HOW NOT TO RAFT A RIVER: Another Misguided Adventure

whitewater - Copy Readers of this blog know that water and I have had a difficult relationship over the years…you know, near-drowning, that sort of thing. So in honor of the season, here’s another look at what NOT to do when it comes to enjoying water in the Great Outdoors…

Ah, summertime, and the weather is sweltering.  At least in the central California foothills, gateway to the Sierra Nevada.  And now Californians sit in the middle of a drought, our reservoirs puddles, our rivers meager streams and our streams dry ditches.

All this reminds me of summer days of years past when the waters ran in great abundance, river rafting was thrilling, and we were much more naive than we should have been about challenging the raging waters.

So here’s the story…

The Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River, as seen from the bridge up near the country outpost of Outingdale, appears to be a mild, meandering stream, with nice pockets where trout can hide, big boulders fit for sunbathers lounging away the afternoon, and a gentle current designed to bring the lazy vacationer gently downstream. It’s a good place to leave one car at the start of a rafting adventure.

Now some distance away, where highway once again meets waterway at the bridge along Highway 49, the Middle Fork also appears to be very calm and inviting, even in a year when snowmelt is high and drought is far from anyone’s mind. A nice spot to leave the first car, so that after a few hours of casual floating one has a means to get back up to Outingdale.

In principle, a great plan for a relaxing afternoon, floating the foothills, right?

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Let me tell you.

First, the four of us bought two of the cheapest rafts made at the time…thirty-buck Sears specials made of plastic. Yeah, plastic.  You know, the inflatable kind just one step above a kiddie-pool. Adding two paddles, an ice chest, a 35mm camera or two (before digital, of course), some other picnic supplies, and wearing swim suits and tennies and nothing else, we clambered aboard, ready to spend a few lazy summer hours enjoying the great outdoors and our picnic lunch.  

And that first hour or so was fun, drifting with the current, watching the turkey vultures soar overhead, observing an errant butterfly checking out our raft. My wife and I took the lead position in our boat, my brother and his wife followed behind. Yes, a good first hour.

But then we came to the weir. For those who’ve never encountered the word, a weir is a dam stretching across a flowing body of water, creating a small lake above and a beautiful cascade of water the breadth of the obstruction. And it was enjoyable running over the edge and zipping down below.

But then the gentle Cosumnes pulled a surprise, and the water rushed rapidly into a narrower passageway and suddenly we found our boats were upended, our provisions lost to the waters, and some helpful picknickers wading into the rushing water to give a hand to pull us—drenched through and through—onto shore with rafts in tow.

“I sure wouldn’t go any further,” advised one of our helpers. “Things get pretty rough up ahead.”

“No problem,” said I, “We’ve a car downstream a ways, and it can’t be that far.”

So with little hesitation, we boarded our rafts with only our oars to guide us and prepared for another anticipated hour or so of gentle drifting before we would spy the bridge over highway 49 and our waiting car.

Things progressed rapidly from bad to worse. Soon we were shooting wild rapids, skating past huge boulders, twirling about with little control of the watercraft. And then came Devil’s Slide, a long granite trough in a narrow rock-walled canyon, so steep in its decline that any control of the boats became an impossibility. Struggling, we managed to beach the rafts on a gravel bar and tried to catch our collective breath. At that moment it appeared we couldn’t go on, and I left my brother with our wives and hiked up the steep mountain on our side of the river. At the top I could see over the forested hills in three directions, but  no sign of buildings or homesteads. In the distance I heard a dog barking. That was it, and I knew we would have a tough go of it trying to hike out. I returned to the beached boats and gave the word: onward and downward.

Whitewater 2 - Copy

At one point we determined that we would have to get out and portage, carrying the rafts above our heads and making our way past a particularly treacherous stretch of the river. My brother was in the lead, and suddenly disappeared from my sight along with his raft. I ran forward, only to spot him lying some twelve feet below. He had fallen from the rocks , and his right leg twisted at the knee at a forty-five degree angle, sticking shockingly sideways out from his thigh. It was a position that spelled certain harm and pain, likely a broken bone or two. I raced down below, he stood, and the leg popped back into normal position. “Still works,” he said. And we continued on our way.

By late afternoon exhaustion and lack of food and water had drained our energy reserves. I remember drifting listlessly through a meadow of grazing cows at dusk as the first stars appeared. And then my wife, whose hearing has always far surpassed mine in acuity, drew attention to the sound of a waterfall ahead. We were in the lead. Our raft sped up and aimed for a narrowing between two large boulders, it twisted around, putting me out over the ledge first as we went over and dropped down a ten-foot waterfall. Somehow we stayed afloat in the boat, and could watch helplessly as the prow of my brother’s boat followed our course, emerging out into space above our heads, then dropping straight down, submerging briefly, then popping up again. The boats were filled with water and nearly foundering, so we bailed like crazy with our hands to stay afloat as we continued downstream.

