May 14, 2014

Rafters find rebirth along fire-seared Tuolumne River

The famed whitewater stretch on the Tuolume River has relatively little damage from last year’s Rim fire, and rafters will be back at it this spring and summer.

Things happen fast on the whitewater rafting stretch of the Tuolumne River north of Groveland. And that includes recovery from the Rim fire.

The terrain close to the river had some of the lightest damage from the blaze, which spread last year across 257,314 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private land. And much of the riverside vegetation that did burn is of a type, such as oak and cottonwood, that resprouts quickly.

“I don’t think anybody is disappointed with the scenery,” said Steve Markle, director of sales and marketing at OARS, an outfitter based in Angels Camp. “And the whitewater is as fun as ever.”

Commercial trips started last month on the 18-mile stretch and are expected to run through Labor Day – not bad for a year of severe drought. The rafters ride on well-timed releases from the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which serves much of the Bay Area and has not had major cutbacks.

The Merced River’s whitewater stretch, which lacks an upstream reservoir to regulate the snowmelt, is expected to be runnable only through this month.

The Rim fire, believed to have started from a still-unnamed hunter’s illegal campfire Aug. 17, grew into the largest in the Sierra Nevada’s recorded history.

Nearly a quarter of the acreage, mainly conifer forest, burned so intensely that few trees were left and managers have to watch for soil erosion. On other acreage, a fair amount of timber and brush was killed, but the canopy stayed largely intact. The least damage was in areas that had been thinned through logging and intentional burning, and in streamside areas where the vegetation was not so dry.

“Some parts of the hills are totally scorched, and some are a mosaic of burned and nonburned spots,” said Marty McDonnell, owner of Sierra Mac River Trips in Groveland.

Steve Welch, general manager at ARTA River Trips in Groveland, said rafters see some areas that are “completely lunar-landscaped,” but most of the run is green. The last three miles, just upstream from Don Pedro Reservoir, are outside the burn area.

Markle noted lupines, poppies, Mariposa lilies and other wildflowers, which peak this time of year and were not deterred by the flames.

Rafting is a small part of Tuolumne County’s tourism sector, which takes in Gold Rush towns in the foothills, camping and fishing spots in the national forest, and the northern half of Yosemite.

The Tuolumne outfitters have permits from the U.S. Forest Service and take groups on trips of one to three days. They can cost several hundred dollars, but they provide an unforgettable experience as the inflated boats bounce amid the rapids and rocks. Some trips offer gourmet meals at the campsites.

The guides note that fire long has played a role in Sierra Nevada ecosystems, clearing out overgrowth and making way for new trees and brush, and their guests can get an education this spring and summer. “It’s a fascinating ecological shift,” McDonnell said.

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