Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Paddling on lower American dips a bit lower now

Playing in the San Juan rapids at 2,600 cfs

1/12/14 update: Flow is down to about 500 cfs due to drought conditions.

Kayakers have taken their lumps and bumps this season as most Northern California river and lake levels dropped early.  Fortunately, there’s still at least one decent destination for an inland day paddle – but you must act soon, because this is a limited time offer. 
Sounds like a TV commercial for kitchen gadgets, but it’s the lower American River in Sacramento County. For the past couple of months, flows have generally run from 2,600 to 2,700 cubic feet per second. (That's enough water to float a kayak over most rocky shoals and carry it downstream at 2-4 mph.) California kayaking favorites

It won’t last much longer. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which regulates water flows from Folsom Lake, told NorCal Yak that flows would be cut to 2,250 cfs today (8/28), and gradually down to 1,500 cfs later in September to conserve water. Those levels may still be okay for rafters, but the going gets bumpy for kayakers when the river drops below 2,000 cfs. And I’ve got scars on my bottom to prove it. Uh, that would be my hull.

Sunrise rec area lot at 9 a.m. on a Saturday...
...and just four hours later, the crowds are seriously inflated 

Many paddlers avoid the lower American in summer due to heavy rafter traffic. Yeah, it can get rowdy, noisy and obnoxious, especially on weekends. (Alcohol is banned on the river some weekends, including this Labor Day holiday.)

But there’s an easy solution – get on the water early. If you launch before 9 a.m. most weekends, you and a few other kayakers will have the river virtually all to yourselves for a couple of hours. Deer and waterfowl abound at water’s edge when it’s quiet. You may even spot a few overachiever salmon getting an early jump on the fall spawning run. (Thanks to NorCal Yak pal Jim Snyder for the use of his two wildlife photos below.)

Great blue heron takes wing.... an egret stalks the shallows (Photos by Jim Snyder)

And all this only a 20-minute drive from downtown Sacramento. No urban area in California has such a scenic waterway that’s so close to freeways, with easy boating access via  county parks. (See “Launch lines.”)

Plus a bonus in the form of modest whitewater "training grounds" on a short stretch of river. “Suicide Bend ” – a melodramatic moniker if there ever was one – lies a mile or so downstream from the pedestrian bridge at Sunrise Park. Most paddlers, eager to reach the well-known San Juan rapids downstream, speed by the sandy bluffs just below the bend, but it's a good place to practice eddy turns in “confused water,” on a small scale.
"Training day" on the San Juan rapids 

The San Juans, are listed as relatively easy “Class II” rapids, but it really depends on the flow, plus paddler experience and training. Frankly, it’s amazing that more people don’t get hurt here, as many seem unencumbered by the thought process, much less PFDs. Yeah, I’m talking to you, the woman rafter with an open parasol in one hand and an infant in the other. Geez louise.     

But let’s just assume you possess a kayak and a modicum of good sense.  For most of us average joes, that means you'll hit the rapids with a buddy or two, rather than going solo. You'll also know basic recovery techniques in case someone dumps into the foam. 
Plus, in addition to the always-mandatory PFD, wear a helmet if you plan to play in the rapids, because those big rocks are getting closer to the surface, beginning today.

Launch lines

On three-day weekends such as the Labor Day holiday, you may want to set that launch clock even earlier. The most popular launch sites for kayakers and rafters are at Sunrise Recreation Area. (Link has driving directions and fees.) From here, you may choose from several park pullouts for a self-shuttle. Rossmoor Bar is the closest, about one-third of a mile below San Juan Rapids, followed by Ancil Hoffman and Riverbend parks.  Wherever you park, leave nothing of value in your vehicle, as break-ins are all too common.

Even on Saturdays, the early traffic is usually light
To check current flows, link to Dreamflows, then daily flow reports, then California, then "West Slope -- Northern" and finally "American below Lake Natoma."  
Here’s a good video guide for kayakers by Sacramento Bee reporter Sam Stanton. Also for reference: a floating guide to the lower American.

And consider contributing to the American River Parkway Foundation, which provides crucial support for the 23-mile-long recreation area.