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White Knuckling the Tuolumne : In the best rafting season in years, here's what happened to one stalwart group of rafters on the Yosemite River said to provide the premier California white-water experience.

August 01, 1993|JANE GALBRAITH | Galbraith writes for New York Newsday and is a contributor to The Times' Calendar section. and

ROVELAND, Calif. — Wet suit. Life jacket. Helmet. Paddle. It's a glorious hot summer day in the Sierra and I feel like I'm suited up for combat. The "mighty Tuolumne" suffers no fools, we were reminded when signing up for this rafting adventure. Maybe it doesn't now, I'm thinking, haughtily. For the last seven years of drought, it has been more like the meek Tuolumne.

Yet I am ever-so-slightly nervous, too. I overhear one of the guides for our two-day rafting trip in late June whisper to another guide that the water level is rumored to be at 8,000 CFS.

This means nothing to me, but from the look on the other guide's face, I get it. That's high--as in dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that if the rumor proved true, our little white-water adventure would be canceled and we'd have to improvise with a side camping trip to nearby Yosemite.

I swelter in the heat and shudder at the same time. After months of anticipation, the idea of not being able to go down the Tuolumne, considered the premier California white-water experience, would be crushing. The melting snow pack has created sublime conditions this year and not just for us gung-ho rafters, but for the waterfalls in the parks and water use in the cities. But to risk life and limb--or as a friend asked me, "What, do you have a death wish or something?"--is another matter. We take off our gear and wait.

Questions are asked and questions are answered. This outfitter, American River Touring Assn., does not run the river at higher than 7,000 CFS. And at 10,000 CFS--cubic feet per second--the Tuolumne is considered completely unrunnable even for experts. Oh.

But the rumors prove false.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which feeds the Tuolumne, is not under threat of overflowing after all. The water is rushing full throttle though. A mere 6,800 CFS. Phew. (Gulp.)

The rafting season, which in so-called normal years runs to, maybe, early September, when the water levels fall to a mere 1,200 CFS, most likely will be extended well into October this year as the water level is expected to hold steady at its current level of about 2,000 CFS.

So, with the red flag down, so to speak, 18 of us who signed up for this excursion join our six guides for the dirt-road truck drive from the ARTA office at California 120 just east of Groveland to Meral's Pool, the "put in," or place where the boats are put in the water.

The ride is dusty and bumpy, an old mining road maintained these days by the U.S. Forest Service that cuts a slow, downward trail through sub-Sierra terrain to the base of the river valley. We jostle along, passing oaks and manzanita. The view across the way is of blowing hills of dry grasses, the wind-exposed side. So this is where the term the Golden State comes from.

One of our guides, Eric White, reads a little history, his voice hitting a variety of octaves as the driver swerves hither and fro to avoid a multitude of dirt divots. John Muir loved the Tuolumne wilderness and the granite boulderfield stretch of river we will descend was said to be his favorite section of it.

Those of us on my half of the bus are preoccupied with the steep drop-off to the left.

When we arrive at the put in, lead guide Aaron Armbruster assembles our mostly male group (18 men and six women, including Karen, a guide) under a shady oak tree, miniature rubber raft in hand, and starts in with a pep talk of sorts, sitting cross-legged like Siddhartha, speaking of the river and its strengths. He gives us safety instruction. Feet first, avoid the river banks, listen for guides' instructions. He floats by a few river terms like "lounge chair position . . . corkscrew flip . . . giant reversal . . . the strainer" that sound fancifully frightening. (Only "the strainer" is truly foreboding, meant to describe partly submerged dead trees and other brush nearer the banks that can ensnare and drown a person gone overboard.)

He offers a last chance out to anyone who wants to bail. No one does.

Three teen-age boys, cousins from Long Island and Southern California, volunteer for the one all-paddle boat with their fathers and another father from La Canada and his two sons. True daredevils, they. Two British women, Sue and Liz, both accountants in London and both first-timers, opt to be the only two paddlers in the raft carrying supplies: The guides figure that it is the heaviest of the boats and therefore the least likely to flip. The rest of us--four paddlers to a boat--team up in the remaining oar-paddle combinations.

John Muir is my paddle partner up in front. (Actually, he's the actor Lee Stetson who does a one-man show playing the revered naturalist in Yosemite Park throughout the summer and who also is our campfire entertainment.) The two middle seats are taken by my friend Mary, a Hancock Park real estate agent, and Bob, a psychiatric nurse from Marin County. Guides sit in the stern on a sloping, wooden bench that resembles a static see-saw.

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