Rafters Gone Wild return to party Saturday on American River

Published: Friday, Jul. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013 - 9:03 am

A perfect storm of high summer temperatures, a fast moving river and thousands of rafters – some partying with alcohol – Saturday on the American River has garnered the full attention of law enforcement agencies and rescue organizations.

More than 3,000 rafters are expected to participate in this year's Rafters Gone Wild event on the American River between Sunrise Boulevard and River Bend Park. This is the second year the event – whose popularity has evolved briskly via Facebook – is taking place.

Last year, roughly 3,500 people flocked to the river, with law enforcement agencies making 12 arrests and providing aid to nearly 100 people.

"The weather is going to be in the high 90s, and that makes people want to get out on the water and drink," said Jason Ramos, spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. "From our standpoint, we have to be prepared."

The event, which will begin at 11 a.m., is described on Facebook as a day of summer rafting fun for those 21 or older, and will include mud wrestling, cliff jumping, music, homemade grain alcohol and a fruit brew called jungle juice. A river cleanup is slated for Sunday.

It is the alcohol factor that most troubles law enforcement. "We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we will have problems that come along with alcohol," said Ramos.

Six law enforcement and rescue agencies will monitor the event.

One concern is how many people may underestimate the cold temperature of the river, which averages 61 degrees for the month.

The American River's power and the likelihood that many participants will not be wearing life jackets also concern law enforcement, said Kelly McFarlane, media liaison and rescuer with the Drowning Accident Rescue Team.

"Just because it's 100 degrees outside does not mean that the water will not be cold," said McFarlane.

Along the Fair Oaks portion of the river, depths will be near 7 feet. Where it runs under the H Street bridge, depths will be about 18 feet, according to the latest measurements from the California Department of Water Resources.

Along Sacramento County waterways, 66 percent of drownings are a result of alcohol-related incidents, said McFarlane.

Last year, DART performed 37 water rescues during Rafters Gone Wild. "The rescues ranged from people in distress, cases of hypothermia and falls out of rafts," McFarlane said.

She said the rescues included saving rafters who had removed their footwear and were unable to negotiate the terrain because of sharp rocks. Some who were rescued were using flotation devices not designed for river transit, such as inflatable pool toys that ripped and sank when they came into contact with rocks.

On Saturday, DART will have a crew of 13 certified rescuers volunteering their time, and will use a powerboat and two Jet Skis to make rescues, McFarlane said.

DART uses volunteers, but the response still costs the agency roughly $1,500, McFarlane said.

"The public helps fund our operations through donations and fundraisers, so we're more than happy to assist for such events as Rafters Gone Wild," she said.

Use of alcohol on the American River is restricted only on Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day. But the power of social media to create seemingly random and well attended happenings on the river draws the continued interest of Don Nottoli, chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

After last year's Rafters Gone Wild, Nottoli said he wanted to consider a targeted alcohol ban. He is willing to pursue one again this year.

"It seems to me that a ban on alcohol would be timely to pursue if we're going to have this recurring activity because of social media," said Nottoli.

"We ought to take a look at what sort of action we need to do to go to the Legislature – not for a blanket prohibition – but to allow certain jurisdictions to consider a ban on a particular weekend or for a certain event."

Nottoli said he would like to bring the issue up for discussion again before the end of the summer.

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Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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