Rafting down the American is a summer treat

The Sacramento region might want to consider opening a floating visitors center near Sunrise Boulevard.

After all, for thousands of visitors annually floating down the lower American River on a rubber raft, it is their introduction to Sacramento.

Such was the case for much of the Phelan clan, who gathered from Florida and elsewhere for a family reunion. Many found themselves on the cool waters of the American River just hours after arriving.

“We have a whole agenda and this was the first thing on the list,” said Maureen Phelan, who moved to Florida after graduating from Cordova High School.

Not to be confused with guided whitewater experiences, the river float is an animal unto itself. Rowing is nominal. Rapids are minimal. Recreation is maximized. Generally, the floats begin just east of Sunrise Boulevard’s river crossing and end at or shortly after River Bend Park (formerly Goethe Park).

As many as a third of those taking to the river bypass rental rafts and supply their own store-bought craft. On a weekday, as many as 30 boats will be rented from American River Raft Rental. On the weekends, that balloons to 150 to 200 rafts from American River Raft Rental alone. The 6-mile float can take four or more hours, depending on how many stops one group makes. Along the way, kids – young and old – blast other boaters with water cannons.

The consumption of alcohol is part of the river float culture for many, and tossing a stranger a can of beer is a sign of good will and community on the river.

“It’s a fun thing to do,” said John Havicon, the chief ranger for Sacramento County’s park system. “We just hope they do it safely.”

In 2006 and 2007, Sacramento County took steps to ban alcohol consumption on the river in response to increasingly wild spring break-style debauchery on the river. That ban – along with higher fees – is in place today to Sunday.

While the river float is often maligned by examples of excess, aficionados challenge others to find something more Sacramento than passing through the city’s riparian parkway while lazily floating down the lower American River.

“It’s very special and unique. It’s like our bike trails,” said Melissa Awe, a midtown resident who grew up in Sacramento.

In 2005, some 30 people were arrested when fist fights broke out on a speck of clay typically referred to as Gilligan’s Island.

But with the alcohol ban in place, the July Fourth weekend has taken on a more peaceful, family-friendly atmosphere, said Dave Hill, owner of American River Raft Rental.

“We’re not even close (to renting the same number of rafts) but that is just fine with us,” said Hill, who grew up in Sacramento.

Hill formed American River Raft Rentals in 1974.

The company, which grew from having a handful of rafts to having 300 and six shuttle buses, will celebrate its 40th anniversary July 11.

As the region experienced a record winter dry spell, Hill said he wondered whether Mother Nature would cancel the celebration.

“We didn’t know if we were going to have any water to be open this year,” said Hill.

Several storms made the situation less dire, but the state is still in the grips of an intense drought. Hill said he’s grateful for the amount of water being released into the American River. Flows are projected to remain unchanged below Nimbus and Folsom dams through the Fourth of July weekend, said Janet Sierzputowski, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dams.


Wednesday, in addition to the humans, a wide variety of birds and other wildlife were taking advantage of the river.

“The fact that people want to get out on the river is great,” said Corley Phillips, chairman of Friends of the River preservation group. “It’s so nice to be out experiencing the river in an urban setting.”

Arnold Utterback’s watercraft of choice is a kayak.

“It’s just nice, especially when its real hot in town,” said Utterback, of Sacramento. “You’re in an urban environment (but) just a few steps away ... it’s a whole other world.”

It was the first time on any river for Napa buddies Alex Lopez and Fabricio Calderon on Wednesday. They considered going to Lake Tahoe to float in the Truckee River, but decided Sacramento was a more convenient option. The two young men didn’t have much experience with water and wore their life jackets for much of the trip.

“It’s summer. We wanted to do something water,” said Lopez.

Also experiencing the river for the first time was a group of 16 members of a Southern California youth sports team headed to Oregon.

But it was a return to the river for many members of the Phelan family.

“We grew up on the river,” said Christine Knight, née Phelan. “We didn’t have a pool. That is where we lived.”

She said she regretted waiting for a reunion to get back to the river after many years away.

Sister Maureen Phelan was eager to introduce her grandkids to the lower American River. They have floatable rivers in Florida, but Sacramento’s is better.

“The nice thing about this,” she said, “I don’t have to worry about alligators.”

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