A high school student goes on a white water rafting adventure on the American River.
"Rafting the White Water"
I couldn't believe it when my dad asked, “Jackie, do you want to go down the American with me and Uncle Alex?” I mean Billy and me went with them twice down from Knights Ferry. But, the only white water there is not even a class one. The run from Chilly Bar is mostly class threes with a couple class three plus thrown in. Billy couldn't go 'cause we were going with two experienced rafters on Doug's eight-man raft. That's the strange thing about rafts. A four man raft really only holds two rafters comfortably. An eight-man raft holds four. At first Dad said, we'd have to get wet suits. But, then he found out we were going Saturday, the day he planned to look for them, instead of Sunday. And, it was too late.
On the Knight's Ferry runs, we would meet Uncle Alex at the Orange Blossom Road Bridge. Dad would leave our station wagon there, and Billy and me would pile into the back of uncle Alex’s pick up. Man, I love riding in the back of a truck, especially on a country road with no traffic. At places, through the ancient oakland's, you could see the river with the early morning sun shining off it. There were cattle grazing in the green grass. At the road, the grass was a gray brown, but it got green up close to the river. There was this one ranch with a white board fence and a half dozen sleek looking horses. In the more hilly areas, there was just the brown rocks. Then, the whole place was filled with birds, a lot of cliff swallows that come off the water, killdeers, and black and white mocking birds. You could hear the song of the killdeer and mocking bird so clear from the back of the truck. On our first trip, we saw this red tailed hawk circling at about two hundred feet. At first, it looked like he was hunting our truck. Billy put an imaginary rifle up and got off a couple rounds. He did that just to tick me off.
When we parked at the put in, Billy and me got to unload the partly inflated raft. Uncle Alex showed us how to use the little air pump that runs right off the truck battery. Then, the tricky part was getting in the water without getting your feet wet. You can't take off your tennies 'cause it's all rocks right up to the water. Billy and me got the front of the raft. Uncle Alex explained that our job was to keep it straight and push off any rocks that we were coming up on. It's kind of a tight fit with us sitting on our butts knees up.
I couldn't believe it the first time we went down. I was just getting settled in the raft. The water was way over my head, but running nice and easy. I was dipping my paddle to get the feel of it. All of a sudden, we came up on this curve and we were in the white water. The front end lifted a foot off the surface, held in the air for a split second, and then slammed a foot and a half into the trough "Row left, row left," Uncle Alex yelled. The nose rose and slammed again almost tossing me out. We went through the chute gasping and catching for breath. Then came a brief calm with Uncle Alex shouting instructions.
Cries of exhilaration and fear burst from our mouths as we bounced in the water, spun three times, and headed for an eight-foot drop. "Right! Right!" Uncle Alex yelled as we headed sideways straight for a rock garden. I dug in my paddle and closed my eyes as the bow went under and a wash soaked me clean to the bones. Opening my eyes, I had to jerk out my paddle to keep it from crushing on the rocks. Luckily, my dad was behind and stroked us back into the current.
Then, came the worst of the rapids. Three and four foot chutes all together without any rest. Me and Billy were mostly just holding on, with the raft taking in water and spewing it out again. Then, there was just the roar of the water and a sensation of speed and power that set my heart to pounding. The adults took charge as the river gave off a burst of energy that carried us to the bottom, and washed us sideways up on a gravel beach.
The second time down Knights Ferry, Billy and me were ready. We had our bodies braced for the rapids and our oars in the water. We took the first plunge dead center and rode the foaming waves with a few light sweeps of our paddles. At the next, a breaker came over the bow and wet us clean through our shorts. The icy shock sent a shiver through my very soul as I stroked my oar three times and turned the nose from the tree-lined bank.
Then, a slight left down, where we sped fifty feet in the blink of an eye. "Perfect! We took that perfect!" Uncle Alex called as we dug right to avoid the rock garden. The river turned right and we spun in a cross current. "Let her spin! Let her spin!" from Uncle Alex. Three times round and she righted with Billy and me at the rear. As we turned, we hit a deep drop with Uncle Alex and my dad ending up back at the rear steering us into the roar of the next chute
"Yaahooooooooo!" leaped from my mouth with my oar held steady.
"Perfect! Jus' Perfect!" from Uncle Alex...
After that, I kept asking my dad if Billy and me could go down alone. I explained that he could drop us off and then drive down to Orange Blossom and relax by the river until we got there. But, no... no. "You need a little more experience. You need a little more experience," he kept telling me.
I guess he figured I'd get the experience I needed on the American. The drive up to Chili Bar was kind a boring. I was all squeezed in the jump seat, and my dad, Uncle Alex, and Doug were talking economy, politics, and religion. When we got outside of Folsom, though, we began to pay more attention to the rolling rust and green, pine laced foothills that spread out both sides of the highway. On a steep grade, Doug explained that the American drops one hundred and twenty feet each mile. "What we're going up, now, we'll be coming down on the river."
"What did the old Indian say in "Little Big Man? 'A good day to live.… A good day to die...' " my old man said, and everyone laughed.
