Rafting season opens on Tuolumne, Stanislaus rivers — but high, fast water a concern

As the summer heat settles in, the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers become even more inviting for a cool splash. But for those ill-equipped to swim, raft or canoe, the rivers can become deadly traps as water flows remain high in the early summer boating season.

Earlier this year, a 5-year-old girl died in the Stanislaus in March and two other adults were stuck for two nights before rescue crews could save them from the cold waters of the Tuolumne in April.

However, with proper preparation and equipment, the rivers can be an oasis of fun and adventure. Many commercial rafting companies plan to open their doors June 8 as flows begin to become comfortably mellow and safe for enjoyment.

John Brunk, the operations manager at Sunshine Rafting Adventures in Knights Ferry, said the abnormally high river flow of the Stanislaus delayed the rafting season slightly.

“Previous years we didn’t have the same amount of rainfall and snow in the winter, so the flows here were more moderate and we were able to open a little sooner,” he said. “But this year we are a few weeks behind.”

Currently, the Stanislaus River is running at about 1,600 cubic feet per second at Orange Blossom Road, according to the California Department of Water Resources. The water has an average stage, or depth, of about five feet. June 2018 levels had the Stanislaus River running at about 360 cubic feet per second at Orange Blossom Road with an average stage of about three feet, according to the CDWR.

That means the Stanislaus River is running much faster than last year.

“When the river meanders, you just have to be keen enough to stay in the middle of the river and not hit the sides,” Brunk said. “But when it’s faster, you have less time to make that decision and think about how you’re going to turn, so you could hit a tree and the sides.”

The New Melones Dam primarily controls the flow of the Stanislaus River and operates on a pulse flow schedule, meaning operators allow more water to flow down the river at some times, and less at others. For the month of June, more water will flow down the river during the weekdays and less during the weekend, said Brunk.

For Brunk, though the high levels may be impacting business because they have been unable to open earlier, the primary concern is the safety of everyone.

Accompanying rafting companies in efforts to keep river-goers safe is the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District. With four boats of rescue crews ready, Battalion Chief Eric DeHart said firefighters are well prepared for the upcoming river boating season.

The four crews are based out of Waterford, Riverbank, Oakdale and Knights Ferry and consist of two to three people each. Trained in swift-water awareness, they are able to quickly rescue people from the rapids when necessary, DeHart said.

Both Brunk and DeHart said the most important tool people can bring with them to the water is a proper life jacket.

“If you’re going to go in the river, it doesn’t matter if you’re ankle-deep or if you’re knee-deep or chest-deep — have your life jacket on,” Brunk said. “It’s the number-one rule. Just keep your life jacket on. They save lives.”

If you are unable to obtain your own life jacket, the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways has partnered with the SCFPD and other local fire districts across the county to provide them for free to the public.

“Anyone can come in and borrow as many life jackets as they need to keep them safe,” DeHart said. “And we do it on an honor-based program, so we trust that people will bring them back so others can use them as well to keep themselves safe.”

DeHart also noted that children on the water banks should be watched closely as the swift water can sweep them away in an instant. Even if they don’t intend to get into the water, a slip or a fall can cause a child to tumble into the currents, DeHart said.

As the banks and the rivers become more crowded with people flocking to the cool water for relief, safety should be on the forefront of everyone’s minds, Brunk said. But, that does not mean the fun stops there, he added.

“It can be scary for some; it can be super exciting for some,” Brunk said. “It’s mostly laughs and fun, especially when you’ve been trained and you are prepared to be on the river.”

Mackenzie Shuman is a summer news intern for The Modesto Bee. She originally hails from Colorado Springs, Colorado, but goes to school at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication where she is studying Journalism with a minor in Political Science.
Support my work with a digital subscription