Big water, big adventure

Sunday, July 3, 2005

PINE FLAT, Calif. -- "Forward -- and hard!"

The seven-person crew can hardly hear the guide's deep voice above the deafening roar of the Kings River as he tries to steer the boat away from a hole -- the vortex created when water rushes over a boulder with such force it first plunges deep down, then surges back up, flipping over boats and sucking in rafters.

John Ira Medlock Jr. is built like a bear, but his paddling couldn't wrench us from the ripping current that made the raft dance, possessed, toward the deep green swirl.

This is "big water" on the Kings -- a swollen, icy ride fed by the melting of this year's unusually large snowpack on the Sierra Nevada's craggy peaks.

Rafters haven't seen anything like it since the 1990s, when El Nino storms filled California's rivers and lakes to overflow.

As temperatures rise, state water officials are trying to stay ahead of the rapidly melting snow by releasing abundant flows out of reservoirs that were approaching capacity.

Gorged with cold, fresh snowmelt, some of the Sierra's rivers are running with three or four times their usual volume, and talk of the long rafting season ahead is coursing through the whitewater community like the Kings cuts through its canyon -- fast and full of promise.

I'm the least experienced paddler on the raft -- the crew includes four river guides with many dozens of trips among them -- but the water's icy hand slaps me in the face, and I dig in with the others as deep and hard as I can, leaning forward, then pulling all the way back in a series of reverse crunches that leave my muscles burning.

The guides take turns maneuvering the rapids. It was Tanya Agazarian who guided us past Mule Rock -- the imposing boulder on the left side of the river that flipped many in this crew just two days before.

Danny Wan, also a river guide, was thrown out, and pulled under by the crushing weight of thousands of gallons of rushing river. He was pushed back up, then tugged down again, helpless against the weight of the water pouring over the boulder.

Risks on the rapids

Rafters call this "Maytagging," because it feels like being put through a complete wash cycle.

Medlock, who was also thrown overboard, saw when Wan was finally spit out of Mule Rock's wake.

"He popped like cork," Medlock said.

Medlock had to stay in the water for about a mile -- "a lifetime," he said -- bouncing his way through two rapids as the group's second boat pulled Wan out, then reached him.

Both men were prepared, in a wetsuit and a life jacket, so they kept calm and weren't hurt. Two days later, they were ready to do it again.

But like many experienced rafters, they're warning that while big-water years like this one make for great rides, they also increase the risk of accidents, which can be risky for those who don't take proper precautions.

The water, in the low 50s, is pure snowmelt, and sucks heat out of the body fast, leading to hypothermia and possible death in less than half an hour if the swimmer is not wearing a wetsuit.

"In this kind of water, you lose heat faster than standing naked in an arctic blast," said David Nesmith, the most experienced guide on the boat.

Just the day before our trip, this crew had joined another group to help pull out rafters who had flipped and were floating by without wetsuits, and without a second support boat to help them out.

Willa Catillon took a couple strong rowers and crossed the river to pull out a rafter who had been stranded on the other bank.

"With the water this big, the river's exciting, and its fun, but it's powerful and cold -- and it's absurd to get in without a wetsuit," said Catillon, who has been rafting for 16 years.

If you fall in, don't swim to shore, said Bob Ferguson, owner of Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions.

This year's big water has been "pretty awesome," Ferguson said, even though safety concerns led him to cancelsome trips between late May and mid-June. Now the rivers are still high, but they're leveling out -- perfect for a fast ride, given the proper precautions, he said.

At the end of the day, after the other rafters have left, I watch the Kings. The river cuts through the golden foothills like a vein of translucent green glass, connecting my dusty campground to the Sierra's high country and the pristine creeks where it is born.

In the distance, the snow-capped peaks reflect the setting sun, glowing pink and orange against the deep blue of California's summer sky.

Packing up my gear, I realize I'm already planning my next trip.

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