Thursday, April 14

Beginner's Warning on the South Fork of the American

This is a post I saw recently on the ListServ of Gold Country Paddlers that has some really good recommendations for not using the South Fork of the American as a "beginners" run. Worth a read if you're thinking about it.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> From Gold Country Paddlers

Hello all, I just thought I would take this opportunity to express my opinions and provide a bit of information that anyone reading this can take with a grain of salt, or any way they want. (<: If anyone does take issue, feel free to contact me directly via this e-mail address of .

I have seen other years like this one in terms of the snow we have and the river levels that we have already seen, and (in my opinion) are likely to see for the next couple of months. We have obviously not even BEGUN to see the actual melt yet! For many paddlers, this will be a FANTASTIC year for lots of available runs, different flows on their favorite runs over an extended period of time, and just a great overall paddling season.

However, I have been teaching and paddling on this river for 16 years, and I have absolutely seen incidents occur in many areas on the Coloma to Greenwood stretch (as well as other parts of this river, and other sierra runs) which has been more recently taken for granted as an “easy” or “beginner” stretch. I would urge anyone to really consider the following facts and be VERY confident in their own abilities as well as those of the others paddling with them before “taking” “newbies” or anyone else on the river under these conditions. I would also hope that nobody sees this as an opportunity to go out and prove me wrong. My intent is to suggest, inform and otherwise provide a bit of historical insight BEFORE there is any kind of incident, as opposed to after the fact. I will be quite happy if absolutely no one has a bad swim or other incident this Spring. (<:

My first point, which others can disagree with all they want, is that the South Fork American , especially under these conditions, is NOT a place to teach beginners who have never been on a river before. If they have some experience in moving water, then there are shorter stretches that can be appropriate if those leading them are VERY competent in their ability to assess where beginners will end up, and in the art and skill of rescuing people QUICKLY. Traditionally, the Coloma to Lotus run was not even considered appropriate for complete beginners. That perspective has evolved over the years, but not without incident for some of those testing that theory. Above and below Camp Lotus most definitely has areas of serious concern for new and novice paddlers, and especially at flows above the normal summer releases.

A few areas of specific concern on Coloma to Greenwood with the higher, colder flows are:

1) Old Scary: Water pushes heavily into the rock sieves on the right, and the “island” in the middle, which becomes nothing more than a very dangerous rock and vegetation strainer at flows even above 3000 cfs, certainly at 4000cfs. Many paddlers have been fooled and caught in these hazards, in particular at flows similar to those we have been seeing, and above.

2) The rapid about ¼ mile above Camp Lotus is another very treacherous one, especially if anyone ends up in the left channel, as the water beyond that corner flows strongly through the trees and rock sieves (unlike lower water conditions), and there is little or no opportunity for recovery or self rescue by inexperienced paddlers and especially by swimmers.

3) Highway Rapid and Current divider are very big concerns for their potential for foot entrapment, strainers and long impact filled swims, and are NOT easily managed by beginners, or even some “intermediates” under high flow conditions.

To reiterate:

1) The rivers are very, very cold for those of you who have not been upside down or swimming yet, and will only get colder as the snow really starts to melt.

2) The higher flows put water flowing through the willows and trees as well as involving normally high and dry rock features in some areas of the river, and self rescue for swimmers becomes MUCH more difficult.

3) The additional pushiness of the river can be quite deceiving, even for more experienced paddlers who have not worked with flows in the 3500cfs and above range!

4) If someone swims, their gear and they are likely to travel much farther and faster down stream than you are perhaps used to, and that always invokes greater potential for hazard, but especially in very cold water.

5) Appropriate gear is obviously important, but the person in a borrowed drysuit or drytop should have experience swimming with that and a skirt on.

There is a lot more that could be said, but that is for Swiftwater Rescue courses and training opportunities. Please take this post in the spirit in which it is given, and have a great Spring out there. Mother Nature has provided us with a bounty of water and flora that is in many ways is best appreciated by kayakers and other waterborn adventurers, but one incident can ruin a lot of good times, so here’s hoping everyone has a SAFE and fun paddling year!



Dan Crandall



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