At the entrance, we paid our fee, parked in the unloading area, and looked for Doug's friend, Stan, among the fifty or so mostly trucks or vans in the gravel parking lot. When he showed up, Doug introduced him all around and we began to unload Uncle Alex’s truck. Stan described his trip out of Chile Bar in an inner tube last summer. He said it was a great experience, but he'd never do it again. "You can't really control where you're going. It leaves too much to the river," he explained. When we finished unloading, Uncle Alex and Stan left for the take out.
Doug, and my dad, and I took turns on the foot pump and in about five minutes had the raft inflated. I eyed up the eighty or so feet of rocky ground between our equipment and the river, and asked, if we should pile our stuff in the raft?
"No, it's only a seven mile drive to the bridge, but knowing your Uncle Alex, they'll be a good half hour. We'll have to turn the raft to keep it wet," Doug answered and explained that he had heard of rafts actually exploding when they got too hot.
"We can take turns changing, " Doug said after we put the raft in the water. I walked to the portable toilets grateful that it was warming up so nice, and wondering if my dad and I would be the only ones without wet suits.
Back at the water's edge, rafters began putting in on both sides. Readying their craft, they discussed the rapids on a first name basis, "Meat Grinder," "Triple Threat," "Widow Maker," Trouble Maker." I could feel just a twinge of impatience as one by one they pushed off. "By the time we get in ..." I was telling myself. Then, the river caught my attention, and I asked myself, "What's the hurry? Where would you rather be?"
"Remember, if you go in, it's feet first. Just watch for rocks, and hold on to your paddle," Doug advised.
"Feet first, huh," I replied assuming a nonchalant pose. Up river, several kayakers worked a short stretch of light rapids. We studied the fragile looking craft as they challenged the frosted white current, and then worked their way back up along the edge to ride her down again.
After twenty minutes or so, Doug decided that we might as well load up. We carried down the paddles, pump, patching kits, bailing buckets, rope, ice chests, and other gear in a couple of trips. When the raft was packed, Doug asked my dad if he'd like a beer. "That's why you drink anyway, isn't it? To kill time?"
My dad told Doug he had brought Cokes for him and me. "Got to set a good example,” he explained.
I was thinking it wouldn't a hurt for me to have just one Bud. But, I didn't say anything.
When the auto shuttle was completed, Doug positioned my Dad and me at the front of the raft. My dad took the right side so I had to take the left. Doug had Alex and Stan take the middle, and pushed us off. I sure hope these guys know what they're doing, I told myself as I tightened my life jacket and worked for balance. Doug and Stan and Alex and my Dad were all joking about who were the experienced rafters. My dad had done about six trips out of Knights Ferry counting the two with me. Uncle Alex had a little more experience. Doug was the most experienced. But no one had been down the American before except Stan in the inner tube. He was a real funny guy. "Do I got it right?" he asked as he held his paddle above his head with handle towards the water.
Damm, if I go in, I'm sure to lose my glasses.… Feet first, I was sure it was head first, I was telling myself. Ice-cold spray washed my bare arms and legs, and I wished that I had left on my long sleeved shirt and Levis like my dad and Uncle Alex. Sure to warm up, though, I realized as I observed more clouds breaking up and noticed that Stan was wearing shorts and a T-Shirt also.
"Let's take it slow and watch those guys go through," Doug said as he back paddled and nodded to the raft that was entering "Meat Grinder." I pulled my paddle, and turned to look at Doug who sat center rear in wet suit and flex boots. He nodded at a number of large rocks in mid water. "They're taking it left," he told us.
"Looks just as good on the other side," Uncle Alex said as we hit a swell and took in water. "Whoa, that's a cold mother. Left or right?"
"They look like they know what they're doing," Stan answered as the bottom went out and we slammed in deeper. Catching my breath, I drew tighter to the vinyl, and dipped my oar a couple times to straighten the front end.
"Let's take her left," Doug commanded as he scooted over and dug in his paddle. Rolling and buckling we hurtled a series of drops. In the third one, the entire raft came out of the water, folded in half, and slammed back under. Over my right shoulder, I saw an empty space where Uncle Alex had been.
Holy Smokes, I told myself as I dug into the bottom with both knees. To my left, Uncle Alex clung to the side of the raft with a look of terror in his eyes. My Dad was rowing against the current with all his might. For a split second, I wasn't sure if I should switch sides to help him, or go for Uncle Alex. Shaking the water out of my face, I pulled in my oar, hunched back and grabbed for his arm. Doug scooted up and tugged on his other side. The three of us sprawled flat out, got up, and went for our paddles. With shouts and whoops, we sped through five and six foot drops, paddling, balancing, and sometimes just holding on.…
As soon as we reached a calm, we tied up on a rocky shore, bailed the raft, and climbed out to get our legs back. "Damm, man, how long were you in the water?" my Dad asked Uncle Alex.
"I don't know. But, my whole life passed before my eyes," he laughed.
"All I can say is I'm lucky my oar got caught in the boat.…"
"We were both lucky. I hit a rock that pushed me right back in the raft. Couldn't'a been in the water for more than a second... Gonna have a bruise or two, though," Doug asserted.
