No sooner had Leo Bernardini and his teenage son Mark returned to camp and peeled off their wetsuits than they went in search of a public telephone to call home. Bernardini wanted his wife to know the river rafting trip she had not wanted them to go on--the trip they almost dropped out of--had turned out just fine.
It was even a little tamer than he had expected, given all the publicity over high water and a rash of rafting deaths that have made this young white water season one of the deadliest of the decade. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be," Bernardini said as he stood a few yards from the swollen South Fork of the American River, which has been running at three to four times its normal flow for this time of year.
The heavy, late Sierra snowmelt has been a decidedly mixed blessing on the South Fork and other northern rivers that make California one of the nation's premier white water playgrounds.
The swift, icy flows beckon with the promise of some of the best rafting in years. But if something goes amiss, there is not much forgiveness in the churning confusion of rapids that have been living up to such names as Trouble Maker and Meat Grinder.
With 12 white water deaths in recent weeks--three of them on the South Fork--the carefree vacation mood of early summer has assumed a chilly edge in the Gold Country foothills.
Occasional rafters such as Bernardini are wondering if they are fools to go on the river--or fools to stay off it and miss the thrills. Authorities have stepped up river patrols, trying to keep ill-equipped novices out of the water. And commercial rafting companies, suffering from a poor season because of the cold, rainy spring, have gone into a damage-control mode as hundreds of frightened customers call to cancel their bookings.
Comparatively wide and usually benign, the South Fork is the busiest commercial rafting river in the state. About 30 outfitters take more than 100,000 people down the dam-controlled river every year, and thousands more ride the white water on kayaks and rafts of their own.
Groups from the Bay Area and Southern California arrive by the bus load to float down the river and party afterward in camp. On a busy summer weekend, rafts and kayaks are lined up 10 to 15 deep to run the rapids. The atmosphere more resembles that of a lovely, pine-scented amusement park than a rugged wilderness.
But this year some of the wildness is back.
"It's completely changed its character," American River Conservancy staffer Earle Harris said of the South Fork. "People are used to this river being friendly and kind and not showing its ugly side. People underestimate it."
He was standing at Chili Bar, named not after a food stand but the Chileans who worked this section of the American for gold during the Gold Rush, which began on the South Fork. As every rafting group pulled into the parking lot Friday morning, Harris and a volunteer from the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department search and rescue team looked them over.
"We're basically trying to make sure somebody doesn't get on the river without knowing what they're doing," said search and rescue volunteer Doug Hendricks.
It was his first day on such duty and so far he had not delivered any lectures. All the rafters were with commercial companies. They had professional guides and were wearing wetsuits and tightly fitting life jackets, designed to withstand a pummeling in the rapids.
The river at Chili Bar looked fast and high but hardly menacing. Yet less than a week before, a private raft had run afoul of a turbulent eddy at the bar and dumped its occupants into the river. A 27-year-old Vallejo woman was pushed toward the bank and snagged in partially submerged brush, where she remained underwater for at least five minutes. She was rescued and hospitalized but died Friday, making her the 12th white water victim of the season.
It is not just the speed and the force of the water that is to be reckoned with. It is also the cold. Friday the river temperature was 50 degrees, a little warmer than it has been but still more frigid than normal for late June.
When a boater gets tossed into such icy waters, Harris said, two things can happen. There is a reflexive gasp at the shock of cold and a natural constriction of the larynx, making it both easy to gulp water and difficult to breathe.
The cold temperatures alone are enough to give boaters pause. "Either you were going to have a really great time or you were going to fall in and not be so happy," said Bay Area attorney Marcy Berkman, an experienced rafter who canceled a planned trip with friends down the Merced River this past weekend. "The chance of flipping out this year and being freezing cold and miserable and in danger were pretty high."
Commercial outfitter Jim Plimpton has a phrase for boaters fearing over-the-bow ice cold showers. He calls them "summertime sheep."
He has had hundreds of cancellations since news of the deaths--and the frosty water temperatures--starting hitting the news more than a week ago.
"I've told people they can have a full refund and reschedule if they come up and look at the river and decide not to go--but otherwise we think they're crazy [to cancel]," Plimpton said as he propped a bare foot on his desk in the offices of Whitewater Connection, a company he has built into the biggest outfitter on the American River.
