One thing was certain: I was going into the water.
Another thing: This was not a place to be out of the raft. Too many boulders in the river, too much whitewater, too many grasping tree branches lurking beneath the surface. On that particular morning, the south fork of the American River was running at 3,000 cfs -- cubic feet per second. Translation: I was about to be swept away.
The guide in our 14-foot blue Hyside raft, Justin Orban, shouted for the four other passengers and me to paddle hard, then stop, a drill that would continue all day. He was steering the boat toward a narrow gap between two massive boulders that were awash with rushing, foaming green water. Within seconds, we hit the gap and were drenched by a shock of icy-cold water, and then the raft dropped a stomach-twisting 3 feet.
A second later, when the raft suddenly lurched left, so did I. In one of those unreal, slow-motion moments, I begin to lift out of the raft and go over the side. What flashed in my mind was a recap of what Orban had told us earlier about what to do if we're jarred overboard, not an unusual occurrence.
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At the last second, Orban reached out with his left hand, grabbed the right shoulder of my yellow splash jacket and yanked me back in.
"We almost lost him!" he yelled to fellow guides Andrew Boucher and Gabriel Crawford, following us in a second raft. Much hooting and hollering followed.
Later in the day, on a calmer stretch of water, I jumped into the river and floated downstream, an integral part of the rafting experience. Five minutes in the water was long enough for the threat of hypothermia to become a consideration, despite an outfit consisting of a Quiksilver river shirt, a "farmer John"-style wet suit, a life jacket and a splash jacket. Wow, is that water cold!
At 9 that morning, I had met the three guides at Camp Lotus, an idyllic stretch of woods that fronts a half-mile of the south fork of the American River, about two miles downstream from Coloma. There are campgrounds, showers, restrooms and an office with a general store. Many of the 40 or so outfitters that raft on the south fork launch their boats there.
Most river guides hold other jobs but love being on the water so much that they make arrangements to guide full time during the summer season.
Orban, a river guide for about six years, is a carpenter who recently graduated from Chico State with a degree in recreation administration.
Boucher, a former world-class snowboarder and kayaker, grew up in Sacramento and knows the American River as well as anyone. He's been guiding whitewater rafting trips for more than 10 years and also represents snowboard manufacturers.
Crawford is a longtime guide who spent time in Bosnia with the Air Force and has experience on rivers in other states, including adventurous Class IV runs in Alaska.
They work for W.E.T. River Trips, established in 1978, one of the smaller, more personalized whitewater outfitters, yet big enough to run operations on nine rivers. Some whitewater outfitters that run the American are based as far away as Provo, Utah; others are in Tahoe City, San Francisco, Point Richmond and so on. W.E.T. River Trips is the only one based in Sacramento.
On this day, we would take on 11 miles of river, the lower part of which is called the Gorge, a series of Class III rapids with such names as Fowler's Rock and Hospital Bar. Satan's Cesspool is a particularly notorious stretch of three rapids that will jar your bones. The trip ends at Folsom Lake.
Another run begins nine miles upstream, from Chili Bar to Camp Lotus, with more Class III rapids - Meatgrinder, Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat and Troublemaker. Those who want the most action can arrange a two-day trip from Chili Bar to Folsom Lake, with a night at a campground along the way.
After filling out paperwork that included medical information (guides are trained for medical emergencies), we huddled around the two rafts as Orban and Boucher delivered a safety lecture and demonstrated how to sit on the raft and how to paddle.
"Paddling creates pressure that helps you stay in the boat," Orban said. "You don't want to be idle. The river seems to know when you're not paying attention, and that's when it reaches out and pulls you in."
The raft in which customers sit and paddle ("You guys are my engine") is the paddle boat; the guide sits in the stern, steers and shouts directions to the paddlers. A second raft (and sometimes kayaks) often accompanies the paddle boat, for safety's sake and to carry ice chests and gear. It's called an oar-frame boat and is fitted with a stabilizing metal-frame insert with oarlocks. It also serves as the raft of choice for those who cannot or don't want to paddle, or for folks who want a mostly dry trip.
