Frosty the Snowman went on a crash diet this year. Despite growing fat on big storms in early winter, the white giant of the California snowpack had slimmed down quite a bit by spring.
On April 1, the pack in general barely topped 50 percent of average. Which means Frosty's next incarnation as quicksilver runoff through river canyons will be scant and brief in the streams that do not rely on dam releases.
Whitewater kayakers and rafters should soon visit their favorite undammed streams among them the Carson, Merced, Kings and Yuba rivers because by mid-June many of those watercourses will likely turn "bony" and unrunnable.
However, the good news is that California water managers chose to maximize reservoir storage behind dams after the first of the year, when the prospect of further significant precipitation had become iffy. So the big, bread-and-butter runs of the commercial whitewater industry such as the south fork and middle fork of the American, and the Tuolumne will actually maintain decent release levels through the summer.
Steve Markle of O.A.R.S., one of the West's venerable rafting companies, said that this summer's action in the north end of the state will focus on the lower Klamath. His firm has had great success booking multiday trips for young families on the mild runs below Happy Camp and already is stacking up reservations for this season. Bill Mashek of Rubicon Whitewater Adventures said the Trinity River (a tributary of the Klamath) is looking good through June, but releases may drop to a more minimal flow by July.
Dan Crandall runs whitewater trips and kayak classes through Current Adventures and the River Store in Lotus on the south fork of the American. He concurs that June will be the best month to hit the Trinity, but said his home water on the American should prove an especially safe, enjoyable and predictable place all summer.
"The water's going to be retained and metered out; there shouldn't be any huge spike in runoff," Crandall said. "That'll make this a great season to learn how to kayak, or take your kids out rafting. In May, the water will still be a little cold.
"But by June, it's really going to level out and be good through Labor Day."
The River Shuttle to transport boaters that Crandall's company created and ran for four years is supposed to continue this summer, but will be operated by the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce.
There's also a new kayak company presence in the Coloma-Lotus area, a branch of California Canoe & Kayak, which opened behind Marco's Cafe on Highway 49.
While the south fork's moderate (Class III) runs serve as the major destination for whitewater buffs in California, those who pursue a bit more excitement (Class IV) can find it on the middle fork of the American nearby
"The middle fork will consistently have some of the best releases in the state," said Steve Welch of the American River Touring Association, or ARTA, which includes that run in the company's robust menu. "It will be a top commercial run all summer long, probably seven days a week."
For a multiday trip with riverside camping, Welch recommends the Class IV experience on the Tuolumne, as does Markle of O.A.R.S.
"Last year, a broken dam turbine required low flows at the end of our season," Markle said. "But this year it's fixed, making flows good and reliable. So oddly enough, this season on the Tuolumne should be considerably better than the last one."
Another major option is the Kern River, which drains the southern Sierra. It will enjoy usable flows but still is hurt by a double whammy: a thin snowpack, reckoned at 40 percent of average or less; and low storage at Lake Isabella, which feeds the lower Kern runs.
Nonetheless, Whitewater Voyages says water will be sufficient to book runs through the gorgeous upper Kern canyon into June, and on the lower Kern into September. At lower flows, however, these will likely prove to be runs that require more than the usual maneuvers around boulders.
THE WATER'S FINE
Looking to put together a whitewater trip? Here are some tips:
California Whitewater Rafting offers a list of rivers at its website, www.c-w-r.com. Clicking on a named run brings up links to outfitters. Go to a company's individual site and make notes on various trips and prices. Then call the company and talk with a representative. Be ready to discuss the ages, outdoor experience and general fitness of your trip participants; this is the best way for the company to help you find a good fit for you or your group.
Generally, it's smart to start with mild runs and gradually build experience. If you have a large group, it's frequently possible to negotiate an exclusive trip with special features or a group price.
The "whitewater capital" of California 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 outings. There are campgrounds, inns, parks and restaurants in the neighborhood and plenty of reputable outfitters.
Some websites to help you organize a trip on the south fork: