West’s Rafters Head Down a Year of Wild Rivers


It’s been another year of high, strong water for rafters on California and Arizona rivers--conditions that mean a longer season, more adrenaline and more danger.

This doesn’t mean everyone should stay on dry land, but as California enters its traditionally busiest rafting month of the year, this does mean that the smartest rafters will evaluate conditions more carefully and question outfitters closely about their expertise and procedures.

The alternatives can be dire. In the first half of 1998, authorities have counted at least 11 deaths on California rivers. Outfitters argue that some of those deaths cannot fairly be considered rafting casualties, but whatever the number, all concede that this is a difficult year. The previous deadliest year in recent memory was 1993, when 12 rafters died. Though authorities estimate that 280,000 of the 500,000 rafters who float down California rivers yearly are under the supervision of outfitters, most of the deaths have been among rafters who were paddling on their own.

Authorities also note that many of those who get into the most trouble have ventured into the water with inadequate equipment. On June 20, a 47-year-old woman and 12-year-old boy died after falling from an air mattress on Chico Creek in Butte County.


Inexperience also can be troublesome. “You stick a normal driver in a race car, and you have a problem,” said Gregg Armstrong, co-owner of All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting of Walnut Creek. But for experienced river-runners, he added, “this is the equivalent of [a skier facing] 4 feet of light powder in the Sierra.”

Some good questions to ask a prospective outfitter: How old is the company, and how long has it been operating on this river? Does the company belong to statewide or national trade groups? What kind of vessels does the company provide? What background do the guides have? Who trains them? What provisions are made for children? Can the company provide references?

Questions to ask yourself: Do I want to relax or face a concentration-requiring physical challenge? Do I want to do everything myself, or would I rather spend more and have unglamorous duties (such as cooking and waste management) handled by others?

In California, the commercial river-rafting business amounts to about 60 outfitters operating on about 20 rivers. (Some outfitters arrange kayak and canoe trips too.) The difficulty of the white water is graded from I (calmest) to VI (impassible rapids). The most common problem among rafters is “boating beyond their means,” said Jim Cassady, who runs Pacific River Supply in El Sobrante, Contra Costa County, and has co-written three books on Western river-rafting. To stay safe in the water, he says, a paddler needs to “be realistic about your skills and limitations.”


But risk is part of white-water rafting, and even a carefully chosen outfitter can make no guarantees. In fact, three of this year’s serious river incidents have been associated with commercial rafting companies.

On June 7, a veteran river guide drowned after his raft was dumped in a rapid along the Tuolumne River. (The guide’s four passengers were safely pulled from the water.) On June 16, a 13-year-old girl from Boise, Idaho, fell from a raft on the Kern River and drowned. (Five other passengers and a guide were dumped from the same raft, but were able to reach shore safely.) On June 18, after the day’s paddling was done on an overnight commercial rafting trip on the Klamath River, one 25-year-old male passenger entered the river for a swim and vanished.

A rafter’s most crucial piece of equipment, experts agree, is a life vest. State law requires outfitters to put their passengers into Coast Guard-approved vests rated at 22 to 30 pounds of flotation, and that kind of vest is widely available from outdoor-supply stores at about $100, Cassady said. But many discount stores sell life vests rated for as little as 15 pounds of flotation, at prices as low as $20. A vest that rides low in the water, experts said, is less help when a river is running hard. Veteran rafters also note that wet suits are crucial in cold, high water not only because they supply warmth but because they add buoyancy.

Thanks to the spring’s strong runoff, experts say, rafters have basically been facing April-May conditions in June-July--which may be jarring for casual rafters.


By mid-July, experts expect many river flows to weaken. But they say this summer’s rafters should remain especially alert on all of the state’s most rafted rivers. Among them: the Upper Kern (class II-V), and the Lower Kern (near Bakersfield, class III-IV), Cache Creek (in Yolo County, class II-III); the Middle Fork of the American River (class III-IV), the South Fork of the American River (a class III river popular with beginners and plied by 37 outfitters); the Kings River (class III); the Kaweah River (east of Visalia, class IV) and the Main Tuolumne River (class IV).

One resource for finding and comparing outfitters is the California Outdoors Hotline ([800] 552-3625), run by the state’s leading outfitter trade group, where consumers can leave their addresses and receive a free list of most California outfitters. America Outdoors, a national trade association in Knoxville, Tenn., maintains another toll-free line ([423] 558-3597), offering a brochure on river-rafting companies, outdoor leadership schools, dude ranches and about 500 other outdoor recreation companies from 40 states and dozens of foreign countries.

For those seeking more information about river-rafting, many outdoor supply and sporting-goods stores stock these books: “California Whitewater” by Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun, and “Western Whitewater” by Jim Cassady, Fyar Calhoun and Bill Cross (both published by North Fork Press in Berkeley); “The Complete Whitewater Rafter” by Jeff Bennett (published by Ragged Mountain Press in Camden, Maine); and “Whitewater Rafting in North America” by Lloyd Armstead (published by Globe Pequot in Old Saybrook, Conn.).

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper’s expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail