Flows, Gear, Etc.

We’ve seen an incredible amount of rain in the last few weeks, some of which even led to flooding on many of California’s rivers. This contrasted starkly with earlier winter months, which were so dry that ski resorts weren’t able to open on Thanksgiving. I was curious as to how those numbers were adding up in terms of overall snowpack, so looked on California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) website for a recent report.

I found a release dated January 4, 2006, in which DWR released their first snow survey for the year. The four survey locations in the Northern Sierras reported numbers ranging from 92% to 141% of the long term water content average, meaning that it would seem we’re having a fairly normal winter in terms of water content in the Northern Sierras. (It looks like those storms caught us up from earlier dry months!)

So on to the question in everyone’s minds: What does this mean for rafting come springtime?

The answer?? We wish we knew! It would be great if we could predict things that far into the future, but the truth is that what really matters is the water content in early March and the subsequent weather through to May.

The ideal situation (if you’re hoping for another high water year as I am) is an above-average snow pack in March with cold weather all through Spring. Too much warm weather early on melts all the snow before we really have a chance to enjoy those flows, and warm rains have the same effect.

The fact is that snow content can change quite a bit between now and early March. Department of Water Resources agrees, making a note that their January survey “is not particularly significant in judging how much spring snowmelt runoff may occur because Sierra conditions may change dramatically before spring arrives.”

What is good about current numbers, however, is that we do have an average base layer of snow there right now, so we’re not starting in the negative. If you want to keep an eye out for reports in March, just go to DWR’s California Water Page. In the meantime– pray for lots of snow and cold weather!


It’s getting close to that time in winter; three months since your last time out on the river, and you’ve forgotten about all those little things you ever got burnt out on. Instead, memories of the river are these beautiful, hazy images of the best days of your life. And New Years is a bit of a tease because “next season” is now a part of this year. So… what to do?? Sit around and wait for the snow to melt?

Dry Top and WetsuitIf you’re brave enough to don those stylish wetsuits and layers of smelly capilene, then there is actually a solution– winter boating DOES exist. It just takes a bit more discipline and determination. You have to monitor flows and take extra precautions for the cold, but the remoteness and beauty is well worth it.

OK so on to the specifics. I’ve asked friends about their favorite winter runs and done some research in California Whitewater (Cassidy and Calhoun, North Fork Press). The Following list is what I’ve come up with. Hope to see some of you out there!

1. North Fork of the American- Chamberlain Falls Run (Class IV)
9.5 miles, 1 day
Flows: The optimal flows for this AO Spring 05 048 comp.jpgrun are somewhere between 1000 and 2000 cfs. Below that it gets a bit rocky, and above it things can get more intense and pushy.
When To Go: Flows come up in winter months during a rain and the first week or so after, and more consistently beginning in March.
Surroundings: In terms of scenery, this is one of the most beautiful Northern Sierra runs, with turquoise clear water running through boulder gardens, and plenty of side creeks and waterfalls after a rain.

3. Main Eel, Dos Rios to Alderpoint (Class II-III+)
46 miles, 2-3 days
This run requires a bit more water due to heavy winds trying to push you back upstream. California Whitewater lists 1500 cfs as the minimum, meaning that probably somewhere around 2000 – 2500 is optimal. This run remains Class III all the way up to flows of 15,000 cfs.Coastal Mountains, Eel River Wilderness Area
When To Go:
A genuine winter run, starting in December and lasting through May.
Surroundings: This is supposed to be an absolutely beautiful river, with big sandy beaches to camp on and the Coastal Mountains as your backdrop. The scenery is surprising because you approach the area from the dry western side of the Central Valley. I’ve never actually done this trip, but have backpacked in the Coastal Mountains and viewed the river from ridges high above. We only got glimpses as it wound it’s way around corners into crevices we could not hike to. Ever since then I’ve always wanted to go back and explore those unreachable canyons.

North Fork Smith River, Grotto 3. The North Fork of the Smith, Class IV
13 miles, 1 day Flows: 700-2000 cfs
When To Go: This river starts flowing even earlier than other winter runs, running as far back as November and lasting all the way through May.
Surroundings: As you can tell from this picture (courtesy of http://www.kevsmom.com) taken at “The Grotto,” this river lives up to its description in California Whitewater as “a pristine jewel”. It’s a very remote run through a small canyon that has never been logged, making it one of the best California has to offer. I’ll be on this river in February, so will be sure to come back with pictures and a story.

During the peak hours of heavy rain and flooding last week, the South Fork American River was raging at around forty times it’s usual flow. I was having a tough time imagining where all that water could go, so I called friends in Coloma to get some stories and a better visual on the day.
Mother Lode Kitchen Under Water
Scott [Armstrong] informed me that the river was in some places twenty feet above its usual height, and had managed to grab a few RVs and motor homes from some of the parks upstream on its way down to Folsom. One of the RVs hit a roadblock along the way in the form of Highway 49, closing off traffic on the bridge for a while. Other sights included propane tanks and trees.

The next day the water had returned back to a boatable, but still high, flow. Scott, Danny and a few others headed out to raft the Lower South Fork and take a look at the damage. They said that RV parts and propane tanks could be seen hanging out in trees way above the river!

I, of course, wanted to know all about the whitewater; what happened to all our beloved rapids?? Well apparently much of the rocks and technical maneuvers were covered up, replaced instead by large waves.
Cronin Ranch Lunch Site, American River at really high water
This sounds like a lot of fun, but Scott warned that the dangerous part of being on a flooding river is that it becomes very difficult to reach the sides. The water hits its walls with such force that it all gets pushed and swirled right back out to the center of the river. But don’t worry- everyone just made sure they stayed in the boat that day.

Thanks to Scott Armstrong for some excellent field reporting!

Scott Armstrong just sent these pictures along for me. He and a few other friends headed out last week to see how well the Coloma and Lotus valleys were holding up against an extremely full South Fork American River– pretty amazing how much stuff got drowned or relocated. Normal flows for this river range from 9 to 20 hundred cfs, and last Wednesday it was running somewhere between 40 and 50 thousand.

Troublemaker RapidTroublemaker Rapid: Hopefully most people are pretty concentrated on their paddling while going through this one. But for anyone who happened to be looking around at the scenery last time, ignoring your guide’s increasingly louder commands (or if you were guiding– ignoring your crew’s increasingly panicked faces)… you may have noticed a cable running across the river about 20 feet above your head. Note that the cable in this picture could now take off your head. Scott told me that kayakers who ran the rapid that day were hitting their paddles on the cable as they ducked underneath.

South Fork American at flood stageBig Hydraulics Along River-Left: Remember all those really scary holes we had to get away from the last time we ran the South Fork?? It was HUGE!


Lunch Time: Scott enjoys a bite of his tasty water swirls around his legs… aahhh- how we love this peaceful river life! Note the tarp structures in the background. This picture was taken at our lunch spot on Cronin Ranch– almost completely submerged.