Usually, Kent Hansen would describe rafting trips with American River Rentals as a “lazy float.” The company covers an easygoing 6-mile stretch along the American River in Rancho Cordova. It’s typically so tranquil that guides aren’t necessary for the trips.
“We're not to be confused with any whitewater rafting up on the South Fork, the Middle Fork or the North Fork of the American, where you definitely want to have a guide,” he said.
But this year, officials have noticed faster and colder river waters throughout the state as last winter’s snowpack begins to melt. Along the American River, you might now find signs discouraging visitors from boating, rafting and swimming in areas where those activities are usually the norm.
The view of the American River from Sunrise Recreation Area Wednesday, May 17, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Hansen, who co-owns American River Rentals, said the company is temporarily closed. It usually stays open if river water flows remain under 8,000 cubic feet per second. In recent days, the river has run at levels as high as 15,000 CFS.
Leonard Orman, chief ranger for Sacramento County Regional Parks, said he expects river conditions to wax and wane in intensity throughout the summer.
“It's going to be a bit of a roller coaster because it's all going to be dependent on weather up in the high country,” said Orman. “If we start getting long stretches of really warm weather — which I'm sure we will up, at high elevations — that's going to increase the snow melt.”
The Placer County Sheriff’s office has reported at least two recent incidents of people getting swept up by currents along the North Fork American River. They’re warning would-be swimmers to stay out of the water. Ross Branch, a spokesperson for the Placer County Water Agency, said strong flows caused by snowmelt also mean stronger currents.
“When you're out there on a 100-degree plus day and you look at the water, it looks very tranquil, looks like it'd be very refreshing, but it's actually going to be very cold,” he said. “You will be surprised by the power that comes with the current, which is why we are certainly advising caution for anybody recreating.”
River Bend Park on the American River Wednesday, May 17, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
In recent weeks, Orman said he’s seen an uptick in calls related to water rescues along the American River. Typically, he said these sorts of calls come later in the year, during the summer; now, they’re coming much earlier and the issues are more severe. He said he’s seen a lot of calls coming from kayakers, for example, who are getting swept away by the strong current.
“We're getting people that are wrecking and stuck on islands in the middle of the night,” he said. “So, it's quite a bit more significant as far as outcomes, too.”
Orman said a common cause for these issues comes from people underestimating the river. Many who might be familiar with warmer, slower river conditions are approaching the river as they normally would — which doesn’t work this year, he said.
“It is really cold, and it's typically a lot warmer this time of year,” he said. “Even if you are an Olympic swimmer, that's going to greatly diminish your ability to swim to shore — if you can even do it with the swift currents.”
His advice echoes Placer County’s: Stay out of the river. And that goes for rivers beyond the American, he added.
“It’s not just our river,” he said. “It’s all rivers right now that are impacted.”
Life preservers are available at River Bend Park Wednesday, May 17, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
River conditions will change throughout the summer and precautions will likely shift alongside them. Hansen with American River Rentals said he’s hoping conditions ease up by Memorial Day. That’s when the company’s peak season usually starts and runs until Labor Day.
But until then, Hansen said he sees the company’s temporary closure as an important move. He said he hopes it encourages others to take warnings about current river conditions seriously.
“It's a message to them that if we, with all of our 49 years of experience and our super durable rafts that are made for this river — if we're not doing it, they shouldn't be doing it either,” he said.
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