Like other outfitters, Plimpton has been hustling to save his season. He has spent hours on the phone reassuring wavering clients, including Bernardini, an insurance claims specialist from Roseville.
Plimpton emphasizes that the majority of river deaths have involved private, rather than commercial boaters. He quotes letters from clients raving about the great time they had this year. He prints out flow charts showing that the water level has been going down on the South Fork. He talks about the safety kayaker he sends out with each group to paddle to the rescue if someone gets a dunking.
Just as the public tries to affix blame for tragedy to make it more tolerable--the shooting victim was in the wrong place, the motorist wasn't wearing a seat belt--the river outfitters have looked for explanations of this season's fatalities.
They point to the inexperience or even folly of private groups--two of the 12 who died were riding air mattresses on a fast running creek in Butte County. (They are not counted in the official state tally of white water deaths because they were not using paddles.)
Even with the three deaths that occurred on commercial trips--including that of a guide whose raft flipped on the Tuolumne River--the outfitters find reasons: The guide wasn't wearing a high flotation life jacket. One victim wasn't even in a raft but had gone swimming.
But ultimately the rafting community is reduced to the explanation that these things happen in life.
"It's a great way to sensationalize and make a news flash and it has very little to do with reality," insisted Jim Cassady, author of two well-known white water guides. "Yes, we've had some deaths. But if you drive, do you follow every car accident? No."
That was the way Bethanie Iams saw it after her commercial trip down the South Fork with a group of co-workers from her Santa Clara office. "I'm not saying it's not dangerous. But driving a car is dangerous. Life is dangerous."
Like Bernardini, she found the South Fork less than terrifying. "With the media reports I thought it was going to be extremely scary and vicious. It was pretty calm," she said. "That's coming from somebody who was scared to death of coming up here."
Sure enough, there were no heart-stopping moments in a two-hour Friday run down the South Fork with guide Vince Perez, who has been rafting the river for 20 years.
But it only takes a jolting slap of ice water across the body or a look over the raft bow as it crashes into the tumbling chaos of Trouble Maker to be reminded of the river's lethal power and how easily things could go wrong.
As Perez says, "You never know what's going to happen."
As he steers his oar boat through wooded gorges and past ancient rusted gold mining flumes, he scans the river, reading its "holes," its waves and rocks. "It's like shooting pool in a way. You're setting yourself up for the next move," he explains. "You can't fight this current. It will win every time. You have to work with it."
He offers a critique of each rapid as the raft approaches. Meat Grinder is a quarter-mile long and has "two nasty lateral waves at the bottom." Maya has two rapids. The first one can knock a boat out of control and the second one can finish the job by flipping it. Triple Threat needs no explanation.
Canoga Park Girl Scout Troop 1980 made it though all of them and wanted to go back for more. The leaders had not heard of the river deaths when the troop went out on a commercial trip early last week, they just knew the water was high.
"We found it exhilarating," exclaimed leader Candy Tomanek as the troop downed a stir-fry dinner at the American Whitewater Expeditions campground. "We try to build memories. And this is one they won't forget."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
California rivers are running higher and colder than usual, due to near-record amounts of late-melting snow runoff. There have been 12 deaths on rivers this year and officials are issuing warnings for recreationists.
Far more water is flowing in California rivers than normal. The amounts shown are measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).
American (North Fork)
June 26, 1998: 1,760
June 26, 1998: 12,700
American (South Fork)
June 26, 1998: 4,714
June 26, 1998: 2,260
June 26, 1998: 15,329
June 26, 1998: 6,659
June 26, 1998: 5,980
June 26, 1998: 5,250
* Rafting outfitters' estimates
Snowpack water content this year compared to the average figure and the last big El Nino season in 1982-83. (April 1 is the date of normal maximum accumulation when all snow surveys are reported.
June '98 River Deaths
Deaths River June 8 1 Tuolumne June 16 1 Upper Kern June 17 1 American (South Fork) June 18 1 Klamath June 18 1 Stanislaus June 20 2 Butte Creek June 20 1 American (South Fork) June 21 3 Cosumnes June 26 1 American (South Fork)
Sources: California Department of Water Resources; USGS; Mountain River Adventures; Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions; Researched by JULIE SHEER / Los Angeles Times