Cowawbunga in Coloma |

Cowawbunga in Coloma

Whitewater rafting offers cool thrills, in more ways than one

“Be it known that the bearer has survived currents, rocks, holes, drops, eddies, foam and bubbles, and has plumbed the depths of the wild, pounding rhythms of our living planet and of the human soul, and is now, truly, no kidding, one with the river.”

– certificate of completion, Whitewater Voyages

by Pat Devereux

Appeal copy desk chief

If I’ve learned nothing else from a dozen trips down the South Fork of the American River, it’s tie your hat to your life jacket, and leave your contact lenses at home.

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When I lived and worked in Placer County and Grass Valley, I rafted the South Fork often, but hadn’t done it in 15 years when I received an invitation to the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce’s June 4 media day raft trip.

Fifty journalists from print, television and tourism agencies met at Henningsen County Park in Lotus, a mile from Coloma, for the put-in in a snowmelt-swollen river.

Sierra Nevada rivers are running with three or four times their usual volume this year. In a normal July and August, you run the river at 1,500 cubic feet per second. By the end of media day, the flow was 4,500 feet. This made for a fast and thrilling run with deep troughs and few rocks.

The run from Chili Bar Dam to Salmon Falls Bridge on Folsom Lake is 21 miles. You can do the full distance in two days (with a campout), but the best rapids are 11 miles below Coloma in “The Gorge.”

We received a detailed safety talk, then I was put in a boat with oarsman/guide Randy of Motherlode, one of about eight participating outfitters. My paddling companions were two, 30ish Sacramento TV station workers and their guests, all brandishing water cannons to make the paddlers in the other boats squeal.

Randy told me he judges how “exciting” to make the run by the look of the paddlers; I knew I was going to be in for a wild ride with those cowabunga boys. Randy said he relishes taking school kids down the river, crafting the run as a smoother ride.

It’s refreshing to get hit upside the head by a wall of frigid water in August, but another thing entirely in early June. So we were issued overall-type wetsuits and high-necked, tight-cuffed paddle jackets for under our life jackets.

Rapids are rated I to VI, with VI meaning nearly impossible and very dangerous. The highest-rated rapids on the American are Satan’s Cesspool and Troublemaker, at III-plus. Although you are perched side-saddle on the edge of the raft, by digging your feet under the thwarts, you’re quite stable in hairy rapids. I’ve never left a boat – but I’ve come close.

Gliding along in the canyon, I saw my old westside foothills plant favorites – buckeye with its long plumes of white flowers, California poppies, bush lupine and pale orange sticky monkeyflower – and heard canyon wrens and black-headed grosbeaks. A dozen tiny, colorful kayaks accompanied us as a “safety patrol,” but I suspect their paddlers were, like us, just out for a good time.

After an hour warm-up on Class II rapids, we pulled into an eddy for an elaborate buffet lunch. There, a representative of the American River Conservancy told us about the successful culmination of a 14-year struggle to secure 15 miles of easements for a trail above the river. A sweet, full-body-workout weekend would be to raft one day, camp or stay in a Placerville B&B, then hike or bike the trail.

At lunch, Randy asked me if I would switch to a boat that lacked the full complement of paddlers necessary for the tricky Gorge. So I jumped ship into Hunter’s boat from Peak Adventures with a couple closer to my age who both worked for the El Dorado chamber. The sixth paddler was another guide, and it was fun to hear him and Hunter “talk shop” about the best approaches to the rapids.

As the walls narrowed, we heard shrieks from boats ahead of us as they sank into troughs, seeming in danger of flipping over backwards. Then, in a split second, we were in the same wave with Hunter hollering, “PADDLE HARD!”

It’s an odd sensation to dig mightily into nothing as your boat takes to the air as waves buffet you. At the end of a day, it’s a toss-up as to which is the most sore: your arms from paddling or your vocal chords and jaws from screaming and laughing.

We sailed through Fowler’s Rock (Class II), Bouncing Rock (II), Hospital Bar (III-minus) and its aptly named Recovery Room (II) and the dreaded Cesspool with aplomb. Unfortunately, with the river so high and backed up from Salmon Falls, two small rapids at the end were obliterated. But at the takeout, we were properly tired and babbling excitedly on our ride back to the park.

n Contact copy desk chief Pat Devereux at or 881-1224.

If You Go

Coloma is two hours from Carson City. Take Highway 50 west to Placerville. Turn right at the junction with Highway 49 (to Grass Valley). Go nine miles to Coloma.

Outfitters offer one- and two-day trips on the South Fork of the American River for approximately $100 to $250, depending on the day of the week.


Motherlode: 1-800-427-2387;

Peak Adventures: 916-278-6321;

Whitewater Voyages: 1-800-400-RAFT;

Tributary: 1-800-6-RAFTING;

River Otter: 530-642-0611;