Vegas Bachelor Party? No Thanks. Let’s Go Rafting!
“Remember that Australian bachelor party you told me about?”
It’s my friend Eric, asking a fair but foolish question. THAT bachelor party? When a dozen Aussies booked a private O.A.R.S. trip through Cataract Canyon in Utah, running the biggest whitewater in America wearing multi-colored Speedos with the words “Budgy Smuggler” printed across the back? (In Australia a “budgy” is a small parakeet, and…well, you get the picture.)
“I want a bachelor party like that…but without the budgy smugglers.”
Four months later, Eric and 20 of his closest friends are paddling down the Tuolumne River—selected for its Class IV rapids, terrific campsites and close proximity to San Francisco. Over the next three days we’ll paddle 18 miles down one of the wildest rivers in California.
Shortly after launching, our three rafts approach Rock Garden, the Tuolumne’s first major rapid. It’s a long, technical stretch filled with small but consequential obstacles.
“If you make it through Rock Garden,” announces veteran O.A.R.S. guide Mark, “the rest of the trip is a breeze.”
Over the past three decades, Mark has paddled the Tuolumne hundreds of times. He’s only flipped twice. Halfway through Rock Garden, his raft smashes against a rock with a steep slope. Whether this was caused by a passenger not paying attention during the safety talk is debatable. What happens next is not. The raft slides up the rock, tilts at a precarious angle, and flips over, sending everyone tumbling into the sparkling water.
The bachelor party is off to a terrific start.
Everyone was relieved when Eric announced a rafting bachelor party. We had all done Vegas before, and no one wanted to do it again. For many Americans, Vegas bachelor parties have become an unseemly obligation—like helping fix a friend’s septic tank. You do it. Because he’s your friend. But, really, you’d rather not.
These days Las Vegas is filled with swarms of sweaty bachelor bros roaming the plastic halls, gravitating to ooonz-ooonz club beats and maxing out credit cards on bottle service. The corporate casino owners, who now make more money from clubs than gambling, have never been happier.
While half of Vegas is nursing a hangover, we’re plucking rafters out of Rock Garden. Fueled by adrenaline, we push on. Our senses are sharpened. A new spirit of teamwork takes hold. Many of Eric’s friends, drawn from multiple stages of his life, barely knew each another a few hours ago. Now we’re united in a common goal: avoiding flips.
We continue downstream. The canyon walls narrow as we barrel through a series of explosive rapids—Nemesis, Rams Head—before a low growl rumbles upstream. We’re approaching Clavey Falls, the biggest whitewater on the Tuolumne.
We’re ready. We’re battle-tested. We’ve got this. One by one the rafts plunge into Clavey’s platinum spray and tumble down its staircase drops. All three rafts emerge relatively unscathed. Only one person falls out at the very end.
Our first camp, Grapevine, is perched on a sandy ledge above the river. As the sun drops below the canyon walls, we crack beers and debrief. The Flip is recounted from multiple perspectives. Several near-misses are revealed. More beers are cracked, more stories are told. When the stars come out, we light a campfire and, in true anti-Vegas fashion, make s’mores.
Melissa, Eric’s finance—whose only request was “no river strippers”—would be proud.
“I’m not sure she’s going to believe we sat around a campfire making s’mores,” admits Eric. “I might need to make up something more scandalous.”
The next morning, after a late breakfast, we hike to an abandoned gold mine blasted into the bedrock. In the summer of 1848, gold was discovered in the Tuolumne River. Within 18 months, 10,000 miners had descended on the area, chasing golden fantasies. A few struck it rich; most went broke.
Continuing downstream we blast through more rapids—Grey’s Grindstone, Thread the Needle. All three rafts emerge unscathed. Spirits are high when we reach our final campsite: Hell’s Kitchen.
An old mining camp scattered along a deep bend in the river, Hell’s Kitchen does not live up to its name. Tremendous views unfold upstream and down. Sunset illuminates the canyon walls as we relax in the river with cold drinks.
As late as the 1930s, dozens of miners lived and worked at Hell’s Kitchen. A sluice box supposedly ran through the dining area, allowing miners to eat and work at the same time. There are also rumors of a brothel. Or maybe they were just river strippers.
Over 100 mines once operated along the Tuolumne. Many dumped a toxic slurry of mud and metal into the river. Mining cycles were boom-bust—periods of excess fouling the waters, largely driven by hype. Then, in 1984, the Tuolumne River was declared Wild & Scenic, legally protecting it from mining and other threats.
We light a campfire, open a bottle of whisky, and share stories about Eric under a full moon. Everything feels right on the Tuolumne. The self-centered quest for gold is over. The self-induced chaos of Vegas is hundreds of miles away.
At the wedding, a few weeks later, wives and girlfriends gush:
“Dawson came back from that rafting trip so relaxed!”
“Josh had so much fun!”
“I was so jealous when I heard about the Tuolumne. I wanted to go!”
What happened on the Tuolumne didn’t stay on the Tuolumne. And we’re all better for it.
Photos: James Kaiser