Riverside site with nonstop views of potential drowning victims.
This is our eighth time at this campground (not counting when I chaperoned 4th grade camp) and since it is right by the South Fork of the American River, the thing to do here is river stuff. Especially when it is really hot. We have held onto riverside site reservations, which means I have done a lot of staring at people floating down the river in various watercraft over the years.
A couple of years ago, it was over 100º and I decided to try floating down the river in an inflatable tube. I am not a risk taker by nature, and am a pretty solid control freak. So despite the pre-acquired beta saying everyone free floats this one section in those tubes, I remember being pretty nervous about it. But then again, tons of people, not wearing life jackets and armed only with beer, seemed to be surviving. There were so many people in the water, mostly just letting the current take them however it wanted, facing sideways or backwards, and they all seemed fine with that. I however, was constantly trying to paddle my way to at least be facing forward. There were three spots where the water got decently rapidsy, and two that were serious enough to throw a big wave of water completely over my head. The last was the worst. I came out of that with underarms covered in deep purple bruises from all the attempted paddling, but claimed it was super fun. I am now calling BS on myself. I think I more survived than enjoyed that, and my post-experience recollection was tainted by adrenaline.
Tubing fun. But was it really?
After that, I wondered whether the same thing could be done in my inflatable kayak. There is a much larger rapid just upriver from the campground, so many many people float by in those big professional rafts that carry six people. There are also lots of kayakers looking super serious with helmets and implied skill. And then there are the drunken floaties who put in AFTER the big rapid. I never saw anyone with my specific kind of kayak going down, so I didn’t know.
“This is a really good idea.” – Towlie
For this stay, weather predictions showed temperatures over a hundred and I knew I would be contemplating this again. I asked Richard if he could get some beta during the week from a local rafting place and see what he could find out. What he got back was in alignment with “everyone does this all the time every year” but stopped short of “she’ll be fine,” due to liability concerns. But it overall sounded reassuring, and the only advice offered was to go around 3pm because that is when the upstream water release will have calmed down a little.
Me: “I’m not sure this is a good idea!”
So on Saturday afternoon, after Richard had gotten in a ride, and after Dory’s interior temperature had started to climb, despite AC and Aluminet, I was weighing getting in the water. After much thought, I decided to try it with my boat, just to stop myself from wondering. I also didn’t really like the lack of control and upright sitting positing in the floatie. I put in from the campground and will never ever do that again.
This is fine. Everything is fine.
It started well enough. Again, there were lots of people on the water, and after a little chop at the start, there were long stretches of calm, peaceful floating. I did very much prefer my boat at that point. I white knuckled my way through rapids 1 and 2 and did not get water splashed over my head, so I was winning.
Looking back on the first of the rapids. Doesn’t look too bad, right?
Then came the third, which Richard was told has a name; something like “Scary Rock.” To picture this spot (because I obviously wasn’t going to take pictures), imagine the river narrowing and dropping, while also turning rather sharply to the left. Then imagine a cluster of high rocks rising out of the river at the outside of that turn. I think when I did this in the tube, I bounced against the rocks, but then proceeded through the big waves after that and made it through with only a dousing. I could see the corner coming up and tried to kind of slow down to watch people go down it. Like to strategize my approach. Hahahaha. That was silly. I looked behind me to see a fleet of those professional rafting groups and figured I’d better just go before they got too close. Once I was in the chute, I had utterly no control over anything.
Ahead of me, there was a group of five or six floaties that were lashed together with ropes. They hit the rocks and got stuck there. Here I came, full throttle and straight at them. I could see the terrified face of a young girl, who was already upset and crying, as I approached. I attempted to thrust my paddle as hard as I could into the water, to hopefully steer and turn left to avoid them, and I flipped completely out of the boat.
The shock of hitting the very cold water was instant and I came back up trying to grasp my boat. It was upside down and I couldn’t immediately grab ahold of anything. My feet were also tangled in ropes, perhaps from my own paddle leash, or possibly the ropes tying the floaties together. At this point, the father of the family floatie group came to my rescue. He made eye contact with me and asked if I was ok. He helped flip my boat upright. He talked me down and talked me through just holding on as we started to move into the rapids together.
I was genuinely terrified and can only imagine the look on my face, which did not help calm down the girl. All I could do was hold onto the side as the fast moving current carried us along. The father and mother told me I was ok as I gasped with fear. The father coached me by saying to keep my feet high, and I was able to untangle them from the ropes. I managed, “Don’t let go!” and my saviors assured me they would not. Together we got through the rapids, and while I’m not sure how far that was, it may as well have been a mile. Could have been ten feet. I have no idea.
As the current began to slow, the mother and father kept talking to me saying it was getting calm now. They started paddling toward the shore and I got scared they were going to lose me. I didn’t realize the father had found my paddle and used the leash to tie my boat to theirs. Slowly, slowly, we made our way toward the shore until we could stand up and I figured at that point I might not die. Honestly, I don’t know how bad that really was. I just know I’m glad to have made it through. Maybe a hundred people a day flip there and are just fine. One would think if there were regular casualties on that corner, the rafting guy might have mentioned that to Richard on the phone.
I know this: I will forever be grateful to that couple. They may have saved my life and they certainly got me through a very difficult moment. Once on shore, I texted Richard and tried not to be too alarming, which didn’t work. He drove the car down river about three miles to find me, getting panicked and confused about where I was. But find me he did, and he helped me dump the water out of my boat and haul it up to the car. At that point, I cried.
In retrospect, there were many things that worked well for me in all of this. First off, people are mostly Good and will try to help other people in trouble. What a nice thing to be reminded of. Second, safety overkill has its moments. I never ever go out without my lifejacket, no matter how dorky it looks. On totally calm days and small lakes, I always wear my lifejacket. On the river, it is a legal requirement, but that didn’t stop a big percentage of floatie people from ignoring it. I also have ridiculous emergency gear stowed in the back of my boat seat, like an inflatable bag thingy that could theoretically be used with my paddle to help me get back into my boat, and a whistle, and flares. For when… I’m kayaking on the ocean at midnight and get lost? Unlikely, but I carry them every time. The flares maybe didn’t come in so handy, but that lifejacket maybe saved my life. Maybe.
Also, I honestly think having lost some pounds, and therefore having a smaller butt, really helped me out here. Before, I was pretty snug in that boat, keeping the maximum weight limit always in the back of my mind. Now I notice that there is more room to sit. When the boat flipped, it threw me out immediately. I wonder what it would have been like if that had not happened.
Safe on land. With wine. Trying not to think about it too hard.
In addition, I lost no gear. I am in the habit of clipping things onto the boat, in case I flip over. It is never my goal to capsize and it has only happened once, intentionally, when I took a beginner kayaking class. It was comforting at the time to see how hard it actually is to flip an inflatable boat. But still, I secure all things as a habit and that paid off. In fact, the only thing that was not secured was my water bottle because I forgot its holder in the campground and didn’t feel like going back for it when I launched. I found the bottle in the boat behind the seat and the only explanation I can think of is that the family grabbed it out of the water and put it there while we were floating. That would not have been a big loss, but still. I always put my car keys in a dry pouch in my life jacket pocket and I always keep my phone on a leash. Because things were unusually exciting, I decided to stow it inside my life jacket pocket too. I think that is the only reason it didn’t fry. And, I don’t always wear my old backup hearing aids when I go boating, but I did this time. I was fully underwater for a bit, and I’m surprised the old ones didn’t die, but also super happy they weren’t the really expensive new ones. Even my new hat stayed on my head because it has a pony tail hole and an elastic band.
Two other things that made a big difference: there was cell service to contact Richard, and the water was not as icy cold as it was the last time. It was already a shock going in, so I’m just glad it wasn’t worse.
Delicious dinners help too.
Back at Dory, there were a lot of wet things to dump out and a lot of time needed to defrazzle. I deeply regretted not bringing the margarita mix. Chilled wine was a fair consolation. By dinner time, things had cooled off a smidge (but when I say that, I mean like 100º instead of 103º) and we had created a shaded porch with some Aluminet that made it acceptable for cooking.
Surprisingly effective at temperature reduction
I slept very well that night and today my whole body is sore. That makes total sense. Thus ends any interest I ever had in rapids. If we do go back to this campground in the summer, I will be finding other things to do. On land. Good lord, what an experience.
Total miles: 116.3 (avoiding highways), 17.4 mpg, 3 hours 54 min. Site 70 hookups. Richard hates the dump at this place, but since Brannan Island is temporarily closed, he dealt with it. There is a high curb around the inlet that makes things annoying. Good service and campground wifi for a while, then it all dropped out to be slow. Not sure why.