Los Angeles Times - Travel - February 2010

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AFTER THE STORMS, RIVER RAFTERS ITCH FOR SPRING

Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times staff writer

Tuolumne River Rafting

For all the trouble and menace it has brought to this state in recent weeks, this storm season also has certain people in California feeling pretty good: the river-runners.

California’s Department of Water Resources estimates that by Jan. 31, statewide rain and snowfall amounted to 110% of the average for the date, leading outfitters to hope for a "stellar" spring and perhaps a longer summer of rafting.

George Wendt, founder and president of the rafting company O.A.R.S., used that word just the other day to describe his expectations for the Tuolumne River. And other outfitters, such as Bill McGinnis, founder and president of Whitewater Voyages, have similarly high hopes for other rivers, including the Kern, which is the nearest major river-rafting destination for Southern Californians.

“Because of this big snowpack, we’re going to start early. We’re going to start in mid-April,” said McGinnis, referring to his company’s trips on the Upper Kern.

Gray's Grindstone, Tuolumne River

O.A.R.S., Whitewater Voyages and most outfitters plan to start working the Tuolumne (pronounced too-all-o-me, nicknamed “the T”) in March or April. Beyond that, Wendt said, “We should see exhilarating high-water flows from mid-May to mid-June, and the more moderate scheduled reservoir releases through Sept. 1.”

The Tuolumne, one of the state’s most challenging and remote rafting venues, runs through and near Yosemite National Park. Its most popular put-in, Meral’s Pool, is near Groveland, about 360 miles’ drive north of Los Angeles. Six outfitters have permits to operate there, and traffic is capped at two commercial raft departures per day. Trips can vary from one to three days.

On the Kern, several sections get rafting traffic, including the Upper Kern above Kernville and Lake Isabella; and the Lower Kern, where the flows are controlled by releases from Lake Isabella. The put-in for the Lower Kern is about 145 miles north of Los Angeles, and both one-day, 10-mile and two-day 20-mile trips are common.

With their often-demanding rapids, the Upper Kern and Tuolumne rivers appeal to veteran rafters. Beginners often learn on calmer stretches of the South Fork of the American River, which runs near Highway 49 about 35 miles east of Sacramento and is navigated by more than a dozen outfitters.