A belated but ferocious Sierra Nevada snowmelt has turned California's popular white water rivers into lethal lures for river rafters, claiming 11 lives so far this season--including nine in the past week alone.
Some rivers have yet to reach peak flow, causing officials to brace for a death count that could far exceed the record number of white water deaths--12--that occurred in 1993.
One problem, some experts say, is that less experienced white water enthusiasts are unprepared for the unseasonably late high water flow.
"People who are now heading out for white water rafting would normally expect lower flows this time of year," said Jim Bailey, a hydrologist in the flood operations center of the state Department of Water Resources.
"But the flows are twice as great as normal and every rapid is reacting differently than they would normally," he said. "The whole book is different."
Another key factor, experts say, is icy water temperatures in the low 40s--about 20 degrees colder than normal for the spring-through-summer rafting season. The frigid waters can take the breath out of rafters, boaters and canoeists who fall in and whose energy is quickly sapped as the lungs involuntarily constrict.
The situation, Bailey and others said, is the result of El Nino's record winter snowfall in the Sierra Nevada, coupled with a cool spring that delayed the snowmelt. With heavy May rains, that melt is now occurring "with a vengeance," Bailey said.
The worst single tragedy occurred Sunday on the Cosumnes River southeast of Sacramento, when three men were pulled beneath the water after their private raft was carried over boulders and fell four to five feet, ejecting them from the craft, authorities said.
The water was so turbulent, creating what is called a reverse-turbine effect, that they could not reach the surface. The rushing water stripped off their clothes and life jackets, officials said.
2 Fatal Guided Trips
Two of the 11 deaths so far this year have been associated with commercial white water rafting companies.
On June 16, a raft with six passengers and a guide flipped on the Kern River. All but a 13-year-old girl from Boise, Idaho, were able to swim to shore, and her body was found two days later beneath a submerged log, according to the Tulare County Sheriff's Department.
Last Thursday, passengers on a commercial white water trip down the Klamath River paddled to shore to rest, and some reentered the water to swim. A 25-year-old man was unable to make it back to shore, and the search for his body was continuing on Tuesday, the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department said.
"Nobody gives the proper concern for the dangers of big rivers' currents and hydraulics," said Sgt. Frank Cena. "That river is extremely dangerous."
A 47-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy were killed Saturday after falling from their air mattress while riding down Chico Creek in Butte County, authorities there reported.
For statistical purposes, air mattress deaths are not officially counted by state officials as white water deaths because they do not involve crafts that use paddles.
Two more deaths occurred in the past week on the south fork of the American River, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, said Jeff Novak, an El Dorado County parks ranger who patrols the river.
Last Wednesday, a raft with six people aboard flipped. Five of them made it to shore, partly with the help of a commercial raft group that wasn't far behind. But one man was swept downstream to his death.
Similarly, last Saturday a private raft flipped and two of the three passengers swam to shore, but a 41-year-old Long Beach woman, Joann Welte, drowned. Her body was recovered two miles downstream.
Both incidents illustrate the need for rafters to run rivers in groups of at least two crafts so that if one encounters problems, the other can help with the rescue and keep an eye on swimmers, Novak said.
"If you're trying to save yourself, it's hard to keep track of everybody else," he said. "You need team skills and you need competent people around you if you get into trouble."
The two other deaths this season occurred on the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.
Novak said he couldn't explain the high number of deaths this year. "I don't know what's going on," he said. "Maybe people are too cavalier about the levels of safety they need to arrange, or simply don't know."
Ethan Winston, who has been rafting the north fork of the American River for 18 years, shares the puzzlement.
"I go to the river and see people putting in little toy boats from Kmart, and they're not wearing sufficient life jackets for the high flows, and you just cringe," he said.
But some of the accidents, he noted, are claiming even more experienced boaters. "It's been a wild year. There are people out there who have been boating for just a few years but they're not use to the high water like this."
Some white water rafting companies are calling customers in advance, warning them of the late high-water season and giving them the option of rescheduling.
"We want them to have a run that's as safe as possible, and we tell them that if they have concerns, they can reschedule for a later date," said Sue Mooney of Whitewater Voyages in El Sobrante. Some customers, she said, are accepting the offer.
"We're certainly not making people go rafting in high waters if they don't want to," she said. "But those who are still going are telling us about the good time they had--and the increased adrenalin."
The high water flows have peaked in northern California, but are still to peak in Central California, said state hydrologist Bailey. The Kern and Kings rivers may not peak until July, he said.
Bailey has 40 years of kayaking experience--and has still not put his boat into the water this season. "There are old pilots and bold pilots but few old, bold pilots, and that pertains to people on the river, too," he said. "This is going to be a long season, so I'll just wait."