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Destination: California

Whitewater Investments : Rafting camp teaches kids the value of teamwork and a firm grip

May 19, 1996|LAURA HOUT | Hout is a Santa Barbara-based freelance writer

ON THE AMERICAN RIVER — "Look cool, have fun and stay in the boat!" These are the most important things to remember, says Matt Weiss, 12, as our raft drifts along the South Fork of the American River on a brilliant, mid-July day. Sky: cloudless; air temperature: mid-80s; river temperature: a cold 48 degrees.

Today is the fifth and final day of Whitewater Voyages' summer camp for kids. For his final, Matt is going to captain us through the biggest rapid on the upper South Fork, aptly named Troublemaker. The crew--Alison Kirby, 12; Nat Hughart, 16; Bill McGinnis, 48, our guide for the day; and me--will paddle the raft wherever he tells us.

We strap down our gear bags and water bottles, and get into position. There's white water ahead.

I had arrived the night before at Whitewater Voyages' River Park campground in the Sierra foothills about 45 minutes east of Sacramento. Booked for a weekend of rafting to celebrate my 39th birthday, I joined the kids' camp on Friday to get in an extra day.

Although I have no kids of my own, I guess I'm still a kid at heart. I've worked as a river guide and a camp counselor, and was curious about the combination of teenage exuberance and white-water thrills.

Feeling intrepid, I pitch my tent under Ponderosa pines and, with only a twinge of guilt, flop out my four-inch-thick foam mattress. Staring through the tent's dome at the star-flecked Sierra sky, I snuggled luxuriously and let the music of the river lull me to sleep.

The next morning, I join eight young campers and four guide/counselors for breakfast at the camp's outdoor kitchen--a semicircle of picnic tables set in an oak-and-pine fringed clearing.

I'm invading a tightly knit group of adolescents, who, in five days of running rapids and camping at River Park, have bonded and formed their own social order. There is the usual razzing (14-year-old Dory Kramer is nicknamed "Bacon Boy" for his breakfast proclivity), but I'm struck by their spirit of cooperation as they fix breakfast and clean up together. One of the camp's main goals, McGinnis tells me later, is to foster teamwork.


After breakfast we ride a bus upriver to our put-in point just below Chili Bar Dam, one of two major hydroelectric projects on the South Fork. To kill time on the ride, the kids share some of the safety tips that they've learned.

From Molly Trombley-McCann, 12: "If you fall out of your raft you should float with your feet pointing downstream to fend off rocks."

From Jason Ng, 12: "Most injuries occur on shore, like slipping on rocks and getting poison oak. Sunburn is the most common injury on a river trip."

At Chili Bar, the kids help the guides pack and rig our boats: inflating the 14-foot rafts, filling water bottles, securing coolers and gear bags. We have three rafts, with one guide for every two or three campers. Each day the campers bus upriver and raft down to River Park, or launch from River Park and bus back. The South Fork has two runs: the eight miles from Chili Bar to River Park, and the 12 miles from River Park to Folsom Lake.

McGinnis briefs us on the day's itinerary--rafting all morning, lunch by the river, rafting all afternoon to River Park. Then, about 10 a.m., we cinch up our life jackets, grab our paddles, climb aboard and paddle into the swift, deep current.

Meatgrinder, our first rapid of the day, approaches. As we coast toward it on a smooth, V-shaped tongue of water, Alison adjusts herself in the captain's seat in the stern. For a moment I wonder if I'm crazy rafting in icy water with a 12-year-old at the helm. But Alison is confident and calm. Barking out commands to us as we drop into a series of frigid waves and frothy, swirling troughs, she guides us through without bashing into a rock, flipping the boat or losing someone overboard. "The South Fork is a very forgiving river," McGinnis says. "That's why it makes an ideal teaching river."

All week the kids have been learning how to maneuver rafts, rig and repair boats, and rescue "swimmers"--the rafting term for overboard crewmen. Today is graduation day, with Alison, Matt and Nat taking turns captaining our raft through a large rapid. To captain a boat you must read the current, decide how to avoid obstacles, and yell out commands to the other paddlers so that together they can navigate such rapids as Meatgrinder, Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat and Troublemaker.

Rapids are rated from Class I to V--from calm water to fierce white water that can include dangerous rocks and even small waterfalls. Meatgrinder is a Class III, Troublemaker is a Class III+. The South Fork, a Class II-III river, is great for beginners, with a strong current, some obstacles, such as boulders and tree limbs, and moderately challenging white water.

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