"It provides safe passage," Boucher said. He and Crawford expertly maneuvered it down the river, pulling and pushing two long wooden oars.
"The river is high and with a good flow, so there's a big ol' wave train waiting out there," Orban told us. "This is the best time of year to be here and this is one of California's most fun rivers."
Which is no secret. More than 115,000 rafters will traverse the south fork by the end of the season, which is expected to go into October.
"On summer weekends, the rafts can get lined up in the eddies (before the rapids) and you have to wait to hit the whitewater," Boucher said. "Sometimes it's like rush hour on the freeway."
We had the river almost to ourselves on our trip -- a Friday in late April -- seeing maybe eight other rafts.
Whitewater with class
On the south fork of the American, the action happens within three categories of difficulty -- a little Class I (flat surface), but mostly Class II (little current or drop) and Class III-Plus (a lot of bounce, drop and splash). Classes IV and V are for expert paddlers, while Class VI is considered semisuicidal.
Rafters and kayakers are rejoicing over this year's Sierra Nevada snowpack, estimated at 125 percent to 150 percent of normal. They expect major flows, and outfitters are anticipating a longer-than-average season.
However, flows vary from river to river based on a number of factors, including dam control, reservoir capacity and weather. Generally, rivers with dams have more consistent flows and longer rafting seasons than those dependent solely on snowmelt. For instance, rafting on the damless north fork of the American will be possible only into June.
"The south fork has almost perfect balance because parts of the American River are dammed," said Bill Center, who owns Camp Lotus and was a whitewater outfitter for 20 years. "It looks to be one of the best years we've had in years. People have really dialed in to the fact that the south fork has some of the best whitewater in the West."
Experts predict that a wet spring and deep snowpack herald a long period of high water, which could jack up a Class III river to a Class IV or higher. For instance, the south fork usually runs at 1,200 to 1,600 cfs in the summer, but that could increase significantly.
"We're likely to have 5,000 to 7,000 cfs and as high as 8,000 cfs early this summer," said river expert Dan Crandall, who runs the Current Adventures kayaking company in Coloma. "In terms of actual spring runoff (from snowpack) affecting the rivers, it hasn't begun yet. The infall so far has come from rain and the melting of low-altitude snow. When (the snowmelt starts), different runs will be affected in different ways, depending on where they get their drains. This summer, there will be lots of water."
After the orientation at Camp Lotus, we hopped into the raft and headed downstream. The first leg of the trip was fairly calm and we navigated Class II rapids with a sense of increasing confidence, if not skill. The gorgeous vista was of rolling hills, granite cliffs, stands of oak and yellow pine, and bursts of purple wildflowers. And always the river, roaring and fussing, twisting and gushing and never stopping. Maybe it's because of its inexorable movement or maybe because it constantly changed character from flat and calm to a loud, whitecapped churn, it almost seemed alive.
Soon the canyon began to narrow, the granite walls climbing higher. Coming up were the Class III rapids, but first we pulled over to shore for lunch.
The guides are trained in food preparation and safety, and we helped ourselves to ham, turkey and salami sandwiches, cheese, tomatoes, avocado, fresh pine-apple and cookies, with sodas and water.
Back on the river, we ran the series of Class III rapids with our hearts beating fast, the raft tilting left and right, up and down, thrashing over waves and falling into holes, the icy water splashing over the bow and keeping everyone soaked. It was all smiles, whoops, thrills and -- literally -- chills, with such dramatic scenery, geology and hydraulics that the pressing question at the end of the run was: How soon can we do this again?
"This is a huge challenge that gives you a chance to step away from your everyday grind and get out into nature, have an adrenaline rush and leave with a sense of accomplishment," Orban summed up.
"At the end of a rafting trip, it seems that everything is a little bit better and you have a new way of looking at your reality. It's an enlightening adventure."
And it's waiting just around the bend.