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Troublemakers

Some paddler apparently monkeyed with a classic American River rapid.

August 03, 2004|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Amid the granite and pines of the American River's south fork is a feisty rapid called Troublemaker. Raft-snaring Double Trouble lies in the right channel, but the left slot is a new source of grief for the tight-knit boating community in nearby Coloma, Calif.

Nearly two weeks ago, local paddlers apparently rearranged rocks near the rapid to make it more exciting, El Dorado County officials say. They also made it more hazardous and roiled the ethos of kayakers and river guides. "You just don't change the riverbed and change the rapid because you feel like it," says Bridget Hiles, a manager for Mother Lode river trips. "This is a big thing, that a rapid as famous as Troublemaker changed and there was no flood. The people in town are not happy about it."

Riled boaters alerted county officials after guides paraded rafts through Troublemaker (rated Class III on a scale of I to VI ) during an event. Rocks had changed the green water's path the way a construction barrier causes motorists to swerve. Officials say someone may have used a pry bar to reconfigure the run -- "a profoundly arrogant act," county river supervisor Dan Bolster wrote in an e-mail.

Floating 100,000 or so boaters annually, the American's south fork is one of the most heavily trafficked rivers in the West. Its mostly mellow white water and historical significance -- its banks begat the Gold Rush -- attract retirees and Scout troops alike. Budding guides from about 35 commercial outfitters are groomed on its rapids. Private boaters and environmental groups also bobble downstream.

The first Saturday after the alteration, Troublemaker swamped most boats, says Jim Byers, a deputy sheriff who patrols the south fork. "Swimmers" -- a euphemism for passengers tossed into the current -- dotted the river. Guides pitched rescue ropes to at least 40 people compared with one or two on other weekends. The county posted warnings at the Chili Bar put-in and on Internet message boards.

Last week, as guide Peter Gordon approached Troublemaker, he yelled "Get down!" to his passengers, who huddled and hugged their paddles.

Before the streambed changed, Gordon, of American Whitewater Expeditions, would never do that on Troublemaker. But this crew -- two kids, 6 and 8, and their grandmother and grandfather -- couldn't power through the sticky hydraulic. "There's no sneaking around it like there used to be," he says.

The rearranged rocks agitated Coloma, a town of 250, and the guides and guests who populate the tents of Camp Lotus. Many blame a few local kayakers "who decided the rapid wasn't big enough, bad enough, wild enough," Byers says.

No one has taken responsibility. "But you can't keep secrets in this little community," Byers says. Although the sheriff's department is not investigating, the state Department of Fish and Game could issue fines if it determines the alterations harmed wildlife.

Sacred water to rafters, rapids are rarely altered without controversy. In 1993, a group of men blew up a rock formation at Arizona's once-lethal Quartzite Falls, ostensibly to make it safer. The case prompted headlines worldwide and the men were labeled eco-terrorists and some were jailed.

"If there's an analogy, it's that rivers are the arteries and veins of Mother Earth," says Nate Rangel, of rafting trade group California Outdoors. "When we choose to change rivers, it should be done with a good deal of soul-searching and caution."

El Dorado officials have yet to restore the streambed on Troublemaker -- the river is too high, and modifying the rapid could make things worse. Some people have noticed the rocks shifting as water levels fluctuate.

Coloma last buzzed like this about a year ago, when a local woman pushed for the addition of a large rock to Chili Bar, hoping to enhance a kayak-friendly "play spot." The same rift opened: Is one rock that big a deal? She dropped the idea.

The episode on Troublemaker, paddlers say, is different. "Boaters will lose their image of being folks who care about the environment," one person wrote on a rafting message board. "We risk being seen as a bunch of yahoos who want to turn California's public rivers into our own private exotic water slides."

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