Anthea Raymond
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Expert advice for big water

The record melt off will make this a phenomenal year for big water adventuring. But it should also be a time of caution for hikers, backpackers, climbers, mountain bikers, and all others exploring the outdoors. Around the region, first responders are training and organizing to prevent 2023 from also being a year of record drownings. As Ruby Gonzalez, Kern River Manager for the Forest Service, puts it, “This year is going to be different, and people are going to be surprised.”

With that in mind, we asked experts — trainers, guides, outfitters, outdoor advocates, government agencies  – for their safety advice as the snow melts this spring and summer. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Unpredictable weather patterns

Especially in spring, temperatures can range widely in a single day. This is most true in the desert and areas of steep elevation change like the mountains. People often pick gear and clothing based on the temperature at the start of their trip — when conditions are mild. They frequently underestimate springtime storms, and the temperature drop that can happen on a moment’s notice.

Now, combine that with the snowmelt that will be feeding our creeks and rivers at high volume at least until mid-summer. It could be deadly if you are unprepared. Even if you plan to stay dry and on land, wear multiple layers, and include an outer wind barrier. A disposable poncho or trash bag can be used as an emergency waterproof layer too.

Our saturated ground

The ground will likely remain saturated through spring and for much of the summer. It will keep side creeks flowing, but it will also make it significantly more likely that trees will uproot and fall over, especially in gusts. Rocks and dirt may slide too. Check for road and trail closures. Avoid camping in areas where the ground seems to be soft or to some degree saturated.

Creek and river crossings

Creeks and rivers generally flow higher and faster in the spring than any other time of the year. Snowmelt and spring rain can turn modest creeks into hazardous torrents.  A small river can become an impassable barrier.

If you’re walking, running, or biking, look for creeks or rivers on your planned route and check if it is safe to cross at your desired time. When you arrive, if you are faced with an unsafe crossing, find an alternate route with a better crossing, or retrace your steps and wait for conditions to change. Tread lightly and if you feel force on your ankles or calves, don’t continue.

(See our sidebar for more crossing tips.)

Cold water shock and swimming

With snowmelt feeding our creeks and rivers at high volume, there will be an unusually high mismatch between air and water temperatures. That raises the risk of the coldwater shock with its immediate gag reflex, panic, and subsequent loss of motor control. Jumping or falling into cold water also raises the risk of hypothermia, and rapid loss of body heat.

So, if you plan to be on the water, be sure you “dress for immersion” — likely at least a wetsuit, a splash jacket, and helmet — even if outside it is hot. If you plan to enter the water, do so gradually, let the body adjust. Some paddlers and rafters like to splash their face and their necks before they enter a rapid just for this reason. And be prepared to swim. Choose trips and locations you know that you can navigate both on and in the water.

Water emergencies and rescues

If someone falls in unexpectedly or is swept away, resist the urge to follow, especially if it’s a loved one. Think instead what you might throw them for flotation — a gallon water bottle or cooler, for example. Even if you have swiftwater training, think carefully: do you have the team and equipment you need to keep everyone else safe? This holds true for paddlers and rafters, as well as campers, hikers, backpackers, climbers, and other land-based recreationalists. Take a swiftwater rescue class if you are going to be leading a group in the outback, or even be a part of one.

More fundamentally, don’t go out alone, choose your company wisely, and, of course always wear a life jacket on and near the water – ideally if you are closer than 20 feet, according to one source. Make sure others do so too, especially non-swimmers. Make sure the jacket fits snugly and provides the proper flotation.

If you are used to organizing your own paddling or rafting trips, consider dialing it back this season, or even going with a guide or reputable outfitter. Be flexible as conditions change, as they undoubtedly will. And have a backup plan for whatever activity you choose. Finally, stay sober on and around moving water. It is not news that most drowning fatalities are tied to drug or alcohol use.

scouting maytag rapid on the north yuba river

Scouting Maytag Rapid on the North Yuba River (Tributary Whitewater Tours)

Many resources

Federal agencies are working with state and local groups to expand their presence in wilderness areas this season. Know how to get a hold of them before you hit the trail or waterway.

Government and private organizations make a host of online and video materials available about safety on and around the water. These include the: American Canoe Association, American Whitewater, California State Parks’ Division of Boating and Waterways, the National Safe Boating Council, friends’ groups like the Kern River Conservancy, and even NRS (Northwest River Supply).

Some river outfitters will offer free life jacket rentals this season. Keep an eye out for offers near you and share this information with those who need it.  May 19  is the National Safe Boating Council’s “Wear Your Life Jacket at Work Day.” Consider participating as a way to raise awareness in your world.

The good News: A loooong boating Season

For careful adventurers, this will be a great year. Warm weather and big water will combine to keep our rivers, creeks and streams running far longer than normal. Rafting outfitters are planning trips well into July and even August on the North Fork of the American, the Yuba, and the Forks of the Kern.

Big water is also opening up multi-day trips that might not usually be comfortable or available, like the East Fork of the Carson River.

Meanwhile, dam-fed sections will be bigger than usual to keep reservoirs safe. Just a few of this summer’s hidden treasures: the water managers of the Tuolumne and Lower Kern River are predicting heightened releases until mid-August. And on the South Fork of the American new rapids are likely to appear at flows between 3,000 and 5,000 cfs, giving new life to this old favorite.


Main image: A group of raft guides in training flip a raft on the Middle Fork of the American River (Dylan Silver/OARS)

Read other articles by Anthea Raymond here.