Ten-foot oars angle out over the water as 1200 pounds of inflatable raft, with all its equipment and its crew of four drift toward the brink.
Almost casually, boatman Ward Hall savors the suspension of time that precedes each explosive river rapid, bracing the heavy oars under his knees.
His eyes, schooled to watch for hidden rocks drink in the bloom of purple and yellow wildflowers stretching along the sides of this glacial Mother Lode canyon, 190 miles East of San Francisco.
“Hey Ward.” calls one of his crew, “Aren’t we getting a little close?”
Hall grasps the oars and in two quick strokes of a double-oar turn, pivots the boat 90 degrees left to face the torrent of Bailey Falls head on.
By 1984, maybe sooner if it rains a lot, Baily Falls will vanish, along with nine miles of rapids under an artificial lake created by the Army Corps of Engineers’ massive New Melones Dam.
But, in this early spring on 1978, the flow is still fast, and Ward’s 17-foot long, nylon-neoprene raft, a bouncy elliptical doughnut, swoops over Bailey’s up
The winter snowpack still hugging the Sierra and the past four months of heavy rain guarantee a big and long commercial rafting season in the state this year.
After two years of drought, interest in river running is higher than ever before and rafting companies are besieged with bookings.
The Oakland-based American River Touring Association (ARTA) the West’s largest river outfitter, reports that all but a few of the 5000 places on its trips this year are already filled.
Even a small outfitter like Tom Malcamp who combines his outdoor shop in San Francisco’s Sunset district with a river touring operation, expects to more than quadruple business over 1975, the last good river-running year before the drought, when 60,000 people ran the South Fork of the American.
Most boatmen learn the craft in “whitewater schools” conducted by large outfitters like ARTA and smaller ones like Whitewater Voyages of El Cerrito.
Foremost, perhaps, among commercial scouts is William (Bill) McGinnis, who owns Whitewater Voyages. The lanky 31-year old was the first commercial rafter on half a dozen western rivers now run by other firms.
McGinnis is typical of boatmen: well-educated, friendly, and enamored of his profession.
Boatmen frequently know the geology, biology and history of a river in addition to its tricky hydraulics.
Most river running occurs between June and September. But it is in the early spring, wetsuit weather–before runoff causes flood crests running 10,000 cubic feet per second–that new boat rowers must be trained.
Which is why Ward Hall, 22, one of six instructors and the lead boatman of a six-raft flotilla skippered by McGinnis, was poised the other day on the edge of Bailey Falls in the middle of the run thousands of boatmen will take this simmer.
The two-oar boat behind Hall’s hits Bailey straight on.
There is another way to run Bailey, off to the left, down a relatively smooth chute that disappears at low water. Boatman Eric Leaper led the smaller paddle boats through the easier course.
Paddle boats, which carry a lighter load than rafts powered by oars, are more likely to flip. The crew has to work together as the paddle captain calls out “forward,” “backward,” “left turn,” “right turn,” or “stop.”
Leaper wears a waterproof camera, wired and bolted to a kayak helmet. He has run many rivers in the Rockies, but this is his first trip on the Stanislaus.
He scouts every rapid, pulling off into an eddy upriver to check for hazards and the “V” of the main current.
He knows them all:
Cadillac Charlie . . . Widowmaker . . . Death Rock . . . Devil’s Staircase . . . Bailey’s Falls . . . and, finally, Rose Creek Rapid.
When the 22-person party floats into camp, just above Razorback Rock, dusk is falling.
Although a full orange moon will illuminate the chasm later, twilight’s patchy, gray clouds hint of rain and McGinnis orders two large tarps set up as tents.
The night is cold, but dry, and the tarps aren’t needed. Dew greets the breakfast crew, which hauls out a twisted grill and fixes scrambled eggs over a fire of wood carried down over an oar boat.
By 10 a.m. the expedition is underway, with students in control in all six boats.
The rafts shoot inches past Razorback, just missing the knife-like edge at the base of the 300-foot cliff towering over the river.
