"Look cool, have fun and stay in the boat!" These are the most important things to remember, says Matt Weiss, 12, as our raft drifts along the South Fork of the American River on a brilliant, mid-July day. Sky: cloudless; air temperature: mid-80s; river temperature: a cold 48 degrees.
Today is the fifth and final day of Whitewater Voyages' summer camp for kids. For his final, Matt is going to captain us through the biggest rapid on the upper South Fork, aptly named Troublemaker. The crew--Alison Kirby, 12; Nat Hughart, 16; Bill McGinnis, 48, our guide for the day; and me--will paddle the raft wherever he tells us.
We strap down our gear bags and water bottles, and get into position. There's white water ahead.
I had arrived the night before at Whitewater Voyages' River Park campground in the Sierra foothills about 45 minutes east of Sacramento. Booked for a weekend of rafting to celebrate my 39th birthday, I joined the kids' camp on Friday to get in an extra day.
Although I have no kids of my own, I guess I'm still a kid at heart. I've worked as a river guide and a camp counselor, and was curious about the combination of teenage exuberance and white-water thrills.
Feeling intrepid, I pitch my tent under Ponderosa pines and, with only a twinge of guilt, flop out my four-inch-thick foam mattress. Staring through the tent's dome at the star-flecked Sierra sky, I snuggled luxuriously and let the music of the river lull me to sleep.
The next morning, I join eight young campers and four guide/counselors for breakfast at the camp's outdoor kitchen--a semicircle of picnic tables set in an oak-and-pine fringed clearing.
I'm invading a tightly knit group of adolescents, who, in five days of running rapids and camping at River Park, have bonded and formed their own social order. There is the usual razzing (14-year-old Dory Kramer is nicknamed "Bacon Boy" for his breakfast proclivity), but I'm struck by their spirit of cooperation as they fix breakfast and clean up together. One of the camp's main goals, McGinnis tells me later, is to foster teamwork.
After breakfast we ride a bus upriver to our put-in point just below Chili Bar Dam, one of two major hydroelectric projects on the South Fork. To kill time on the ride, the kids share some of the safety tips that they've learned.
From Molly Trombley-McCann, 12: "If you fall out of your raft you should float with your feet pointing downstream to fend off rocks."
From Jason Ng, 12: "Most injuries occur on shore, like slipping on rocks and getting poison oak. Sunburn is the most common injury on a river trip."
At Chili Bar, the kids help the guides pack and rig our boats: inflating the 14-foot rafts, filling water bottles, securing coolers and gear bags. We have three rafts, with one guide for every two or three campers. Each day the campers bus upriver and raft down to River Park, or launch from River Park and bus back. The South Fork has two runs: the eight miles from Chili Bar to River Park, and the 12 miles from River Park to Folsom Lake.
McGinnis briefs us on the day's itinerary--rafting all morning, lunch by the river, rafting all afternoon to River Park. Then, about 10 a.m., we cinch up our life jackets, grab our paddles, climb aboard and paddle into the swift, deep current.
Meatgrinder, our first rapid of the day, approaches. As we coast toward it on a smooth, V-shaped tongue of water, Alison adjusts herself in the captain's seat in the stern. For a moment I wonder if I'm crazy rafting in icy water with a 12-year-old at the helm. But Alison is confident and calm. Barking out commands to us as we drop into a series of frigid waves and frothy, swirling troughs, she guides us through without bashing into a rock, flipping the boat or losing someone overboard. "The South Fork is a very forgiving river," McGinnis says. "That's why it makes an ideal teaching river."
All week the kids have been learning how to maneuver rafts, rig and repair boats, and rescue "swimmers"--the rafting term for overboard crewmen. Today is graduation day, with Alison, Matt and Nat taking turns captaining our raft through a large rapid. To captain a boat you must read the current, decide how to avoid obstacles, and yell out commands to the other paddlers so that together they can navigate such rapids as Meatgrinder, Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat and Troublemaker.
Rapids are rated from Class I to V--from calm water to fierce white water that can include dangerous rocks and even small waterfalls. Meatgrinder is a Class III, Troublemaker is a Class III+. The South Fork, a Class II-III river, is great for beginners, with a strong current, some obstacles, such as boulders and tree limbs, and moderately challenging white water.
"All forward!" "Backpaddle!" "Right turn!" "Left turn!" Commands fly over the raft along with sprays of icy water. I'm impressed by the kids' aplomb after only five days. Aged 12 through 16, the campers comprise six boys and two girls from all over California. This is the first kids' camp operated by Whitewater Voyages, one of California's top white-water outfitters. McGinnis and the other counselors tell me that it's been a rewarding, if somewhat exhausting, experience to watch kids from a variety of backgrounds bond and gain confidence in their rafting skills.
A white-water instructor with over 34 years of experience, McGinnis is Whitewater Voyages' owner and founder. Author of "The Guide's Guide: Reflections on Guiding Professional River Trips," as well as several other books on white-water rafting, he got the idea of an instructional camp for kids from parents who wanted to teach their kids how to raft.
McGinnis said kids proved to be his toughest students. "It's a typical teenage stance to act cool and unenthusiastic. So I learned I had to keep the seminars short, humorous and hands-on whenever possible. The good thing about a river, on the other hand, is that it demands a kid's attention."
