By CARL ORDAWAY
It's an amazing rush to conquer the rapids of California's many rivers, so it's no surprise that rafters are chomping at the bit to get started. Latest projections are that most rivers will be running in April, some in May. The season starts wrapping up in July on some rivers, while others go all the way until October.
There are dozens of river raft companies offering trips on 10 or so more popular rivers stretching up and down the northern two-thirds of the state. These companies have put together a diverse menu of trips that are designed to match the various skill levels and physical capabilities of the participants. There is everything from a half-day family float down a calm Class 1 or Class 2 river to extended overnight camping trips along Class 5 rivers where white-knuckle rapids are suitable only for the most adventurous.
The outfitters say that river rafting does not necessarily have to be a physical challenge, although the higher class rivers require more strength and endurance. Age really isn't a factor either, as people in their 60's routinely raft Class 4's and above.
Generally, families with children are encouraged to choose Class 1 and 2 rivers such as the Lower Middle Fork of the American River, or Class 3 rivers such as the South Fork of the American, which happens to be the most popular whitewater river in the state. There is a fair leap from Class 3 to Class 4--people rarely fall out of the boat on a Class 3, while it occurs much more often on a Class 4. Of course, even if you do fall out, you're fitted with a high-quality flotation device and guides are trained to quickly pluck you from the water.
Here are a few of the more popular trips:
East Fork of the Carson:-This one is recommended for families who will enjoy a gentle Class 2 float along 21 miles of wilderness. A bonus on this particular trip is the hot springs you encounter about half way down that flows into the river. This is one of the few east-flowing rivers in California that is used for rafting.
North Fork of the Yuba:-For those seeking a few more thrills, the Class 4 Yuba is a favorite with river guides and combines lush forested banks with ample whitewater. The Gold Rush is alive and well on the Yuba where you likely will float by gold miners. Nearby Downieville is still an active gold rush town.
South Fork of the American:-This trip serves as an introductory to whitewater and has rapids that build throughout the trip. One outfitter describes the Class 3 rapids on this river as "exhilarating but not intimidating." The put-in is near historic Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, and the trip is known for spectacular California scenery.
Merced River: This Class 4-plus flows out of Yosemite National Park and has high water for the first few weeks of the season. But it "holds the water really well," one outfitter explained, and it never gets out of control. The trip is "kind of like going through the Grand Canyon." The river meanders along the valley floor through Yosemite and continually builds into whitewater. It's a steep river with sweeping bends and has long straight rapids and big rolling waves.
Kern River:-This one is relatively close to the population centers of Southern California and the most convenient river-rafting adventure for those cities. It's just a three-hour drive from L.A. to Kernville, the epicenter of Kern River rafting. Like other California rivers, the Kern River has come back in a big way this year and local outfitters say the river has more high water than the last three years combined. They anticipate the Upper Kern rafting season will run from mid-April through July. The same time frame will apply to Forks of the Kern trips. The Lower Kern trips will run from late-May through August.