California must have some of the hardest-working water in the world. Our mountains scrape abundant snowfall out of the sky to offer a playground for skiers and snowboarders.
Then, as snow melts in spring, runoff gushes down river canyons and provides thrills to rafters and kayakers.
Ultimately, of course, the stuff offers habitat for fish (and anglers), generates hydro power, gives us working showers, irrigates farms and provides so many other blessings into the bargain.
Each whitewater season has its own profile. For 2012, late spring and summer river-running looks to be benign, filled with sun and fun, reasonably safe, and of surprisingly long duration. Especially if you compare 2012 with last year, when a double- deep snowpack created an embarrassment of riches. Too many rivers ran too cold and too high for too long. It was mid-summer before recreational users could really enjoy their sports. In contrast, this year the watchword is: Get out there right now, and begin enjoying yourself.
"Last season, all our whitewater outfitters had a pretty slow start," said Dan Crandall, who runs Current Adventures kayak school and The River Store on the popular south fork of the American River at Coloma. "But this year, many rivers that have little or no dam control, like the Carson, are sweet and runnable right now. And other drainages that are metered with dams and reservoirs, such as the south fork and the Trinity, have enough water to provide good recreation all summer long."
Known whitewater runs are divided into classes, based on the difficulty of their rapids. Class II-III runs provide suitable fun for beginners and families; Class III-IV runs are better reserved for those with some experience; and Class IV-V drops are best left to experts.
This year's snowpack ranges from 95 percent of normal in the Shasta region to around 50 percent of normal in the southern Sierra. Factors affecting the rate of snowmelt and runoff include daytime temperatures and the impact of warm or cold spring storms if any occur. It's best to call and make reservations with outfitters as soon as possible to get the dates you want, then contact them a week or two before your trip to get details on current conditions, the right clothing to bring and so forth.
Rick Demarest, owner of Turtle River Rafting, which serves the northern end of the state, said, "Spring weather determines everything about how fast the snow comes off the hills. We have trips going on the upper Sacramento now, and that should last at least through the first week in June, as will the California Salmon and the Scott. But our big rivers, the Rogue in Oregon, the Klamath and the Trinity look good for the entire summer."
In central California, a big player is the venerable OARS company. Steve Markle, a marketing manager there, says that the Merced, on the west side of Yosemite, is providing thrilling and scenic runs right now that should last through June. But other gems, like the north fork of the American, could drop too low to run by the end of May.
"If you want that one, I'd jump on it, pronto," Markle said. He also noted that mild Class II commercial runs are being contemplated for the lower Mokelumne for the first time. They may become available by June and last through the summer.
"Half-day runs on the Moke will be a great attraction," Markle predicts. "People will be able to add that to their Highway 49 adventures, and it will be a fine way to introduce families to the sport."
At the south end of the state, Luther Stephens of Kern River Rafting says recent storms have improved the runoff profile by 10 percent, getting the drainage up over 50 percent of average. "The dramatic Forks-of-the-Kern run and the upper Kern look good through mid-June," said Stephens. "The lower Kern runs, we'll start on May 25, and we'll keep running weekend trips through August 19th at least, and maybe even longer."
In sum, this 2012 season may go into scrapbooks as the time when the experience of flowering river canyons and foaming whitewater rapids were added to the short list of top recreation options for you and your family. A river trip especially one that lasts two days or longer is one of the most absorbing, exciting and satisfying vacations that California can provide.
The best way to begin is to spend some time online. Go to the California Whitewater Rafting website at www.c-w-r.com and look at the available river runs.
Clicking on a run will bring up links to outfitters; go on a company's individual site and make notes on various trips and prices.
Once you've figured out which trips are most attractive to you, call up a company and have a chat with a representative. Be prepared to discuss the ages, outdoor experience and general fitness of your trip participants; this is the best way for the company to help you select the most suitable option.
Generally, it's smartest to start out with mild runs, and gain experience gradually. If you have a sizable group, or are bringing along a club, it's often possible to negotiate an exclusive trip with special features, or a group price.
In California, "whitewater central" is the south fork of the American River, just off Highway 49 near Coloma. The river's classic Class III+ runs supply plenty of thrills and riparian beauty during one- or two-day runs. There are campgrounds, inns, parks and restaurants in the neighborhood and plenty of the best outfitters in the business. Three websites to help you get the lay of the land and organize a trip are: