Infrequently updated blog of thoughts and feelings whenever I have time to sit down and write. It seems as though I have less and less time to sit down and write these days. That's why this page is static most of the time.

Monday, December 01, 2008

About three years ago, I went on my first whitewater rafting adventure with some folks from the East Bay Libertarians. Most of us had never done this before, so it was a new and challenging experience. We took on the Cache Canyon River in Yolo County, a Class III river that our organizer assured us was an ideal option for first time rafters. We had so much fun that this has now become an annual tradition, though we no longer schedule it over the Memorial Day weekend, as it is very difficult to reserve a campsite large enough for all of us, so for the past two years, we’ve done this on the weekend before Memorial Day.
Rivers are classified by the kind of water conditions they offer to recreational boaters. A class I is an easy flowing river with no rapids at all, though as always, people in watercraft should wear safety gear and floatation jackets. This is probably the kind of river you’d wade into with rubber trousers to go fly fishing, or one you’d just cast into from the bank and wait for the trout to find you. Class II rivers have mild whitewater rapids that won’t scare most people who have done this before and are perfect for beginners. Class III rivers have moderate whitewater that provide a good first experience for newcomers to the activity, as well as a good ride for experienced rafters. Class IV rivers have heavy water flow with many large obstacles and should probably not be attempted by first-time rafters. Most companies renting rafts require you to wear helmets on Class IV rivers. Class V rivers have big drops, dangerous obstacles and should only be attempted by experienced outdoor enthusiasts willing to risk life and limb for their thrills. Class VI rivers are listed in my brochure as suicidal, and should not be approached by anyone in their right mind.
Whitewater rafting is like going on a large wet rollercoaster ride such as you might find at any number of amusement parks all over the country…except that it lasts for four to six hours instead of mere minutes. And you can fall out of your boat at any time.
Cache Canyon was quite an experience. We had two-person inflatable rafts and had to be instructed in how to navigate the river this way. I was rafting with my son Nathan, who was 15 years old the first time we tried this. It was indeed a challenge, and we both took a few swims over the course of the day, body-surfing down the river until we could find our way to shore and locate the raft. A part of the river known as Taft’s Tumble was a particularly exciting experience. Our raft became lodged on top of a rock, and while trying to turn it over to bail out the accumulated water, Nathan lost his grip and went swimming feet first out of sight. A helpful couple behind us helped me get our boat off the rock and I continued down the river alone searching for Nathan. He was a good swimmer, so I was confident he would be fine, he really would, but after I paddled downriver for a good half mile without seeing him again, I became quite concerned. To my relief, I did catch up to him after a while. He was just waiting for me on the west bank of the river. He’d lost is favorite AC/DC cap, which really annoyed him, but I was overjoyed to find him safe after all that anxiety. It wasn’t much further downstream that I myself ended up bouncing out of the boat, and Nathan had to fish me out of the rapids.
Hours later, as we struggled through the heaviest whitewater on the river, a roaring passage affectionately known as “Mother,” a group of photographers standing on some rocks snapped a photo to sell us after we finished the trip (see below).
When we finally reached the takeout point, we were greeted with ice cold water and beer. After that kind of a ride, even Budweiser tasted pretty damned good. Once everyone had finally made it out, an old school bus arrived to drive us back to the main parking lot.
That trip was so successful that we repeated it again the next year, this time using it as a fundraising opportunity, asking all participants to pitch in an extra $20 to the Party. We had a larger group join us in 2006, but the river was even more challenging. Finding a campsite was much harder, as heavy winter rains had washed out some roads, and all campsites on the west side of the river were inaccessible, so we had to find a wilderness area to camp on the east shore. And all of these campsites were full as well, so we ended up in an empty clearing alongside highway 16. We were, of course, camping illegally on BLM land, but several park rangers and highway patrol cars ignored us as they passed our way. We had our giant LIBERTARIAN PARTY banner strung across an awning, so it wasn’t like we were trying to hide from them. I guess they had too many other things to keep them busy.
The rains also made Cache Creek a much more thrilling ride that year. Nathan and I joked about how many times each of us had to save the other’s life on this trip. We were both bounced out of the raft at least five times. Three of the other couples in our party didn’t even complete the six mile course of the river, and gave up at the halfway point. This is the place where you must pull your raft out of the water and carry it around a large bridge. Fortunately, the rafting company had people monitor us all through the day, ready to help out anyone having trouble, and they were there to handle just about any problem, including packing up rafters who decided they’d had enough.
Nathan and I completed the course once again, but had some serious problems at the takeout point. The current was flowing too strong in the wrong direction, and despite our frantic paddling, we were swept out past the takeout area and headed downstream. The crew tried to cast us a rope, but it couldn’t reach us, so they directed us to head toward the opposite shore and tie onto a tree. We did our best, but the raft became entangled in the branches and capsized, so we clung to the tree for what seemed like an hour, but was probably no more than 30 minutes. All I know is that my arms were very tired by the time the crew finally reached us and helped us swim to a calm area where we could get to the other side of the river and walk back to the takeout point. We watched them as they worked to free our boat from the tree, but they ended up having to cut the ropes off our raft and retrieve it somewhere downstream.
That was a little bit more adventure than I’d really planned to have, but it didn’t discourage me. The adrenaline rush was thrillingly addictive. I had such a great time that I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Last year, Peter Schoewe, our organizer, decided that we might do better and attract more participants if we rafted down a Class II river, so in 2007 we toured the Stanislaus River in San Joaquin County. Nathan didn’t join us this time, as he had a Senior Trip scheduled on that weekend, so he spent his time at Disneyland instead of camping. We camped out in Knight’s Ferry, a lovely old Gold Rush town on the river. The Stanislaus River was a much different experience than Cache Creek. The rafting company that operated here had larger rafts that could accommodate up to eight passengers. We had seven this time, so things worked out quite well.
The only whitewater we encountered was right around a bend at the beginning of the trip, and it was easy to navigate without even getting wet. From that point on, the water was so calm that we even passed folks in fishing boats. It would be hard to call this a whitewater “adventure,” but we did have fun enjoying a beautiful spring day. It was more of a relaxation exercise than anything else. The next day, we toured Columbia State Park, Moaning Caverns and Mercer Caverns in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Calaveras County.
This year, Peter arranged a trip on the South Fork of the American River, getting us back into some Class III excitement. The tour operator on this river was EarthTrek Expeditions, which has an elaborate compound in Lotus, California complete with hot showers, a full kitchen and a large dining area. This trip was a bit more expensive than our previous outings, but EarthTrek offered a lot for the money, including an all-you-can-eat breakfast and a remarkably good lunch served at the halfway point of the river journey in the middle of nowhere.
Unfortunately, Peter fell ill the week before the trip, and was unable to join us, but we ended up with a crew of six enthusiastic adventurers. Nathan was still in school finishing up his Freshman year at Humboldt State University, so once again he couldn’t join us, but perhaps we’ll be able to go back later in the summer.
We were assigned large rafts again, which had plenty of room for the six of us as well as our guide, Jeannie.
A guided whitewater rafting tour was a far different experience from our earlier self-guided expeditions. Jeannie knew every rock along the eight miles of the Lower Gorge Run, and could tell us stories about most of them. She also encouraged us to jump out of the boat in calm passages so we could practice retrieving our friends in the event they bounced out in the whitewater areas, which helped the newbies overcome any lingering anxieties about getting wet. These boats also had special foot pockets where you could brace your feet to help you stay in the boat through even the most violent rapids. As we were told in the orientation lecture before we were assigned to our boats, if you fall out of the raft and find yourself alone in the water, you first take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This is the most fun I can ever have while whitewater rafting.” Then you use your paddle to reach toward your raft and have your friends pull you back in.
Jeannie takes this run at least four times a week, so she was an expert in navigating the river. She would coach us in how to paddle efficiently, calling “Left side forward, Right side backpaddle” when she wanted to turn us into the correct direction. Then she’d shout “All forward” to accelerate us toward the safest path, and “All stop” when it was time to relax and catch our breath. She pointed out an abandoned gold mine on a hillside and told stories of other rafting trips she’d taken on this river and many others. She said she wouldn’t want to have any other job because this one was so satisfying. EarthTrek Expeditions also has a Costa Rica whitewater rafting tour that apparently takes place every January, and Jeannie described how much fun that one was, so apparently she is able to do this even in the winter months when California’s rivers are waiting for the Sierra snowmelt to fill them up in the springtime.
Just as with Cache Canyon, a group of photographers were waiting for us as we entered Satan’s Cesspool to snap action shots of our team as we rolled through the rapids.

When we finally bounced through Hospital Bar at the end of the run, we joined the other six EarthTrek rafts and each of the guides tied the rafts together and then hooked all of them up to a JetSki, which towed us the rest of the way to Folsom Lake, where we pulled our boats ashore and carried them up the hillside to a truck waiting to return us to camp. It was a great way to end a fantastic river trip.
The next day, I packed up all my camping supplies and spent a leisurely morning touring the nearby Marshall Discovery State Park in Coloma, California, a short walk from the EarthTrek camp in Lotus. This is where James Marshall, the manager of Sutter’s Mill, discovered gold in the American River in January 1848, which set off the great 1849 California Gold Rush. The original mill is long since gone, but there remain extensive historical records from the time and in the 1970’s, a replica of the mill and some of the cabins that surrounded it were re-built along highway 49. The museum displays a great many photographs of Coloma during the boom years of the gold rush, confirming that this sleepy wilderness town of less than 800 souls was once a thriving metropolis that was home to some fabulously wealthy families, as well as thousands of hard luck immigrants and Native Americans hoping to strike it rich by searching the river for precious metals. But times have certainly changed and there are now many empty homes in this area seeking buyers, but most of the wealth that was once abundant here was relocated to the large cities at least a hundred years ago.
While the majority of the gold in the area was tapped out by the aggressive mining practices of the 19th Century, the geological activity of this rumbling earthquake country continues to bring more of the stuff to the surface, though in nowhere near the quantities of the old days. People still do find gold on occasion in the rivers and caves of the area, and with the economy on the skids these days, there are plenty of dreamers hoping to find even a few precious ounces still hidden away in the river.

Diorama of James Marshall's Gold discovery, along with the original tools he used as a millworker

For those who’d like to see all the photos from the 2008 American River Whitewater weekend, I’ve created a photostream on Flickr that you can see at http://www.flickr.com/photos/48152556@N00/sets/72157605131734802/