Want to raft? Better do so rapidly

California boasts some of our globe’s hardest-working water. It flows off ski slopes, rolls past wildlife habitats, tumbles into reservoirs, then gushes through pipes and turbines, sprinklers and faucets. En route – particularly in a drought year – water managers horde every drop they can capture, and parcel it out according to an elaborate rubric of contracts and agreements.

Thanks to that essential arrangement, northern and central portions of the state will score a whitewater recreation season that will be surprisingly long and robust, but only on dam-controlled rivers such as the Klamath, Trinity, and south and middle forks of the American and the Tuolumne.

On popular free-flowing rivers, such as the Kings, Merced and California Salmon, would-be rafters and kayakers should look online to study flows and weather, talk to outfitters, and stay poised and ready to leap onto these streams in April and May. Once their thin snowpacks melt and flow down the canyons, they’ll be done.

So much for the general whitewater season profile. Now for the juicy details.

Up north, River Dancers Rafting has taken over Turtle River’s business. Owner-operator Chantal Lagenfeld says, “The Klamath River gets most of its flows from southern Oregon, and they had better precipitation than California, so we should be able to run a normal season on the upper, middle and lower Klamath through Labor Day. The Trinity is also in good shape, and we’ll launch trips there the first of May. As far as the Cal Salmon and Scott, if we get a few more storms, they could go, too.”

Stephen Liles, founder of W.E.T. rafting company, says, “The Cal Salmon is the best class IV-V whitewater in the state, and it’s in an area of astounding beauty. We think flows will be good through May, and maybe longer. We’re prepared to offer trips there every day that month, depending on demand.”

Much of the rest of the rafting world must agree with him, because the 2014 R4 USRA Nationals contest, a raft race featuring professional guide teams, is scheduled for the Cal Salmon on May 2. These pro paddlers should put on an amazing show, one you could easily admire from the gallery of the Salmon River Road before making your own run later on the river.

Liles is less optimistic about the north fork of the American. “The snowpack that feeds that is lower elevation, and it’s almost gone already. I’d be impressed if we got usable flows there for any longer than a week.”

However, thanks to water managers with their clever hands on the taps, the popular south fork of the American is a much brighter story. “That’s our mainstay in the industry,” Liles says. “In April, they should release reservoir outflows Friday through Sunday, and in May, go to five days each week. That’s a flow regime that should last through Labor Day. The American is managed extremely well now, for the benefit of recreation and all the other users.”

Dan Crandall, owner of Current Adventures kayak school and the River Store at Lotus, concurs. “People who’ve only heard about the drought will be impressed to see what’s happening on the south fork. The outfitters have all heaved a sigh of relief, once they heard the plans. We’ll be able to keep our business going all summer here, as well as on the Trinity.”

The south fork has essentially three routes: the Class III-plus run at Chili Bar, the Class III-plus run through the Gorge, and the mild, 5-mile-long Class II run at Coloma, which connects them. That mild stretch is where All-Outdoors operates its “Tom Sawyer” float trips for families with small children, to introduce them to the sport. Crandall also plans to appeal to do-it-yourselfers here by renting inflatable kayaks from the River Store.

The river shuttle van service that Crandall started has been turned over to a county-sponsored nonprofit and re-named the Coloma Shuttle. It provides a low-impact way to move people and gear between put-in and take-out sites along the river.

The flow regimen on the middle fork of the American is not quite as settled, but it is certain to enjoy run-able flows on a number of days each week. W.E.T.’s Liles says he intends to launch a family-friendly float trip on a mild (Class II) and scenic stretch of the lower Middle Fork this year.

Heading south into the central Sierra, there are fewer outfitters and drier conditions to cope with, except for the mighty Tuolumne. Scott Armstrong, owner of All-Outdoors, says he had to subtract the north fork of the Stanislaus and the Kaweah from the company’s menu of 10 rivers this year. But the Goodwin run on the lower Stanislaus might be good to go; the profile of spring runoff will tell this tale.

Cherry Creek, a Class V run on the upper Tuolumne, will definitely flow, and the so-called “T” itself should have good flows well into summer and possibly past Labor Day. Managing agencies should make this determination by mid-April.

Zephyr runs trips on the crystalline Merced River after it gushes out of Yosemite, and the Kings River, which drains Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. Owner Bob Ferguson says both those drainages, with snowpacks hovering around 30 percent of average, should enjoy a burst of activity through May, but likely not long past that.

The Kern River in the south Sierra, Ferguson says, has an even thinner snowpack, at about 20 percent of average, and therefore much poorer prospects. He doubts there will be much more than a week of raftable flows on the upper Kern. And thanks to water storage problems at Lake Isabella – located two-thirds of the way down the river – runs on the lower Kern are likely to be sharply curtailed or even eliminated.

However, at least one Kern outfitter disagrees. Tom Moore of Sierra South bets there will be a rafting season on the upper Kern runs all through May and into June. And after that, he plans to offer inflatable kayak and tubing runs on the lower flows.

In the third year of a drought, none of this came as a surprise to outfitters, Liles says.

“We … saw this situation looming last October, and took steps to tighten our belts and shift our marketing plans,” he said. “There’s about 30 outfitters in the state now, and it’s a mature industry. We’ve gone through the hard work of negotiating agreements, and now we can see the fruit of our labors.”