Despite four arrests and an organizer on the run, the annual Rafting Gone Wild event has become tamer, with thousands of rafters kept largely in check by an alcohol ban issued for a portion of the American River.
The event, which has been coordinated on social media over the years and is considered a “non-permitted event” by Sacramento County Regional Parks, brought thousands of people Saturday to the American River. More than 8,000 people had indicated they would attend the Rafting Gone Wild 2016 Facebook event, though county officials estimated that closer to 3,000 people showed up.
On Thursday, county officials announced that alcohol would be banned on the river from Hazel to Watt avenues for Saturday’s event, a restriction that is also in force on major holidays. A Sacramento County news release cited the event’s “strong focus on alcohol consumption” as the primary reason for the ban, noting that Rafting Gone Wild has resulted in arrests and property destruction in past years.
The 2012 event was particularly tumultuous with 23 arrests, causing county officials to ban alcohol for future iterations. This was the fourth consecutive year alcohol was banned on the event day.
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Michael Doane, chief ranger for Sacramento County Regional Parks, said the event has been markedly calmer since the county began alcohol regulations in 2013. Saturday’s event saw four arrests: one for suspicion of battery on a park ranger, another for suspicion of drunken driving and two for public intoxication.
Sacramento County Regional Parks rangers attempted to cite a man they said identified himself as the organizer of Rafting Gone Wild for at least two misdemeanor violations on Saturday, but he escaped.
“We were in the process of trying to talk to him,” Doane said. “He was the self-proclaimed event organizer, so we wanted to talk to him and investigate whether that was true, because this is a non-permitted event.”
Once he realized he was going to be cited, Doane said, the man ran from the rangers and jumped off the PCA Bridge, another misdemeanor violation.
Though the rangers spent a few minutes trying to search for him, Doane said, they did not invest too many resources in the search because they knew his identity. He added that they will file a report with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.
In addition to being stationed at the main raft departure areas, Doane and his staff of 26 rangers patrolled up and down the American River.
People who were caught with alcohol at the departure areas were given the chance to take it back to their cars or discard it in front of rangers. Those who were compliant were not cited, but people caught sneaking alcohol onto the river received fines in the $50 range.
Randy Teves, a Sacramento State student, said the alcohol ban has resulted in people drinking heavily before entering the river, as opposed to bringing beer out on the water.
“There’s a lot of pregaming that goes on, so you don’t really need to bring so much alcohol with you,” Teves said.
In parking lots near the launching points, people could be seen guzzling beer in their air-conditioned cars, as well as pouring alcohol into less-conspicuous containers, such as water and soda bottles.
Don Haines, 53, said he has enjoyed the American River for years, rafting regularly. Though more people than usual were on the water Saturday, Haines said the frequent alcohol bans have definitely discouraged people.
“People just aren’t rafting out here like they used to because of all the alcohol bans,” Haines said.
Still, Haines – who after making his way down the river, stuck around to recycle beverage bottles and cans that had made their way to shore – came across at least 10 beer cans near River Bend Park, the end of the course.
While the ban did not stop drinking completely, it did keep people relatively safe this year, Doane said. Leslie Robinson, vice president of the Drowning Accident Rescue Team, said the crew was not called to an incident Saturday, though the volunteer organization had a few river rescues at Tiscornia Beach.
It’s a busy weekend for park rangers and rescue teams, with Rafting Gone Wild on Saturday, and the annual Rage on the River event Sunday. Rage on the River, which usually attracts around 5,000 people to the Discovery Park area, necessitated more than 20 river rescues in a two-hour period in 2014. A woman drowned during the event last year.