El Portal, Mariposa Co. -- California's 2003 whitewater season seemed like a dud in progress in March. However, a parade of April blizzards packed snow up to the armpits of High Sierra firs, boosting the central state's snowpack from 53 percent of average to well over 100 percent. And with the recent high temperatures, spring melt-off is now booming through the rapids of the state's classic whitewater runs. Undammed streams such as the Merced will likely stay in prime shape into July, the Kings into August. Dam-release streams such as the popular South Fork American and the Tuolumne should prove capable of enchanting river runners throughout summer and -- in some cases -- into fall.
High up in the 690 square miles of the Merced River drainage, Yosemite's waterfalls have become thundering cataracts. This torrent plunges down a steep canyon to El Portal, surging through a Class V run (experts only), then sweeps past Red Bud, a Class IV (difficult) stretch. Next it reaches Indian Flat, where a Class III-IV (moderate) run begins.
And here, last week, a crew of five friends from Costa Mesa pulled on wetsuits, helmets and life jackets to ready themselves for a raft trip with O. A.R.S. -- one of the West's oldest and biggest whitewater outfitters. O.A.R.S. boasts a huge menu of offerings. Early in the season, it can prove quite useful to have choices.
Originally, the trip of these five buddies was aimed at the Tuolumne. But last week, the "T" spiked with a high run-off of more than 11,000 cubic-feet- per-second. It was just too deep, strong, fast and cold to be safe.
"We took a guide-training trip up there, on the 'T,' " said O.A.R.S. trip leader Chris Moore, 28. "But we were reduced to simply running away from stuff."
We saw a 10-inch log go through Clavey Falls and completely explode. So we lined our boats through (unmanned and hauled on ropes). We decided we ought to offer our 'T' customers a run on the Merced this week."
Whitewater is a game that balances perceived risk against actual danger. When a risk level appears high, yet skilled guides hold the level of actual hazard rather low, your result is pure, adrenaline-pumping fun. The trick lies in rendering accurate judgment calls.
"The Merced here today is running about 6,500 cfs," Moore said. "Big wave trains. Should be a real roller-coaster ride. In-your-face hoo-rah."
The main danger was that water surged high up the banks. It rushed through strainers woven of trunks and branches of streamside trees. Moore and his companion guide, Jay McGuire, stressed that paddlers who fell overboard in these conditions should not try to swim to shore, lest they be entangled. Instead they should pull their feet up, stay in the main current and wait to be hauled back aboard.
Clients Steve Forbath, 45, a ferry captain, and his two brothers, Joe, 39, and Brian 31, seemed unfazed. So did their pals, Erik Harriman, 38, and Bahrain Esfahani, 47. Even the two in the group who had never run whitewater before were charged up.
"I was sad we couldn't be up on the 'T,' " said Steve Forbath, who had organized this outing for his brothers and friends. "But the Merced looks huge.
I can get excited about this."
Moore floated the run first, scouting drops in his oar-powered raft. He hand-signaled back to McGuire, indicating the best and boldest route to take with the paddle-powered raft. The paddle raft was then guided by McGuire's verbal commands, and the five friends aboard swung their blades with a will.
They plunged down Cranberry rapid, skirted Percolator and nailed a route through the quaintly dubbed Balls-to-the-Wall. Elated, the men aboard clashed their paddle blades together, high above their boat, in a mutual salute.
Moore grinned. "We've got the bomber commercial bunch operating that paddle raft today," he said. "Your average set of clients couldn't take a line like that."
His recognition and acclaim of the Forbath bunch underscored another whitewater theme. A paddle crew that plays together, and stays together, can bond and swiftly evolve as a team. Then, they may seek out more customized adventures. Eventually they can deploy their skills and use this sport to explore river canyons throughout the United States, even seek such far-flung locales as Costa Rica, New Zealand and Africa.
The Forbath crew, on the very next day of this trip, would go on to challenge a "highly technical" (many maneuvers required) Class IV stretch of the North Fork Stanislaus. However, first they had to devour lunch, then take on the two most challenging rapids of this Merced run: Split Rock followed by Corner Pocket, both rated Class IV.
Most modern raft outfitters pride themselves on the quality of their victuals. The O.A.R.S. noon repast -- vegetarian burritos heaped with fresh guacamole -- did not disappoint.
Nor did the post-lunch rapids. They shot a few miles of wild river canyon downstream from the Briceburg picnic spot. A series of lateral waves and souse holes led to a steepening ladder of more of the same -- bisected by a large, sharp "horn" rock.
Line-up at the top of the drop was critical. Any upset in Split Rock might send a crew caroming on a bad path through the rocky sieve of Corner Pocket, just downstream.
Their line-up was an unarguable success. Covered in glory, as well as cold, foamy water, both rafts emerged triumphant. Everyone waded from the chill of the river canyon, up into the warmth, sunshine and wildflower fields at the take-out.
"I'd do this again," Esfahani said. "In a heartbeat."
Well, it would be at least a night before he could do it again. Still, the Stanislaus did await. And in interim, the Forbath crew could sprawl around a dinner table and re-run some of the rapids in memory.
That's how a crew can confirm its participation in one of the best short vacations available. The intensity of a whitewater experience seems to double a person's distance from jobs, freeways, home cities and workaday responsibility. It sharpens all senses, hones your physicality, deepens your ability to fully inhabit a moment and take delight in the natural world. More than simple immersion, whitewater offers a literal baptism into an old, yet eternally fresh way of life.