At Class III Racehorse Bend, I get a chance to captain. I started rafting 20 years ago when I was in college in Oregon, where I guided trips on the upper Rogue River. But the first run of the season is always a thrill. I jab my paddle in the current, yelling out commands as we blast into the white water. Bouncing through without a mishap I feel the kids' respect for me growing. I've passed the river's test; I'm now one of them.
After Racehorse Bend we pull over for lunch. This time the counselors prepare the food while the kids laze in the shade, recounting each others' morning runs. Lunch is an array of fresh fruits, cheeses, cold cuts, bread and cookies, spread over the two wooden planks of an impromptu buffet table.
One the most popular white-water rivers in California, last year the South Fork of the American carried about 140,000 passengers on commercial and private rafting trips. Its rafting season typically lasts from April through October. Dam releases allow for steady water flow throughout the Sierra summer.
Apres lunch is no time for satiation and a nap. Quite quickly we're embroiled in Triple Threat, a rapid with three distinct sections. This time Nat is our captain; with a vise grip on his paddle he rudders our approach. Following his commands, we drop into the white water and cleave through big, back-cresting waves, as synchronized as a swim team.
"Awesome!" captain Nat declares, beaming with pride.
Next up is Swimmers' Rapid, a relatively calm stretch of river where the hardy can jump in and ride the current, sans raft. We're instructed to assume the correct position: feet first, arms out, head up. I'm a cold-water wimp, raised in Southern California, but, like the kids, I'm wearing a wetsuit. Feeling macha, and to celebrate my birthday, I take the plunge, whooping as I hit the icy water. Even with 3 millimeters of neoprene and a life jacket shielding me, the water is incredibly cold. It's a feet-first, full-tilt-boogie bodysurfing ride, careening up the face of one wave, plunging down into its trough, rocketing up the face of the next.
After Swimmers' Rapid, we enjoy a long serene float as the canyon widens. Hawks ride updrafts overhead and a warm breeze makes the cottonwood leaves shimmer in the late afternoon sun.
"There's something about a river trip that brings people together," McGinnis muses in a quiet moment. "Kids learn they need each other; to be effective in a raft you have to work as a team. It's hard to be a teenager today--wondering if you should be an adult one moment, a kid the next. A river simplifies things into basic issues."
Some parents are just as enthusiastic. Jerry and Marty Abts of Fresno sent their son, Chris, to the July camp hoping he'd find a positive outlet for the summer. He liked it so much they sent him back for the August camp. This summer Chris, now 17, will be attending Whitewater Voyages' Guide School with the goal of becoming a guide when he turns 18.
Jay Weiss, Matt's dad, said Matt learned so much about rafting that some of their friends have asked Matt to help guide a trip on the Kern River.
"At first I was scared to let her go because she was young for the camp," said Cynthia Silva of her daughter, Nicole, 11. "But she came back with such an air of confidence it's amazing. It's like she knows she can make it out there in the big world now."
Floating contentedly in the late afternoon sun, our peaceful flotilla suddenly stirs to life. Troublemaker--and maybe trouble--is right ahead. Photographers and other spectators watch from shore, hoping to witness the occasional, spectacular boat flip, cheering loudly as each boat clears the rapid. Matt stands in the back of the boat, sizing up our position.
Seeing that we're drifting too far to the left, he yells "Backpaddle!" and together we stroke backward to center our raft in the current. Soon we're plunging headlong into the churning, mashing hole, whooping and yelling as sheets of ice water break over the bow and drench us. Several adrenaline-charged moments later we're safe in calm water, smiling and intact.
In rafter's tradition we raise our paddles overhead and clack them together, water dripping, to celebrate a successful day of shooting the rapids.
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GUIDEBOOK: Running the White Water
Getting there: United and Southwest have nonstop flights from LAX to Sacramento, starting at $98 round trip, advance purchase.
Some outfitters: Whitewater Voyages, P.O. Box 20400, El Sobrante, CA 94820-0400; telephone (800) 488-7238. Two kids' camps scheduled this summer, July 7-12 and Aug. 4-9, on South Fork of the American River. Cost: $495.
The American River Touring Assn., 24000 Casa Loma Road, Groveland, CA 95321; tel. (800) 323-2782. Idaho, Oregon and California rivers, among others. Cost: for five-day Rogue River trip: $660 per adult, $575 per child.
OARS, P.O. Box 67, Angels Camp, CA 95222; tel. (209) 736-4677. Numerous family trips, including two-day float trip on Wyoming's Snake River, and on several California rivers. Weekend trips start at $219 per adult, $199 per child.
Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, P.O. Box 248, Point Richmond, CA 94807; tel. (800) 462-7424. Two-day trips with storytelling guides. South Fork of the American River. Cost: $102 per child, $204 per adult.
Ahwahnee Whitewater, P.O. Box 1161, Columbia, CA 95310; tel. (800) 359-9790. From one-half-day to three-day trips, most on California rivers. Cost: $55-$435.
Turtle River Rafting, P.O. Box 313, Mount Shasta, CA 96067; tel. (800) 726-3223. One- to three-day trips on the Klamath River. Cost: $62-$314.
For more information: America Outdoors publishes a free national adventure travel directory: P.O. Box 1348, Knoxville, TN 37901; tel. (423) 524-4814.