Night fell, the stars now dazzled in splendid abundance, and we were totally exhausted. The thought of drinking from the river was dampened by the cows we had passed upstream wading riverside, so our mouths were dry as sandpaper and our tongues felt overly large and cumbersome.

Some hour or two of aimless drifting later, our boat still in the lead, my wife shook me out of my lethargy. “I hear another waterfall ahead,” she warned, “we can’t handle another waterfall.”

And sure enough, the current picked up its pace and the boats began a forward surge, and my wife became more insistent that, whatever lay ahead, we couldn’t chance taking it on in the dark. A snag approached, a dead tree partially submerged in the river, and I grabbed for it and hauled us in, and shouted to my brother to follow suit.

Once ashore, we beached the boats. My sister-in-law was shaking violently with low blood sugar and exposure, so we buried the two of them under dried grass and piled their boat on top to conserve heat and energy. Then my wife and I trekked out along a dirt path, looking for help. Any help.

About half an hour later we hear dogs barking and saw a light in a farmhouse. Standing back in the hope that the inhabitant wasn’t one to shoot first, ask questions later, we shouted for help. A porch light came on and a man came out to see what we were doing, standing in swimsuits on his country drive at nine o’clock at night. Once we had explained our dilemma, we piled into his pickup truck and trundled down to the river, where we left the boats and accepted his offer of a ride down to 49 and our vehicle.

Amusing anecdote: my sister-in-law, practically incoherent as the helpful man carried her to his truck, complained that our rescuer smelled of fish.  Apparently he hadn’t yet showered after a day of fishing the Cosumnes.

The next morning we made our way back to retrieve the rafts. We checked out the waterfall my wife had warned was coming. At that point the river converges into a narrow slot, them plummets ten or twelve feet straight down into a cauldron of swirling water. The only outlet is through narrow passages at the base of the surrounding rocks. No way for a human to make it through, with or without a raft. On all four sides are slick rock walls, with no crevices for hand grabs or footholds to allow someone (other than perhaps an expert rock climber) to clamber up and out of the pit.

We might be going round in circles there to this day, were it not for pulling from the river when we did.

So…lessons learned:

  1. Study your river in advance. We didn’t. The rafting guidebooks rate the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes in a good-flow year as being a Class IV+ and having a number of Class V+ rapids, including “Devil’s Slide.” And over a dozen recommended portages for the section we rafted. And that’s for experts. We did three. And the stretch is 11 miles long.
  2. Get good rafts or kayaks. Enough said.
  3. Tie down your food and water. You may want it later.
  4. Tell others where you’re going to be, and when to expect you back. We didn’t do either.
  5. Wear lifejackets and helmets.
  6. Listen to the advice of others who already know what lies ahead.

The following weekend we decided to take on an easy stretch of the American River below Coloma. We figured we needed to rid ourselves of any latent fear of the water. Rounding the stretch at the Highway 49 bridge at Lotus(this year a miserable stretch of rippling water, that year a roaring rush of excitement), our boat snagged on an underwater branch, deflated, and we had to swim desperately to shore. Lowering the river level by a great deal with all the water we swallowed in the process.

Oh well…we survived! We don’t guide our own rafting adventures any more, by the way.


About Patrick W. O'Bryon

Writer. Traveler. Europhile, especially Italy and France. Hobbies: rescuing animals from abuse, abandonment and mistreatment, and being sous chef around the kitchen to my chef de cuisine wife.
This entry was posted in Memoir, Outdoor Adventures, Travel Memoir, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to HOW NOT TO RAFT A RIVER: Another Misguided Adventure

  1. sknicholls says:

    You need to stay away from rivers. My cousins did the Colorado with guides. There was one point where they dropped 200 feet in less than two miles. Not me. I love white water rafting and had great fun on the Savegre River in Costa Rica, but I had I had four very nice looking young men on that tour who knew the river well. They even brought lunch.

  2. I agree–used to be a bit foolhardy. We did do the Flathead River up in Glacier National Park…guided and easy going. In later years, after this ridiculous adventure, we got better rafts and rafted on a number of other whitewater rivers in Northern California without incident, but those stories are pretty dull by comparison! I love the thrill and the drenching! Invigorating!

  3. jduttonhopp says:

    My trip down the American River from Sunrise Bridge to near Watt Ave was tame compared to your trips, but enough for me. It was July about 105 and I wore only my bathing suit, no shirt, no hat and no sunscreen. Needless to say how sunburned I got! I signed up to receive your Blogs, but so far none have come through. Can’t wait for your next book.

    • At least we weren’t fried by the sun! Thanks for your kind words about the Corridor of Darkness trilogy. I hope you enjoy book two, Beacon of Vengeance, as well. I’m not a very good blogger, since I’d rather keep working on my novels. I am only posting on my blog about once a month now as the mood and inspiration strike, since the third and final novel in the Corridor series, Fulcrum of Malice, in coming along nicely. Thank you for your interest! Patrick

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