Rafting the California Drought to Sierra Storms

From River Runners Headquaters

South Fork of the American River - Placerville California

The South Fork of the American River breaks its banks. Placerville California, January 2017.

It’s raining. A lot.

As I write, there is a torrential downpour obscuring the view out of the windows and hammering on the rooftop. Today will go down in history as the President’s Day Storm of 2017. After five years of drought, it’s a little unsettling. I guess I got used to blue skies in January. Things are pretty different now though.

I should have known when we got 10 inches of rain in October. Or when we had to move our buildings out of camp in early December because the ground was saturated and a relatively normal-sized storm was threatening to swell the river up and out of its banks.

In early January, when the South Fork of the American River hit 33,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), I was impressed, but I still wasn’t convinced that things were different. Then in February we had a peak of 37,000 cfs on a Tuesday night, and 40,000 on a Friday morning.  I started thinking that this may be one for the record books. And again, this evening as the river rises at 1000 cfs per hour, and is expected to hit 30,000+ cfs again, I am impressed and a little nervous about what Mother Nature has cooked up.

As a whitewater rafter who lives a few feet from the South Fork of the American River I watch the weather like a farmer. This winter I have become somewhat of a walking almanac...

Here in Placerville we average 38.11 inches of rainfall a calendar year. The driest year on record was 1976 with 11.85 inches. The wettest year was 1983, when we received 74.55 inches. This year we have already experienced 48.06 inches, and it’s only February 20th!  I am looking at the weather forecast, and we are expecting rain 5 of the next 7 days.

So it’s a lot. Now I don’t know if we will equal the event that went down in history as the Great Noachian Flood of California. That was in 1862. Rainfall records weren’t very comprehensive then, but by all accounts it was overwhelming. Read about it. But only if you don’t live near running water.

When I started my river guiding career in 2000, I didn’t know much about flows and my dependence on the wet season. We often didn’t know the flows exactly. Some days felt lower than others. There used to be a “flow phone.” One could call the dam and an automated voice would inform the caller of the dam’s release schedule for the day. We didn’t care so much about what the exact flow was, instead we just hoped that the dam would grace us with enough water to enjoy the ride. Today it’s really easy to find out exactly how much water is in the river.  I refresh my internet browser every fifteen minutes and get a real time flow report. Some days it can be frightening if it is rising really fast, like today.

Over the past seventeen years of guiding on the South Fork of the American River, I have become intimate with the effects each winter has on the nature of rafting in the dry Californian summers. 2011 was a banner water year: 150% of snowpack in our region. There were lots of exciting moments on fast currents. 2012 was average. By 2013, the drought was apparent. On my days off, I pushed the low limits of rafting. I fell in love with the Gorge at 150 cfs. It was beautiful and quiet and calm. I discovered slots a raft could fit through and places we could swim through. I carried that love through the next couple of years, and learned a whole new set of skills. 2016 was average, we had more water and by then all levels seemed awesome to me anyway.

John K rafting The Gorge Section of the South Fork of the American River at 25,000 cfs. The rock you see is usually 15 feet out of the water. 

photo courtesy of Tom MacDonnell of Sierra Mac

Enter the wild winter of 2017 which has been anything but average. On January 9th, I rafted the Upper (Chili Bar) at 25,000cfs. Giant waves broke everywhere. Frantic paddling barely amounted to success. Eddies didn’t exist out there. Class II rapids became Class V. We survived, barely. I was confident I would never see the river that high again and I was excited to experience my home river at these incredible flows.

Then on January 11th the South Fork came up to 25,000 cfs again so I ran the Full River from Chili Bar Dam to Folsom Lake. Again, I was overwhelmed. Incredibly large features erupted all around us, and paddling and courage were most important. And again I thought that was the highest I would see it.

Then came early February, and a run down the Gorge at 30,000 cfs.  I was starting to get used to the choppy violence and rigid tension of that whitewater environment. Two days later, the river peaked at 40,000 cfs and I was finally too tired and too scared to throw my body out there. I suppose that was reasonable.

Right now I feel like I am learning again. All of these years on this river and I haven’t met all of its tricks. The river says don’t get arrogant, even if you think you have it figured out. And don’t focus on what is scary, even if it’s hard to avoid. Over the past months I have seen rafts flip, gear lost,  people hiking out of canyons, and the effects of sensory overload on otherwise composed boaters. In all of this I have just told myself to focus on the principles because they work. When the raft in front of me flips, I say to myself, the principles will keep you safe, and catastrophe isn’t certain, and I have stayed in the boat, though just barely at times.

Spring 2017 is on its way. By the Summer a lot of the snow will have melted but there are many exciting moments ahead. I am training right now for those moments. I am out there learning so I can do my job better and  it’s very exciting. After 17 years of taking people down the river a new year has arrived, and new water, and someday I will get to say that I experienced the great water year of 2017 and I shared it’s beauty and power with many others. 

- John K