These last four miles to the takeout at Parrott’s Ferry, an old river crossing now part of hte Federal Parklands, offers rapids very different from the first day: smaller waves, fewer heart-thumping drops. But more precise maneuvering around boulders and shallows. It’s a colorful itinerary.
Sierra Club Rock – named because a boat loaded with members of that organization crashed there in 1970. Cop Rock – where a raft paddled by seven “drunk policemen” wrapped in 1971, Hall recalled.
Chinese Dog Leg _ near an old camp of Chinese gold miners, where the river snakes around and zigzags at the last moment, too late for some rafts to avoid the sucking current and save themselves from being pinned to a big rock.
By noon–and with neither a flip nor a wrap to mar the journey–the McGinnis convoy slips under the old bridge above Parrott’s Ferry rapid and pulls into shore. This is the sixth day of training in this seven-day whitewater school: Three days on the Stanislaus followed by four days on the American, and the students are tired–but eager for the next run, over the same stretch of river, this time with students in control.
As the caravan loads up, the grunt of bulldozers moving mounds of earth to build a stately high bridge that will span a flat, man-made lake, drown out the rush of whitewater.
The Basics on River Rafting
River trips range from the one-day jaunts on Sierra streams in California to expeditions of several weeks on Rocky Mountain waterways.
Some rivers, like the Klamath in Big Foot country, or the lower Green looping through Utah, offer a mild, warm ride, a “float,” rocked by gentle rapids every few miles, ideal for the not so brave.
Others like the Colorado in Grand Canyon country and the Salmon in Idaho rush along in big waves and drops that raise adrenalin higher than the spray.
The toughest rivers for the most expert boatmen are “technical” waters such as the Tuolumne, immediately south of the Stanislaus in the Sierra, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The water isn’t “big” as boatmen talk, but the zigzag courses boatmen must carve through boulder gardens demand precision and farsighted readings of river currents.
Many river outfitters provide distant trips on rivers in Alaska, Canada, Africa, South America and Europe.
Information can be obtained about river firms by writing to Pacific River Outfitters Association, 6505 C. Telegraph Avenue, Oakland CA, or Western River Guides Association, Inc., 994 Denver Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84111.
Prices range from $40 to $50 for a day on the Stanislaus to $300 50 $400 for six days on the Salmon.
With proper observation of river safety and some bucks you can also run a river on your own.
Inexpensive inflatable rafts cost about $100. Better ones, suitable for longer trips, cost $1000 or more. Life Jackets, rope and incredible assortment of odds and ends are also a must.
Sturdy oars and a rigid rowing frame for an oar boat cost more than $500, but paddles enough for a five-man paddle boat with two extras run a little more than $100.
Tumbling from either your own boat or a commercial raft, even in rough water, is exhilarating and usually safe. But riders may be in trouble if the raft flips or “wraps.”
A flip can trap a swimmer underneath the boat or between the raft and an obstacle. Flipped boats can be righted in slow water with no harm done, provided gear is securely fastened. Knots should be tied for quick release.
“Be careful of line,” warns McGinnis “never tie yourself to anything and be sure the lines can’t snare you.”
When a raft collides with a boulder, a wrap – where the boat hugs the rock pinned by rushing water – is always a threat. Passengers should jump for the “high” or downstream side to keep the raft in the water and, perhaps, spin it away. If the boat wraps, thick safety ropes looped around trees for leverage can be used to yank it free.
Sometimes people have to sit on the bank and wait several hours for lower water to float the raft off.
Despite it’s legendary thrills, river rafting seldom is marred by fatalities.
Keven Clarke of the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t know of a single death due to a commercial trip on the Stanislaus in four years.
Hypothermia – a sudden drop in body temperature – poses the gravest danger. Icy water erodes even wetsuit protection in five to ten minutes. Only experts should attempt winter and spring high water, and many trips will be canceled in the Sierra in May. © 1977 San Francisco Chronicle.