Record snowpack makes for wild whitewater rafting on American River

The Meat Grinder rapid on the South Fork of the American River looks like a cauldron of bubbling soup, its contents rising and falling, splashing and swirling along its one-third of a mile stretch.

For intrepid whitewater enthusiasts, the rapids on the American’s South Fork should bring plenty of fun this summer. For the uninitiated, this season’s high-river flows could bring great risk.

“That scared me. I won’t lie,” a budding river guide said this week after paddling through the Meat Grinder during a training exercise.

Just as this winter’s record precipitation brought large crowds to ski resorts, it’s also expected to bring more business to rafting and kayaking companies. More snowpack means the whitewater season will last longer, and rafters can enjoy faster runs. Boating companies are preparing to make sure it’s also a safe season.

“There’s no doubt this will be the best year we’ve seen since 2011,” said Chris Moore, regional manager of O.A.R.S. California, a company that provides rafting tours of the American, Tuolumne and other rivers.

With snowpack for much of the Sierra Nevada at close to 200 percent of average, California could set a new mark for the all-time wettest water year on record. The water year runs from October through September.

River use has increased in wetter years on the South Fork of the American River. In 2011, a relatively wet year that preceded five dry years, almost 80,000 people used the South Fork, according to statistics collected by El Dorado County.

Use dropped to 63,000 in two intervening years before jumping to 86,000 last year, when precipitation and river flows increased.

While boating companies are excited about this season’s opportunities, they’re also cautious of the risks, said Dan Crandall, owner of the Current Adventures Kayak School. Crandall’s business, and many other South Fork boating businesses, are in Lotus, about 10 miles north of Shingle Springs in rural El Dorado County.

Representatives from about 30 outfitters on the South Fork met earlier this year to come up with safety plans for the season, he said. They agreed to informal controls, such as not going out on higher-water days, not allowing young children on the river and using greater discretion in limiting people who are out of shape from going on the river

“As water levels come up, it creates features that were not there before,” said Crandall, a former world and national surf kayaking champion. “We are telling people they need to treat every river as if it’s a new run.”

For all but the most advanced boaters, Crandall recommends getting instruction this year. For many, that will involve going out on a guided rafting or kayaking trip. Boaters of intermediate skill levels likely started in the last five years and haven’t seen the American River running so high, he said.

Over the last month, the American River at the Chili Bar Dam has been running as high as 8,500 cubic feet per second – more than twice as high as the peak during the same period last year. Earlier this year, flows hit a peak of 37,000 cubic per second during a series of storms that caused widespread destruction along the riverbanks. Riverfront properties are still cluttered with logs, rocks and other debris.

O.A.R.S. American River Outpost has been training its guides for the season, taking them to different forks and stretches of the American River. On Thursday, two boats ran the Chili Bar section of the South Fork, the most difficult section of what is considered the friendliest fork of the American River.

Chili Bar is rated Class III, meaning it can typically be handled by boaters of intermediate skill. Rapids are rated between Class I, which is fast-moving water with riffles and small waves, and Class VI, which is an extreme section of water that almost no one boats.

O.A.R.S. instructors Jessica Wallstrom and Erick Larson told river guides how the rapids have changed because of higher water. On Meat Grinder, for instance, trees and rocks have been submerged, creating obstacles boaters might not see until it’s too late.

Meat Grinder has proven risky to boaters. According to the American Whitewater organization, “there have been two fatal foot entrapments in this rapid at summer flows.” One of them involved a river guide doing training in 2009.

The instructors on Thursday had the beginning guides steer to the side of the river, tie up the boats and scout the rapids from the banks. They looked for the best routes through the rapids – ones that will give customers some bouncy fun without knocking them out of the boat.

The trainees also practiced how to flip over an upside-down boat. A guide hitches a rope to one end of the boat, goes to the other end and leans back until it flips, sending the guide into the water, but allowing everyone to get back into the right side of the boat. They also worked on recovering “swimmers,” paddling to helmets that represent people in the water.

Some of the instructors reacted with fear and enthusiasm as they went through rapids with names like Troublemaker and Racehorse Bend. The goal is to make the route seem like a city street to a bus driver, Larson said.

“We stop training them when they get bored with this,” he said.

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