Man, I didn't even see him go in, I told myself wondering if he really did.
"Unbelievable! Our captain and first mate both in the drink. You know what the rulebook says. Safety of the passengers first!" Stan chuckled.
"I told you should have used the other wet suit," Doug told Uncle Alex who was stripping off his soaked jeans.
Stan pulled off his shorts and threw them to Uncle Alex. “You can borrow them,” he said
“And under those he has a G string,” Doug alleged nodding at Stan’s swimming trunks.
When we pushed off, Uncle Alex shifted to the left rear having convinced Doug that we’d have better control with two men in the back, and Stan roving the middle. Though there was a line of rafts in front and behind us, we spaced ourselves so we could get a feel of the river. Canyon walls reflected the cries of a rafting party in front of us until the roar of the current caught the voices and drowned them in mid sound. Sunlight glittered off volcanic rock sending millions of golden images across the water. Separated from the dancing waters by just a thin layer of vinyl, you could feel her very heart beat. With chutes, cross currents, rocks, and over hanging trees there was no time to stop and think, just a drinking in of immediate impressions, and immediate response.
On entering a chute, Doug gave his command, but the river didn’t always listen. “Right, hard right,” he’d shout. And water would sprout from a hidden rock. We’d spin in a cross current and end up front-backwards. Until we reached the next drop, Dad and I would turn in our seats and take charge. Most of the time, I’d let my dad have it. But, if the current was pushing my way, I’d dig in with all my might and shout, “Left, left, Left!”
From “Meat Grinder” to “Trouble Maker,” four and a half miles of river, we ran a class two and three class three rapids. But, I wasn’t too scared. Except for a few more commercial trips and several crews who wore wet suits and helmets, I saw the same rafters who came down the Stanislaus. Besides, there wasn’t really time to be scared. The water so rough and fast that it took split second timing. Yet, at the same time, so forgiving that if you missed a second or two, there was still time for another stroke. I was amazed at how well we read the river; how we rode out even the fastest current, missing rocks that cropped up right in front of the raft, steering between the rock and a tree-laden bank. I was surprised to discover how fast the body could recover from a wave that hit with such force that it took your breath away.
By the time we reached “Trouble Maker” we were working like a well-oiled machine. However, we weren’t machine-like. The river, ever changing, wouldn’t allow us to function as machines. A curve had taken us far right in a left hand current when we entered the three plus rapids. “Looks wider right,” Doug nodded.
“No, you always take “Trouble Maker” left. I talked to several different rafters. Always left,” Doug said and dug in his oar. An inlet burst upon us from the far bank. “Row hard! Row hard! We got to make it all the way across,” Stan yelled as he, Doug, and my dad put their backs to their paddles.
Approaching the rocky cliffs of the big drop, I saw a dozen or more spectators on the left bank. “That’s where they watch you take her,” Stan cried just before he caught a mouth full of water.
“There’s a guy on the other bank that takes pictures,” Uncle Alex shouted.
Super effort! I told myself as the icy spray soaked into my bones. We were passed the inlet now and I had to use my paddle to help keep her straight. Time stopped and at the same time sped up a hundred fold. No thought, all action, thrill, fear. Speed took hold of my senses, while my feelings joined with the cold power of the white water….
At the bottom of “Trouble Maker” we beached and joined the other onlookers. “That’s why you always take “Trouble Maker” left,” Uncle Alex noted pointing to the right rapids that plunged some ten feet straight into a gigantic rock. Man, it was really something watching the rafters coming over. The very first one we saw hit the crest sideways and flipped. All four of them were in the water following close behind their raft. It was cool seeing the other rafts rocking and twisting in the current and knowing that you had already made it. We ate up all the Kentucky Fried and the grown-ups had just one beer each. I was happy to drink my Coke. Everything tastes so much better when you’re all pumped up like that. I couldn’t wait to get back in the water.
We ran the closely spaced threes with the ease of experienced rafters. It was like a flash and then we were in a quiet stretch that ran through a mile or so of scattered woods and peaceful farmland. “That’s Sutter’s Fort to our left,” Doug announced when we were almost to the take out. Man, it was really neat seeing the spot where gold was discovered and seeing it from the river.
“After that, I’m ready for the Upper Tuolumne,” Uncle Alex bragged as we loaded up at the take out.
“You know, what I’d really like to do next is Dry Creek in mid summer,” my dad laughed.
“Only problem is you got to pack in your own water,” Doug stated.
“I’ve always wanted to run Deer Creek up in Lassen. ‘Course you have to kayak it,” Stan explained.
“Isn’t that where Ishi lived?” I asked and imagined myself alone running a class five.
“I’ll tell that’s some accomplishment we made today. I mean, the first time we worked together and not one real spill,” from Uncle Alex.
I felt a real touch of pride knowing that Uncle Alex included me as part of the crew. I couldn’t wait to get home and ask my dad when he was going to let me and Curt go down from Knight’s Ferry. No way he could say I need more experience now.