Haven Livingston
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Arcata paddlers on the Eel River. Photo: Wes Schrekengost

How to Get Started in the Wild World of Whitewater

By Haven Livingston

Every outdoor activity has its own personality. From cycling to surfing, climbing to skiing, all can be intimidating to beginners. While I’ve sampled just about every outdoor sport, when I encountered river people, I knew I’d found a home. In contrast to the less-than-embracing surf scene in my hometown of Santa Cruz, the vast majority of boaters are more than eager to help beginners. While I admit to loving a head-high day at Santa Cruz’s Middle Peak as much as anyone, I have to say the localism attitude and egos in the water can be a stoke stopper.

A waterwoman at heart, I have spent the last couple years exploring California and southern Oregon rivers and creeks to get my liquid fix. The ocean will always be my first love in nature, but kayaking whitewater has taken over as an obsession. Lucky for me, California is home to a thriving river scene welcoming newcomers with open arms. For anyone curious about river sports, I encourage you to try it. The people are wonderful, the thrills are unforgettable and whitewater can take you to places you could never get to via overland travel.

Cali Burn Fest finish line. Photo: Wes Schrekengost

Right now, the race is on to catch what’s left of the spring runoff and kayakers are reaching for their boats, skirts and paddles. If you are interested in river sports but don’t have a clue about how to get started, below you will find some helpful resources and events to check out.

River festivals take place throughout the season and offer a range of challenges to get your adrenaline pumping. Most festivals have divisions for kayaks and rafts, so whether you’ve never picked up a paddle or you’re a river running god or goddess, there is a place and a race for you.

May 3 – 5
Cal-Salmon Nordheimer Race
$5 to race, free camping, beer, a freight train of whitewater and an outrageous party! Head north into the Klamath basin for this anything-goes river party on California’s Salmon River. The run is Class V, but even a novice can hop on a raft to join the fun. Spectators get a treat too, watching local experts ride this dragon while others take a beat down. Join Cal-Salmon Race 2013 on Facebook or keep an eye on http://caliproduct.blogspot.com for updates.

Cal Salmon paddlers. Photo: Wes Schrekengost

May 11 – 12
Reno River Festival

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 fly fishing clinic, music in the park plus much, much more. www.renoriverfestival.com

May 18 – 19
Cache Creek Slalom & Downriver Races

West of Woodland, this event includes both downriver and slalom races on the mostly Class II stretch of Cache Creek. Free camping for registered racers and a potluck on Saturday night will give you opportunities to meet all kinds of new friends and hear great stories. http://cachecreekraces.blogspot.com/

Timon Read on slalom course of the Feather Festival. Photo: Haven LIvingston

May 25 – 26
California 100

Don’t be intimidated by this 100-mile paddle, grab some friends to make a relay team and paddle a 24 mile section and join the part afterwards. There are even training clinics to help you get prepared! The water is Class I with a handful of Class II riffles and constant current. Leave your rafts at home; grab a sea kayak, surf ski, outrigger or a dragon boat! This race is a fundraiser for Rivers for Change to support river outreach programs. Go to calriver100.com or find Calriver100 on Facebook.

Late September
Feather River Festival

Chico Paddleheads put on this weekend event that includes a Class II slalom race (great for beginners) and a Class V down river race on the Tobin run. Lots of people get together and share shuttles for the Class III Rock Creek reach and the Class IV Lobin run. You may not want to win these races though; prizes include getting whipped by a dominatrix or chugging chocolate milk! It’s all in the name of fun, camaraderie and a love for rivers.

Early October
Cali Burn Fest, Trinity River

Wes Schrekengost makes the drop at the Cal salmon race. Photo: Will Parham

PBR is not just a beer, it also stands for Paddle Burnt Ranch. By the same crowd who produces the Nordheimer Race, the Burnt Ranch Race is the autumn sister of the Nordi. Both are local favs with NorCal and SoOregon Paddlers. Check out http://caliproduct.blogspot.com or join Arcata White Water Paddlers on Facebook

Stay Tuned: Since river people tend to be a go-with-the-flow bunch, not all river festivals happen annually or have an organizing committee and a website. 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.


Whitewater Rafting Outfitters

Cal Salmon serious whitewater. Photo: Wes Schrekengost

Action Whitewater – Adventure actionwhitewaters.com;530-957-3961
All Outdoors – aorafting.com; 800-247-2387
American River Recreation – arrrafting.com; 800-333-7238
ARTA, American River Touring Assoc. – arta.org; 800-323-2782
Beyond Limits – rivertrip.com; 800-234-RAFT
EarthTrek Expeditions – earthtrekexpeditions.com; 800-229-8735
ECHO River Trips – www.echotrips.com; 800-652-3246
Kaweah Whitewater – kaweah-whitewater.com; 800-229-8658
Kern River Outfitters – kernrafting.com; 1-800-323-4234
Kings River Expeditions – kingsriver.com; (800) 846-3674
Mariah Wilderness Expeditions – mariahwe.com; 800-462-7424
OARSoars.com; 800-346-6277
River Runners – riverrunners.org; 800-818-RAFT
Russian River Outfitters – russianriveroutfitters.com, 877-RR-KAYAK
Sierra Mac River Rafting Trips – sierramac.com; 800.457.2580
SOAR Russian River Adventures – soar1.com, 707-433-5599
Tahoe Whitewater Tours – gowhitewater.com; 800-442-7238
The Mother Lode River Center – malode.com; 800-427-2387
Tributary Whitewater Tours – whitewatertours.com; 800-672-3846
Truckee River Raft Company (rentals) – truckeeriverraft.com; 530-583-0123
W.E.T. River Tripsraftwet.com; 888-723-8938
Whitewater Adventures – whitewater-adv.com; 800-977-4837
Whitewater Excitement – whitewaterexcitement.com; 800-750-2386
Whitewater Voyages – whitewatervoyages.com; 800-400-7238
Zephyr Whitewater Rafting – zrafting.com; 800-431-3636

Whitewater Kayak Instruction:
California Canoe & Kayak – calkayak.com; 800-366-9804
Current Adventures Kayaking – kayaking.com; 888-4-KAYAKING
Different Strokes Kayaking (Reno) – renomountainsports.com; 775-825-2855
Center Activities (HSU, Arcata) – huboldt.edu/centeractivities/; 707.826.3357
Fluid Dynamics Kayaking – kayakclass.com; 888-882-1740
Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School (Cal Salmon) – otterbar.com; 530-462-4772
Osprey Outdoors Kayak School (Mt. Shasta)- ospreykayak.com; 530-926-6310
Sierra Outdoor Center (Auburn) – sierraoutdoorcenter.com; 888-502-7066