#1 Will there be American River rafting this year?
Whether precipitation is low, normal, or above normal; in any given year the answer is emphatically yes! The American River provides lots of great rafting every year.
#2 How can that be?
The reason is that the South and Middle Forks of the American River both have dams upstream of their rafting runs. Each of these two rivers is controlled by a dam and flows are adjusted to allow rafting to occur.
#3 Is this true during a drought?
Absolutely! Even during California’s record drought the dam controlled South and Middle Forks of the American River remained great for rafting. This results from cooperation between water agencies that operate the dams and the boating community. On the South Fork it is also reinforced by law (FERC permit). For example, there were excellent rafting flows on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday on the South Fork between Memorial Day and Labor Day during the worst year of the drought. A similar schedule occurred on the Middle Fork. This resulted in the best and most consistent rafting flows available in the West!
#4 What about a normal year?
In “normal” water years both the South and Middle Forks have reliable flows on all days of the week throughout the rafting season. If exceptions occur (e.g. dam maintenance or the Western States race on the Middle Fork), outfitters are made aware by the water agencies and we can pass this information along to you.
#5 What about above normal or “wet” years?
In these years we can know very early, for instance in February, that there will be robust flows all season long. The season will begin earlier in the spring and extend later into fall as well. Yahoo!
#6 What about “High Water” Boating?
Beautiful wildflowers, rushing side creeks; these are some of the things we look forward to in wet years and which make for spectacular boating. They also alert us to higher flows, more powerful current and colder water. It pays to be prepared, and at Mother Lode intensive high water guide training begins in early spring, long before our participants arrive. We select the larger boats from our extensive inventory of state-of-the art, self-bailing rafts. We often equip some of our rafts with oar frames for extra power and use special safety gear including a full complement of wetsuits and paddling jackets. Most importantly of all, we take extra care to match the skill and experience level of participants and guides to anticipated conditions.
#7 How does Mother Lode handle high water?
Experience matters. As one of California’s original whitewater outfitters, Mother Lode has dealt with every type of water year ranging from the lowest (1970s) to the highest (1983). This “institutional memory” has been systematically incorporated into our procedures and reflected in our training. One approach we developed in the 1980s involves adjusting the widely accepted “river classification” system. Briefly, based upon the anticipated flow, we adjust the “Class” of the river to current conditions. For example, on the South Fork of the American, when the flow reaches a threshold level, we “reclassify” the river from its generally accepted Class III designation, upward to Class IV (see below for the river classification system). This change is easier for guides and participants to understand and apply. Whereas Class III is appropriate for beginners as young as 8; Class IV conditions increase the minimum age to 14, make previous experience highly recommended, and mandate that all participants be swimmers who are fit, active and healthy. In spring we also require that wetsuits and paddling jackets be worn. This “reclassification” approach has been so effective it has been recommended to all outfitters by regulatory agencies on the popular South Fork of the American.
#8 What are the alternatives if conditions change unexpectedly?
During periods of sustained high water, the necessary adjustments in qualifications for a trip will be made at booking, well in advance of the trip. If conditions change unexpectedly, however, we always reserve the right to make the decision at the river on the day of the trip. Participants are allowed to reschedule if we cancel a trip, however, the three Forks of the American River are unique in that they offer a wide range of fun and exciting alternatives not seen elsewhere. The North, Middle and South Forks of the American offer 8 (eight) different runs which are geographically close to each other and vary from Class II to Class V. Shifting to a different river, or to a different run on the same river, often allows us to enjoy an alternative trip if a particular run becomes unsafe. Although this situation is rare, it has allowed us to make wonderful river experiences while keeping safety as our first priority.
#9 What if I want to avoid high water entirely?
If spring or high water boating is not your cup tea, no worries, simply go later in the season! Even in an extreme high water year spring runoff ends and summer flows return. The bulk of our participants who come in July, August and September never realize that high water happened just a few weeks before their trip. Which brings up another important point. If you want to experience the thrill of higher flows, book early in the season or you may miss them.
#10 How safe is whitewater rafting anyway?
Rafting is true adventure! Like skiing, climbing, hiking and other outdoor activities, rafting is real and safety depends on how you do it. There is no avoiding taking responsibility for your choice to participate and you will sign a liability waiver prior to the trip. We advise you to read it carefully.
Choosing a professional outfitter to guide you on your rafting trip dramatically reduces your risk. Ironically, most rafting mishaps happen on private trips on easy flat water. That said, when choosing your outfitter it is reasonable to inquire about their safety record.
At Mother Lode we have not only been rafting a long time, over 40 years, each season we carry among the largest number of participants on the South Fork (7200 participants last season alone). This has allowed us to compile the finest safety record in our industry: over 3 million miles without a single fatality. Statistically speaking, rafting at Mother Lode is safer than your drive to the river, a commercial airline flight, or the raft ride at Disneyland. Nevertheless, we take the possibility of injury or even death seriously, and so should you.
