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California and the West

Staying Afloat

Wilderness: As a spate of rafting deaths scares off business, outfitters struggle to allay fears of river enthusiasts. Most of the tragedies have involved people rafting on their own.

June 29, 1998|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLOMA, Calif. — No sooner had Leo Bernardini and his teenage son Mark returned to camp and peeled off their wetsuits than they went in search of a public telephone to call home. Bernardini wanted his wife to know the river rafting trip she had not wanted them to go on--the trip they almost dropped out of--had turned out just fine.

It was even a little tamer than he had expected, given all the publicity over high water and a rash of rafting deaths that have made this young white water season one of the deadliest of the decade. "It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be," Bernardini said as he stood a few yards from the swollen South Fork of the American River, which has been running at three to four times its normal flow for this time of year.

The heavy, late Sierra snowmelt has been a decidedly mixed blessing on the South Fork and other northern rivers that make California one of the nation's premier white water playgrounds.

The swift, icy flows beckon with the promise of some of the best rafting in years. But if something goes amiss, there is not much forgiveness in the churning confusion of rapids that have been living up to such names as Trouble Maker and Meat Grinder.

With 12 white water deaths in recent weeks--three of them on the South Fork--the carefree vacation mood of early summer has assumed a chilly edge in the Gold Country foothills.

Occasional rafters such as Bernardini are wondering if they are fools to go on the river--or fools to stay off it and miss the thrills. Authorities have stepped up river patrols, trying to keep ill-equipped novices out of the water. And commercial rafting companies, suffering from a poor season because of the cold, rainy spring, have gone into a damage-control mode as hundreds of frightened customers call to cancel their bookings.

Comparatively wide and usually benign, the South Fork is the busiest commercial rafting river in the state. About 30 outfitters take more than 100,000 people down the dam-controlled river every year, and thousands more ride the white water on kayaks and rafts of their own.

Groups from the Bay Area and Southern California arrive by the bus load to float down the river and party afterward in camp. On a busy summer weekend, rafts and kayaks are lined up 10 to 15 deep to run the rapids. The atmosphere more resembles that of a lovely, pine-scented amusement park than a rugged wilderness.

But this year some of the wildness is back.

"It's completely changed its character," American River Conservancy staffer Earle Harris said of the South Fork. "People are used to this river being friendly and kind and not showing its ugly side. People underestimate it."

He was standing at Chili Bar, named not after a food stand but the Chileans who worked this section of the American for gold during the Gold Rush, which began on the South Fork. As every rafting group pulled into the parking lot Friday morning, Harris and a volunteer from the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department search and rescue team looked them over.

"We're basically trying to make sure somebody doesn't get on the river without knowing what they're doing," said search and rescue volunteer Doug Hendricks.

It was his first day on such duty and so far he had not delivered any lectures. All the rafters were with commercial companies. They had professional guides and were wearing wetsuits and tightly fitting life jackets, designed to withstand a pummeling in the rapids.

The river at Chili Bar looked fast and high but hardly menacing. Yet less than a week before, a private raft had run afoul of a turbulent eddy at the bar and dumped its occupants into the river. A 27-year-old Vallejo woman was pushed toward the bank and snagged in partially submerged brush, where she remained underwater for at least five minutes. She was rescued and hospitalized but died Friday, making her the 12th white water victim of the season.

It is not just the speed and the force of the water that is to be reckoned with. It is also the cold. Friday the river temperature was 50 degrees, a little warmer than it has been but still more frigid than normal for late June.

When a boater gets tossed into such icy waters, Harris said, two things can happen. There is a reflexive gasp at the shock of cold and a natural constriction of the larynx, making it both easy to gulp water and difficult to breathe.

The cold temperatures alone are enough to give boaters pause. "Either you were going to have a really great time or you were going to fall in and not be so happy," said Bay Area attorney Marcy Berkman, an experienced rafter who canceled a planned trip with friends down the Merced River this past weekend. "The chance of flipping out this year and being freezing cold and miserable and in danger were pretty high."

*

Commercial outfitter Jim Plimpton has a phrase for boaters fearing over-the-bow ice cold showers. He calls them "summertime sheep."

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