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Mellow white-water rafting in store with low Sierra snowpack

Shorter rafting seasons are ahead for rivers like the Merced and some sections of the Kern, among others, as the Sierra snowpack hovers below normal.

May 20, 2012|By Brian E. Clark, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Last summer, when the snowpack in the Sierra was twice its normal depth, rivers raged well into July. That meant many rafting outfitters were forced to turn away, for safety reasons, families with children younger than 8 until it was almost August.

This year, if you're looking for a major white-water adrenaline rush, your options will be limited. With the Sierra snowpack at about 50%, rivers will peak for a short time in late May or early June. After that, moderate dam releases from streams mean flows will be mellow enough for parents who want to take their kids rafting, said Steve Merkle of rafting outfitter OARS.

However, rivers such as the Merced and the North Fork of the American, which are not dam-controlled, will have a shorter season this year, he said. The Merced usually has adequate flows into July, while the North Fork season is over by late June.

"But we're banking on a record-breaking season on the South and Middle Fork of the American rivers, which are dam-controlled," he said. "We're also on track to have one of our best seasons ever on the Tuolumne River near Yosemite, where they continue to release water from upstream reservoirs."

In the southern Sierra, Kern River Tours operator Kenny Bushling said the snowpack in the Kern drainage area is about 60% of normal.

That means the rafting season in the section of the Kern above Lake Isabella should last only through June. Below the lake, however, there will be adequate flows for good rafting and kayaking all summer, he added.

Elsewhere in the West, Merkle said the Rockies had one of the lowest snowpacks in recent history. That means that water levels will be good for rafting on the Yampa in Colorado and the San Juan in southeast Utah through June, but flows will not be adequate after July 1.

Because of releases from Lake Powell, water flows on the Colorado through Cataract Canyon and the Grand Canyon should be close to normal.

To the north — where there was greater snowfall this winter — rafting and kayaking on the Lower Klamath River near the Oregon border should be good all summer, he said.

Runoff in the Rogue River of southwest Oregon and in Idaho's Salmon River should peak about June 1, Merkle said, which he noted should make late June, July and August ideal for families and others looking for more moderate — but still exciting — trips.

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