South Fork now. We've been guaranteed raft-able flows there Saturday to Monday until the end of May, and then flows five days a week during the summer."
AWE's sterling band of international river guides will take clients down both Class III-plus runs on the South Fork, as well as Class IV runs on the Middle Fork (probably on fewer days) throughout summer. However, the Class IV-plus North Fork has a relatively small and low drainage that reacts quickly to warm days and -- if run-able at all this year -- will have a season best described as blink and you'll miss it.
Other than the streams described above, the state's other spectacular, drought-defying option is the Tuolumne. The "T" is home to some of the best two-day trips down one of the most gorgeous Class IV to V river canyons you can find on our globe. The flow schedule for the "T" as of this writing is still a work in progress, but it seems a lock that it will be run-able most days throughout summer.
Finally, there are the beautiful rivers on the west slope of the Sierra that are not fed by major reservoirs, such as the Kings, Merced and Yuba. These will also start early but be more long-lived than the North Fork of the American, and likely will not last much beyond Memorial Day. However, if bouncing through rapids surrounded by green foothills laced with spring wildflowers really does sound like your thing, then consult the roster of rafting companies online and inquire about trips on these rivers. You'll need to state your aims, make your plans and pull that trigger quickly.
The best thing about a moderately low-flow year like this one is that it gives prospective whitewater buffs plenty of benign conditions wherein they can acquire skills, gear, expertise and lore about the realm of rivers. Then, should an average or better season come along, they'll be well-positioned to take full advantage of it.
"The way I see it," Moore of Sierra South says brightly, "every dry year we have to endure takes us one year closer to the next wet year!"
Contact Paul McHugh via firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
Here's a quick guide that estimates which rivers will be running and when:
American River, South Fork: All summer long
American River, Middle Fork: Limited days during summer
American River, North Fork: Very short season (through end of May if run-able at all)
California Salmon River: Through end of May
Kern River: Through early June on the Upper Kern only
Kings River: Through early June
Klamath River: All
Merced River: Through early June
Smith River: Through early June
Trinity River: All summer long
Tuolumne River: Most days during the summer
Yuba River: Through early June
RAFTING: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The basics: Flowing water is rated Class I-II (mild) to Class VI (extremely dangerous). Obviously, it's best to start with the mild runs and move on to more expert levels after building your experience. Guides and outfitters can greatly reduce the learning curve. They will teach you about proper equipment, how to read and judge the water and how to avoid and cope with hazards.
Booking trips: To research rivers and outfitters, visit the California Whitewater Rafting website, www.c-w-r.com. Call outfitters for a given river, and discuss the ages, outdoor experience and general fitness of your trip participants; this is the best way for the company to help you pick an appropriate outing. If you intend to bring along members of a club or extended family group, you can often negotiate over items like prices, timing and menus.
Shuttle: The Coloma Shuttle serves the South Fork American River runs. For schedule and reservations, go to colomashuttle.com, or call 530-303-2404. The best way to assure pickup is to reserve for a group of seven or more.
Flows: If you want to run rivers without assured dam-release flows, study the weather in the drainages. In spring, a warm rainstorm or a number of hot days will make flows rise. Cold days or a low-elevation snowstorm will moderate flows. In addition, check www.dreamflows.com. Flows are given in cfs, or cubic-feet-per-second.
More sources: www.theamericanriver.com, www.coloma.com, theriverstore.com, www.calkayak.com/location.cfm.
-- Paul McHugh, Correspondent