Jeff Jardine

Cold, wet realities of floating on overflowing, brushy Stanislaus River

Each of the past several years, Paul Adams and his friends got together twice – on the first and last weekends of summer – for a relaxing party disguised as a float trip down the Stanislaus River through Riverbank.

It became popular enough to draw about 100 people. For the five years of the drought, water levels were low in the Stanislaus and the water was warmer as a result. No problems. But Adams and friend Walter Woodland got a big shock when they assembled their Facebook page for this year’s trips. It suddenly went viral: 2,200 indicating they will attend and 15,000 who say they are interested.

“It just blew up,” Adams said. So, consequently, did the scheduled June 24 event and probably his planned Sept. 17 float as well.

“I don’t know if I want to be liable for 15,000 people,” Adams said. Especially after reading how eight people were saved from the Stanislaus on Sunday by the sheer fortune of having the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire’s water at that very moment to hear the screams of a woman in distress in the river. They just happened to be there talk to Bee reporter Rosalio Ahumada and photographer Marty Bicek about the dangers of being in the cold, high river.

Canceling his event is a bit of welcome common sense considering the Stanislaus is flowing at over 5,300 cubic feet per second when normal for this time of year is anywhere from 350 to 500 feet. And the Sierra snowpack is by no means done melting, meaning higher-than-normal water levels could last well into the summer. New Melones Reservoir – as low as 11 percent of capacity two summers ago – is now 86 percent full and making way for the remaining runoff. That water goes downstream into Tulloch Reservoir, then over the Goodwin division dam and downstream toward Ripon and the San Joaquin River. Booming doesn’t begin to describe it. It is bank to bank, with the water well up into the trees.

Even so, it takes only very hot day to send people into their rafts or, in some cases, pool toys and paddle out into the current. The Stanislaus is so high that rafter River Journey Adventures is only offering guided tours this year, owner Dave Voortman told Ahumada, and other companies probably will do the same. They won’t simply rent out rafts. The danger and liability are too high.

Sunday’s near tragedy certainly wasn’t the first time people have defied logic in the river. I covered a similar mess 20 years ago when 42 people – three of them lawyers – rented rafts from local outfitter. Children comprised more than half of the group, the youngest among them being 6. Four of their seven rafts overturned at a time when the river was at 1,638 feet per second. The current took some of them into the trees, but everyone survived. The Army Corps of Engineers suspended the operator’s permit for a weekend.

The water then was very cold, like it is now. When the water is 49 degrees, as it was Sunday, it is less than half of the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees. That shocks the air right out of you, as some of the rafters told Ahumada. The water in Modesto Reservoir was 62 degrees when a Modesto man drowned there that same day.

Granted, the water should be warmer in September. But Adams said he is inclined to cancel his last-of-the-summer float as well. It’s gotten too big.

“Out of control,” he said.

Having it would require real planning, obtaining permits, finding sponsorships, working with the City of Riverbank to use Jacob Meyer Park. All of that is more Adams has done in the past and more than another float promoter wanted to do in Lodi before the city shut down his event on Lodi Lake. Why? Because he simply planned to take over already-booked parks for a June 24 float down the Mokelumne River. They city told him, “No, you’re not.”

So Lodi float organizer Ryan Clark posted on his Facebook page titled “Lodi Lake River Float,” “Canceled due to Lodi Police. Please go to the Riverbank Float Fest. Over 2,000 people going ... .”

To which the Riverbank Parks and Recreation Department responded: “We wanted to inform you that our current water levels are high and extremely dangerous at the moment. Also our park parking is unable to handle the massive amount of people that your event says is attending.”

And yet, there will be some who ignore the warnings, the pleas and the common sense of going into water that cold and that high. And this time, the fire department’s river rescue team might not be within earshot.