Sierra rivers provide wild rides

Rafters enjoy a rare run on the North Fork of the Stanislaus River.

“The Stan” didn’t keep us waiting. Though I hadn’t held an oar in years, I gripped mine with white knuckles and paddled for dear life from the moment we hit the North Fork of the Stanislaus River. Our raft immediately plunged into a raging torrent, rocking the boat so wildly that we lost a lead paddler into the whitewater fray.

That was my friend Bob, who had invited me on the trip led by OARS, the Outdoor Adventure River Specialists based near Angels Camp. We knew the river would provide a challenge, but I, for one, didn’t expect to see a shipmate swim within seconds of entering the very first rapid. We pulled Bob back aboard as our fearless guide Rebecca led us downstream through the pounding waves. So began an adventure like no other through a series of Class IV and IV-plus rapids.

In rapid succession, we braved a series of rapids, including the Claw, Wallet Slot, Dig Dog, Whiteout and Rattlesnake, dropping a steep 70 feet per mile for six miles. Bob wasn’t the only swimmer that day; rafters from all five boats joined the club. Our crews even rescued rafters from other guide companies’ rafts. But aside from chills and chattering teeth, no harm was done, thanks to the mandatory wetsuits and life vests.

Everyone enjoyed the granite boulders, gorges, beautiful trees and the scenic atmosphere of the river canyon. The journey’s end beneath the giant sequoias of Calaveras Big Trees State Park came too soon.

This winter’s immense snowpack (nearly double the average) has all Sierra rivers raging, providing the best rafting opportunities in many years. Similarly inviting conditions attract rafters to the Tuolumne, Merced and American rivers, among others.

River rafting isn’t for amateurs, but several professional outfitters provide safe and thrilling experiences, like OARS and Sierra Mac. If you’ve ever wanted to experience the excitement of Sierra Nevada whitewater, this is the year. (Don’t forget to tip your guide.)

In Yosemite National park news, Camp 4 has adopted a reservation system for the first time. The historic home of rock climbers has always operated as a walk-in campground, but because of its popularity, would-be campers had to arrive hours before its kiosk opened (often well before dawn) to secure a site. The new system requires campers to visit the day before they wish to arrive and enter a lottery. My take: this pilot program has a chance to relieve the aggravation of long lines. But Yosemite Valley camping in summertime will never be easy, especially on weekends, and those who can are better off visiting during the shoulder seasons, or at least during midweek.

Sierra rivers provide wild rides

After decades as a walk-in only site, Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park is piloting a new reservation system this year.

Yosemite news continued: The big winter snowmelt has supercharged waterfalls that are enchanting visitors, but there are some drawbacks, especially in the high country. The park was forced to close its popular High Sierra camps for the year and Tuolumne Meadows Campground may not open until late July, more than a month later than usual. Hundreds of permit holders for popular hikes like the John Muir Trail are missing their early summer departure dates because access roads opened late, snow-covered trails are impassable or both. In fact, many Pacific Crest Trail hikers are skipping the whole Sierra Nevada for those reasons. But those able to travel late in the season should find excellent conditions in September and October.

At Lake Tahoe, water clarity has “dramatically” improved, according to environmental scientists from the University of California, Davis. Visitors could see 70 feet into the lake’s fabled blue waters, down from an all-time high of 102 feet measured in 1968, but much better than the 60 feet recorded in 2017. Environmental advocates cheered the improvement and vowed to continue their efforts to protect the lake from pollution.

Kudos to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, which took in three parentless bear cubs in March. Arriving at about a month old and weighing only 4 pounds each, the cubs had reached 17-19 pounds by late April, the facility reported. Caregivers are calling the cubs Blaze, Yreka and Paradise.

“They’re still loving their bottle feedings, but are starting to eat berries and other fruit. They have bear tempers, but thankfully, most of the time (they) take it out on each other, just like kids!” a caregiver wrote.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care is raising money for the animals’ care and to expand its facility. Find out more and consider contributing at

Matt Johanson authored the new guidebook “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”


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