Safety begins with taking responsibility for your choice of experience. Start by being honest with yourself and with us regarding your age, health, risk tolerance and ability. Remember, paddle rafting is a team sport and you are an essential part of the team. Get proper sleep, eat a good breakfast and come prepared to actively participate by following your guide’s instructions to the letter. Rafting is great fun, but it is not a party and drugs or alcohol do not mix with whitewater. A bump, bruise or unplanned swim is not uncommon and you should be prepared to paddle hard. Pay attention to the pre-trip instructions concerning what to wear and bring and come prepared.
Ready to go? You are about to have the time of your life! Whitewater rafting is awesome and will create memories that will last a lifetime!
#11 What about the North Fork?
If you are hoping to raft the Class IV+ North Fork of the American River the window for a trip is short, even in wet years. This is because there is no dam upstream and the flows are dependent on the weather. That being said, we love to run the North Fork and look forward to helping you encounter this special place!
#12 Are there options other than rafting?
Mother Lode is the only South Fork outfitter to also offer an on-site ropes course and outdoor education program. We also feature a great campground with large grassy areas for camping and lounging, a riverside nature trail, swimming eddy, horseshoes, volleyball court and many miles of nearby hiking trails. So if your vacation coincides with the few days that water conditions don’t suit you, there are plenty of other activities to get you outdoors and having fun.
We look forward to seeing you!
#13 What will we have for breakfast?
If you are staying overnight the guides will be up early brewing coffee and cooking breakfast to get you ready for your day.
We pride ourselves on great food, and many ingredients are sourced locally and made from scratch.
The exact menu may change from day to day but you can expect pancakes or French toast with real maple syrup, eggs, sausage, fresh fruit, coffee, and tea.
As always please let us know ahead of time about any allergies or dietary concerns.
#14 What will we have for lunch?
Our lunch is generally a deli spread with all the fixings, including homemade pickles and hummus, with chips and salsa as an appetizer. To drink there is iced lemonade or tea as well as water.
Depending on the schedule for the day, lunch will be served on the river or at our camp before the trip.
While the deli spread usually involves bread, we are happy to set aside lettuce wraps or provide other gluten free options upon request.
As always please let us know ahead of time about any allergies or dietary concerns.
#15 What will we have for dinner?
After a long summer day out in the sun nothing beats a fresh homemade dinner made by your guides. Cooked in our outdoor kitchen at camp and served under the stars, dinner is usually a vegetable Milanese with eggplant, squash, mushrooms, and peppers with chicken pasta for the main dishes. To round it out there is garlic bread, and a fresh green salad. After the meal is done dessert is served, usually cobbler or ice cream which is served a with fresh fruit compote.
Because many of the ingredients are sourced locally from what is in season, the menu is subject to changes over the season. If you are especially curious or have any requests feel free to contact us.
We hope to see you out on the river and look forward to sharing our wonderful menu with you. As always please let us know ahead of time about any allergies or dietary concerns.
#16 Common questions.
Here are some questions people frequently ask about the river and whitewater rafting. We will be adding to this section and if you have a question you don’t see here but would like answered, feel free to contact us!
How deep is the river?
The depth of the river varies throughout the trip, from a few inches to many feet. Even in the deep pools, however, there are many big rocks that lurk close to the surface in unexpected places. For this reason we ask you to always jump in feet first, use caution, and ask your guide when entering the water, whether from boat or shore.
How are rapids made?
Rapids form when gradient, which is how much the river drops over a given distance, combines with obstacles in the river (usually rocks) to form a whitewater rapid. Because each spot has its own unique gradient, and each rock is different, so is every rapid! The steeper the gradient and the bigger the obstacles, the harder the rapid.
All rapids on the South Fork (and almost every other river) are naturally occurring and are not made or modified by man.
What are the classes of rapid?
There are generally classes I-VI. Though some rivers (like the Grand Canyon) have a different rating system, that does not mean the rapids are harder.
The exact classification of each rapid can depend on many factors, but they are generally broken down as follows:
I- Low gradient with some disturbance but generally requires no maneuvering.
II- Rough water with some obstacles and requires some maneuvering.
III- Whitewater with significant waves or drops and obstacles, but not high danger, and may require significant maneuvering.
IV- Whitewater with long rapids with large waves, steep drops, and big rocks. Sharp maneuvers around obstacles generally required.
V- Whitewater with large waves, long or continuous rapids, big rocks, and huge drops. Often the rapids have significant ‘crux moves’ that can result in swims or flips if not made. The hardest class of reliably runnable rapids.
VI- Whitewater rapids that are unrunnable or where the outcome is uncertain despite preparation, skill, and gear. If these rapids are run it is by individuals or small crews of experienced rafters with their own gear.
Here at Mother Lode we offer a variety of trips that encompass class I-II floats all the way up to fun, bouncy class IV-V Whitewater! Your safety and enjoyment are our top priorities so feel free to contact us and see which trip is right for you.
See you on the river!
Whitewater Operations Manager
Mother Lode guides run Class V whitewater on Cherry Creek