Lower river flows don’t slow rafters and kayakers

06/15/2014 6:59 PM

06/15/2014 8:25 PM

This year’s drought has resulted in lower than usual river flows throughout the region, but it hasn’t deterred rafters and kayakers from hitting the water this summer.

“It was awesome,” said Oakdale resident Rudi Burtschi, who moved down the Stanislaus River in a kayak Sunday. “But it was way slower than usual. The water is down.”

He said the Stanislaus River has always been a good place for a beginner to learn how to be a rafter, but the low river flow doesn’t make it any easier. Higher water levels allow rafters to float above the rocky areas.

“The lower the water is, the bigger the rapids are, which is fun,” Burtschi said. “That’s what it’s all about, as long as you’re doing it safely.”

He and his brother, John Gumbert, grew up rafting down the Stanislaus River east of Oakdale. Gumbert said the lower levels increase the chances of “beaching” a boat along the river.

“We were able to avoid that today,” Gumbert said while he and his brother loaded up their kayaks onto their Jeep. “The big rafts, they have to get off and push themselves free.”

Tim Burwell of Antioch made that same trip down the Stanislaus River in a raft with his daughters, Shara and Alecsa. Their Father’s Day outing was just about what they expected.

“We expected it to be pretty laid back,” Burwell said about this stretch of the river that is known to be friendly to first-time rafters. “As far as speed of the water, it seemed about average.”

He said he and his daughters have been out rafting before, but this was their first time along the Stanislaus. They started out near Knights Ferry on Sunday and ended their trip about 8 miles later near Orange Blossom Road east of Oakdale.

Burwell said he could tell the water level was about 2 or 3 feet lower than usual, but “we still had a great time.”

Tyler Wendt, operations manager for OARS rafting company, said the lower-than-normal river flows haven’t affected business because their boats rely on water coming from upstream reservoirs. The Angels Camp-based company offers rafting trips along the Tuolumne River and two forks of the American River.

“Our numbers are up, and there’s plenty of water to go rafting,” Wendt said.

The company typically has one nonrafting day per week during the summer, but this year’s drought has resulted in no rafting Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Nevertheless, Wendt expects there to be enough water flow to raft through Labor Day.

He says higher water flows create more hazards for rafters, so it might be easier for a novice to take up the sport this year.

“Generally, it’s a good time to get their feet wet, so to speak,” Wendt said.

Oakdale-based Sunshine Rafting Adventures hasn’t seen a dramatic drop-off in rafters this summer either, despite the lower river flows. The company’s owner and general manager, Shiloh Foust, said “we’re incredibly busy.”

He said about 1,000 people, consisting of commercial and private rafters, float down the Stanislaus River from the Knights Ferry area each weekend during a typical summer.

The flow in the Stanislaus is what you normally would experience in July, only this year it happened one month earlier, Foust said.

The low flows have changed the way rescuers search for lost or stranded boaters along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers.

Normally, firefighters will launch two boats, one from the east and one from the west, said Battalion Chief Eric DeHart of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District. The firefighters then would drive the boats toward each other until they find the missing boaters.

With low river levels, DeHart said, there are too many shallow pockets that will damage the rescue boats.

This summer, rescuers are using other methods when possible, such as getting assistance from the Stanislaus County Sheriff Department’s helicopter to spot boaters before sending firefighters in from the nearest boat launch.

If the helicopter isn’t available, firefighters will try to spot them from the road or use the boaters’ cellphone signal to triangulate their location.

Stanislaus Consolidated firefighters rescued two teenage girls Wednesday who became stranded in their raft on the Stanislaus River.

DeHart said firefighters didn’t know where the girls were, so they started at the boat launch from which the girls had left two hours earlier at the Knights Ferry Recreation Area. The firefighters found the girls unharmed and helped them out of the river.

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