Whitewater rafting on the American River

Whitewater rafting on the American River

September 3, 2017 

The Plan: Whitewater rafting trip on the South Fork of the American River.


Some 12 years ago or so, Shannon took an incredible travel-trailer trip with her family from Reno up through Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and then up to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. I couldn’t get the time off of work to join them on the three-week venture and am still kind of bummed that I missed it. Another time perhaps.

One of the highlights of the trip was a whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River near Yellowstone. Since she took that trip, we would occasionally talk about taking a rafting day-trip but we’ve just never found the time.

One day this spring, I saw an online deal for a whitewater trip on the American River on the western slope of the Sierra. It was a complete impulse purchase, and one that was forgotten about as the ski season kept extending in the spring.

A week ago, I got an email letting me know the trip would expire in a couple weeks. I called the place, Mother Lode River Center in Coloma, Calif., north of Placerville, and was able to secure reservations for the Sunday of Labor Day weekend for our family of four.

We arrived a little before 11 a.m. to Mother Lode River Center, just shy of a two-hour drive from Reno. We checked in at 11:30 and had lunch there (provided, with our trip) before getting a quick safety class from one of the guides. Our group was on the river shortly after 1 p.m. with three rafts, each with a guide.

There appears to be a half-dozen, or more, commercial operations on this part of the American River. Other than pricing and other options – Mother Lode has camping available along with the ropes course – I imagine that the quality of the guides, and experience provided by them, is what really makes the day.

Our guide, Wes, was absolutely terrific. The numbers worked out so it was just the four of us, plus Wes, in a raft (they can handle 10 or so). My daughters are 9 and 14 (8 was the minimum age for this trip) and we felt comfortable having them on the river from the beginning. The pre-river safety class plus general guidance from Wes made everyone realize that there was a decent chance you could get dumped in the river at any point, and provided everything you needed to know on how to handle it when that happened.

There are two main commercial runs on the South Fork – the upper Chili Bar Run and the Gorge Run. All of the rapids are Class II-III. We did the Gorge Run, which opens with a slew of Class II rapids and finishes with an amazing run of Class III rapids before dumping into Folsom Lake. (Wes noted the Chili Bar Run has the opposite, opening with big Class IIIs then mellowing on the back half before ending at Coloma).

I liked the fact that we had a chance to acclimate to the river and learn the basic paddling instructions. I think it helped all of us, especially the girls, get comfortable on the raft and what they needed to do. It set the stage for an enjoyable run through Class III rapids like Satan’s Cesspool, Scissors, Hospital Bar and Recovery Room (aside: whoever gets to name these things is awesome).

Every time we came to a decent sets of rapids, Wes was clear with instructions on how we were going to enter it, what would come next and where to swim (to the boat, river left, etc.) if you got tossed. We had a lot of fun with the other two rafts along the way.

A couple hours in, we saw a number of folks with personal flotation devices on swimming in the right side of the river, and nearly hit them as the pull of the current spun us that way. We pulled in shortly after that area and hiked back to this terrific eddy. One by one, we all jumped in off a rock into the current, which pulled swiftly towards a rock formation jutting into the river. At the last second, the eddy spun clockwise towards the shore and then back up river and into the current again. Our three groups spent a half-hour or so swimming and spinning in the eddy, and I could have done that all day long.

Back in the raft, we readied ourselves for the big run of Class III rapids. I was front and left in the raft, with my paddle stroke being the lead for the rest of the raft.

Scissors gave a terrific ride and Wes drove us down the tongue of Hospital Bar, bouncing up and down on each one and paddling strong throughout.

I don’t remember exactly which rapid tossed Wes – I think it was Recovery Room – but I am entirely certain that he won’t live that one down from his fellow guides any time soon. With only five of us in the raft built for 10, we hit a high peak of a rapid and dropped vertically – and quickly – down it. As the raft swept back upward, Wes dumped off the back.

Some folks on the shore quickly alerted us to the fact that we were guide-less. “BACK-PADDLE” was the shout I vividly remember. All four of us paddled backwards quickly. Soon, Wes had the back strap from the raft in hand and came along side. Shannon jumped to the back of the raft and pulled him in – as they had taught us – and we were back in business (minus a paddle).

Wes took some ribbing from the other guides as we ran the rest of the Gorge Run. With a couple of Class IIs left, he asked Maya if she wanted to “ride the bull.”

Maya had no idea what he meant, but that kid is kinda fearless and up for anything. He directed her on to the very front of the raft, feet basically dangling in the rapids and her holding only the rope, as we ran the last couple of rapids.

The second one dumped her, and she was a good 15 feet from the raft at one point. She gave a quick scream and then realized what she needed to do. She swam a couple of hard strokes against the current and I extended the handle side of my paddle. She grabbed on and a couple seconds later, she was in the boat and back on top of “the bull” with a smile that ran across the river.

We settled in to Folsom Lake, where a jet ski towed us to the river exit. A 15-minute bus ride later had us back at the launch site near Coloma.

I did not take my phone, nor did we buy the available pictures from the trip – yes they have photography outfits on a couple of sections and of the river and you can buy the shots right after the trip, much like a Disneyland ride. So, we have no pictures from our day.

It was a scorching hot day – it was still 105 in Sacramento when we got there after 6 p.m. – but the conditions on the cool river were perfect. Shannon remarked that this needs to be an annual trip for us and I don’t disagree. Very simply, it was one of the best days our family has had together.


Gear: We brought what we were instructed to bring: water shoes or old tennis shoes, swimsuit and a protective layer to wear underneath the PFD. And that’s all you need, but I recommend a hat (that will fit easily underneath the helmet) and sunglasses (with a strap). A big water gun isn’t the worst thing to bring, if the guide allows.

Post-trip beer: One of the best breweries in the world, in my opinion, right now is Fieldwork in northern California (Berkeley, Sac, Napa, Monterey, San Mateo). I popped in quickly and grabbed a couple of crowlers before taking some dinner for a night at my sister and brother-in-law’s new place in Sacramento. King Citra and Overripe are stunningly good IPAs. And if searching for pizza in Sacramento, look no further than Pizza Rock downtown on K Street.

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