A contestant in the Brush Creek “Extreme Slalom” at the 2010 Kern River Festival. Photo by Tobin Josif.

Paddle, party and soak up the good vibes at a river festival this spring and summer

By Wendy Lautner and Pete Gauvin

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I’m sitting on a hot rock overlooking an aquamarine river swilling a cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Hot air drifts up the canyon as if someone just opened the furnace door. It feels good because my skin is still cool from hours spent soaked in river water catching eddies, setting angles, and paddling hard through the river’s adrenaline-surging rapids.

I’m surrounded by some of the most fun- loving, energetic and down-to-earth people I know. Sam and Robby rig up a zip line across the river. Kate excitedly tells stories about the day’s accomplishments and close calls. Moriah, five months pregnant, cuddles into her husband, Jared, who laughs with the boys about the day’s lines. Keith, one of the organizers, stands at the dirt road above the river and scans the bikini- and-board-shorts clad group, smiling at the scene. I’m pretty sure he’s thinking about what time the band will show up.

Such is a slice of the atmosphere to be found at an annual calling that is the wacky Tupperware party of paddling culture — the river festival.

The major differences: You can sit in these plastic tubs, the skirts are neoprene, men outnumber women, and the lids go on your head. There’s also usually some friendly competition — freestyle kayak comps, downriver races, slalom races, raft races —followed by foot- stomping merry making.

Often river festivals are merely about celebrating that water flows and tumbles and churns down beautiful canyons, and the fact that it’s a whole lot of fun to share the experience of challenging it with others.

That’s why spring is the annual seal launch for river festivals. There’s plenty of water and the excitement is just as high.


“River festivals aren’t always such a grand production. Sometimes it’s little more than a minimally advertised get-together at a campground beside a river.”


The biggest and best known of these in our region is the Reno River Festival, which draws huge crowds to the banks of the Truckee River in downtown Reno over three days in May. It’s a great event featuring world-class paddlers, live music, introductory kayak clinics, a lively outdoor expo, a costumed mud run, and a variety of other distractions.

But river festivals aren’t always such a grand production. There aren’t always big name sponsors and organized competitions. Sometimes it’s little more than a minimally advertised get-together at a campground beside a river.

As long as it floats is the theme of the Hooligan B.Y.O.B. — Build Your Own Boat Race at the Kern River Festival. Photo by Gary Valle, PhotographyontheRun.com

Since rivers are in limited supply and the water that runs through them faces a gauntlet of competing straws, there’s usually a preservation and protection component along with the fun — such as a river cleanup day, benefits for advocacy groups such as American Whitewater and Friends of the River, and support for restoration and public-access projects.

There’s one constant throughout all river festivals and that’s the idea that when you get a bunch of river lovers together it’s a memorable time made up of easy laughs, positive vibes, and a motivation to get wet and challenge the elements, along with each other.

Every fall and winter we go our separate ways – some of us chase summer around the globe, some of us trade weekend river trips for ski trips, but every spring and summer we reunite. Some of us bring new friends. Some of us even bring newborns. We come back every year to celebrate the river and to connect with each other.

Whether you’re new to the scene or a veteran river rat, all you have to do is show up with an easy smile and an excitement for the river environment and you’ll find a welcoming community at a river festival that feels like a group of old friends.

California/Nevada River Festivals:

Kern River Festival, April 15-17 — Kernville has got one heck of a river that runs right through town plus two of the most incredible tea-cupped steep creeks in California just a throw-bag toss away. This venerable festival hosted by the Kern Valley River Council, is in its 47th year but seems to be undergoing a fresh growth spurt. One reason is the addition of screwball events like the Hooligan B.Y.O.B. — Build Your Own Boat Race, open to all skill levels paddling make-shift craft that float, at least initially. Last year 14 boats participated. More than 50 are expected this year, its second. Another is the growing momentum behind the effort to restore Riverside Park, where the festival is held, and improve the whitewater park, a project now in the permitting process that’s expected to cost over $1 million and take a few years to complete. Also new this year is a gear swap, free camping for registered boaters and a stand-up boarder cross race. For hardcore boaters the highlights will continue to be the slalom race, the first of the 2011 Sierra Cup Series, and the thrilling Brush Creek Races over a series of natural, breathtaking waterfalls. In addition to the Downriver Race, there’s also an Extreme Slalom that requires boaters to negotiate obstacles such as a roll gate and a paddle toss. More info at www.kernfestival.org.

Reno River Festival, May 6-8 — Downtown Reno’s Wingfield Park becomes a flurry of activity when the River Festival rolls into town. This world-class event features freestyle competitions, boatercross races, skills clinics, stand-up paddleboarding, sidewalks filled with food and beer vendors, yoga in the park, a double-dutch jump roping championship, and the Biggest Little Homebrew Challenge plus much, much more. www.renoriverfestival.com

The Really Cool Auburn River Festival, May 20-22 — Last year’s inaugural event was so much fun the Auburn gang teamed up with the folks in Cool to make this year’s event on the North Fork of the American River even better. Races, freestyle comps, raft trips to benefit Friends of the River, food, live music, camping and good ole fun in the sun. Visit www. auburnriverfestival.com for details.

Cal-Salmon River Festival, May 27-30 — This annual Memorial Day Weekend festival is a paddler’s festival for kayakers and rafters on the Class IV-V Cal-Salmon in Siskiyou County. For more info, www.visitsiskiyou.org, www. turtleriver.com, or stay tuned to boof.com for kayaker-specific details.

American River Festival, Sept. 9-11 — The 30th annual American River Festival includes whitewater rodeo and slalom competitions, but also places a special emphasis on families enjoying the river. Proceeds help support American Whitewater, Friends of the River, the American Canoe Association and American River Conservancy. Visit www.americanriverfestival. org or currentadventures.com for details.

Feather River Festival, Sept. 24-25 — The 21st annual Feather River Festival is held in late September to coincide with the end-of- summer water releases on the North Fork Feather’s Rock Creek and Tobin runs. It features a downriver race on the Class V Tobin run, a slalom event upstream, and a raucous party Saturday night. The festival is a fundraiser for American Whitewater and is hosted by the Chico Paddleheads so you know it’ll be a good time. www.chicopaddleheads.org

Stay Tuned:
Not all river festivals happen annually or have an organizing committee and a website, since, well, river people tend to be a go-with-the-flow bunch. For more impromptu river fests, you’ll find this season’s best information in the eddy lines on the river! Or surf over to boof.com, the message board for the California whitewater community, to keep posted on the latest tricklings.