Where were all the people? American River nearly deserted due to dangerous conditions

Where was everybody? During Memorial Day, usually jampacked holiday conditions on Sacramento rivers gave way to a much more relaxing vibe. That was better for beachgoers as well as rescue units.

“Usually, it’s really busy, especially on a weekend like this,” said Renee Perfecto at the Watt Avenue access area along the American River. “Normally, the parking lot would be totally full and there would be nowhere to set up your tent. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Last year, there were 500 people down here; it was packed,” added Mike Ginlen of Sacramento. “But last year, it was a lot hotter.”

A combination of chilly fast-moving water and cool breezes kept crowds down significantly along the American River.

“It’s freezing,” Perfecto said as she watched her three children play in shallow water away from the current. “If you get in knee deep, the water’s ice cold, but the kids don’t seem to mind.”

For some, it was a chance to enjoy the river without a crowd.

“It’s beautiful; it’s awesome,” said Ashu Singh of Sacramento. “I come down here a couple of times a month. It’s relaxing.”

At the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, Discovery Park was almost vacant. That was by design. County and city officials decided to keep the park’s popular beaches closed due to dangerous conditions.

“Most Memorial Days, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people would be out there,” said Jim Remick, a diver instructor for DART (Drowning Accident Rescue Team). “But (this weekend), it took us a good 5 miles (up the American River) before we saw groups of people.”

Remick and other members of the all-volunteer DART patrols took the opportunity to remind revelers of river safety. They checked that people wore life vests, even for just wading on the river’s edge.

“It’s incredibly high,” Remick said of the American River, which has been swollen by melting Sierra snow. “The water is quite cold and dangerous. It’s an unprecedented thing for the county and city to close the beaches (on Memorial Day weekend), but the way the river is now, (the beaches) may stay closed until the Fourth of July.”

Early Monday, more geese than people could be seen enjoying the American River as warnings about dangerous waters reduced the typical Memorial Day crowds.

With the river running high, fast and cold, River Rat Raft Rental & Bike had just three groups of customers Monday morning.

“It’s definitely a slow day today,” said employee Angela Leno, 19. “I guess people decided not to come because the water condition is dangerous.”

Warning signs discouraging boaters and rafters have been posted at park entrances along the American River Parkway, and River Rat didn’t get the “crazy number of people” as it did during last year’s Memorial Day weekend, Leno said. Nearly all of River Rat’s stock of 400 rafts had not touched the water as of noon Monday.

“I expected more people to come, but I guess that’s not the case today,” said second-year employee Jordan Bailey, 20. “We are going to be here just hanging out and waiting for customers throughout the day.”

Three people have drowned so far this year in area waterways, authorities said. No additional accidents were reported over the weekend. An average of six people drown every summer in Sacramento area waterways, with the accidents concentrated in areas such as Tiscornia Beach at Discovery Park. In 2015, 13 people drowned in the American and Sacramento rivers. Last year, no drownings were reported between Memorial and Labor Days.

Tiscornia Beach, an area prone to drownings, remains closed because of winter storm and flooding damage. The park itself opened on a limited basis to allow people to launch boats.

“No matter what, whether the river’s flowing at 3,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) or 10,000 cfs, we want people to make safe choices,” park director Jeff Leatherman said.

Walter Ko: 916-321-1436, @juntaeko