White water rafting enthusiasts throughout the western US are grabbing their gear in anticipation of an outstanding season, thanks to this year’s optimum snowpack ranging from 90 to 150 percent of normal. But it’s not just experts and thrill seekers who will benefit from the generous flow of melting snow. According to Steve Welch, General Manager of the American River Touring Association (ARTA), the conditions mean rafters will have their choice of adventures.
“There’s a river for everyone this year,” said Welch. “Conditions are ideal for rafters of every level because the snowpack is neither too high nor too low.” When there’s an overabundance of snow and water levels are high, conditions favor highly experienced rafters seeking sensational class IV and V rides. During drought or low-snowfall winters – such as those experienced in California for the past four years – scant water means limited options and tamer rides. “This year, we’ve hit the sweet spot,” said Welch. “People have a choice: hit the hardcore conditions for a watery rollercoaster ride in early spring and summer, or wait until later in the season when there are excellent – but less edgy – options.”
It is unusual for every major white water river in the west to have outstanding conditions. Recent years have seen below normal runoff in at least one or two western states, and last year’s conditions were below normal in nearly every western state. According to National Resources Conservation Service Hydrologist Cara McCarthy, “We’re seeing near-normal snowpack in much of the West, though parts of the Southwest are lagging behind. This year’s El Niño brought us a few surprises.” The result is that opportunities for outdoor water enthusiasts this summer are extraordinary, both in terms of difficulty and duration. “No question about it,” says Welch, “it’s going to be an exceptional summer on the river.”
Here’s a summary of conditions throughout the region – and where outdoor enthusiasts can take advantage of this year’s overflowing bounty.
The Sierra Nevada has breathed a wintery sigh of relief with April’s snowpack at 95 percent of normal. This is a welcomed turnaround, since just a year ago the non-existent snowpack had fallen to less than 10 percent – the lowest level in 500 years. “We’re going to have fun on the Tuolumne, Merced, and South and Middle Forks of the American Rivers,” said Welch. “We haven’t had a real season on the Merced or any of the higher, world-class flows on the Tuolumne for three years, and we’ll have more days per week on the American, which will make those trips much more enjoyable.” The past few years have seen manageable flows on the American due to recreational release requirements imposed on upstream reservoirs, but the flows have been restricted to fewer hours per day and fewer days per week, making for tight windows. This year should have more water for more hours on more days all summer – a welcome change for families looking to enjoy some together-time on the river.
There is a slightly less encouraging story in Southern California, where the snowpack drops the further south you go. The Kern, Southern California’s closest rafting opportunity, has runoff projected to be about 56 percent of average, which is dismal until you compare it to last year’s runoff of less than 10 percent. Rafters looking to get back on the Kern should plan on heading out early in the season.
Frequent storms have blown through the northwest all fall and winter, resulting in healthy snowfall that will soon melt into miles of luscious water flowing down the North Umpqua, Deschutes, and Clackamas rivers. All three drainages have runoff projected to be between 93 and 124 percent of normal. On the Rogue, one of the west’s classic whitewater runs for families, the snowpack sits at a perfect 115 percent of normal, making 34 miles of Class II and III rapids in the Wild and Scenic section great all summer long. In Washington, which was hit hard by last year’s drought, rain and snow have returned. The Skykomish River watershed anticipates 80 percent of normal runoff (compared to 6 percent last year) and the Wenatchee has received 108 percent of normal precipitation (compared to 33 percent last year).
The free-flowing Main, Middle, and Lower Salmon rivers will remain chock full of water all season, as will the mighty Selway, which is expected to be at peak flow in May and June. All four rivers have projected runoff between 90 and 100 percent of normal which creates first-rate, predictable rafting conditions.
“Water conditions are pretty close to what we would dial up if Mother Nature gave us the control knobs.” says Welch.
“As we get further from normal, we deal with more and more uncertainty, which means it’s harder to anticipate conditions. We like predictability, so we really like normal. It’s funny, 35 years of doing this and ‘average’ or ‘normal’ is uncommon and unusual.”
The Upper Colorado River Basin also sits at 90 to 100 percent of normal. The Colorado River is expected to run at above average water levels through summer. Utah’s Green and Yampa rivers provide equally stunning and decidedly more intimate destinations through sublime, multicolored canyons. The Yampa is the only major un-dammed tributary of the Colorado River and has a snowpack equal to 98 percent of its historic average. Like other free-flowing tributaries, this means water levels will be great for May and June and taper off by mid-July.
ARTA is a non-profit corporation dedicated to introducing the wilderness to rafters of all skill levels. Since 1963, ARTA has conducted adventure vacations to destinations throughout the western United States, and has touched the lives of thousands of participants who range in age from 6 to 96. The heart of the organization is its guides, who encourage safe and meaningful experiences, share a passion for wild places, and believe that wilderness-based vacations can be beneficial to both the environment and the individual. ARTA’s non-profit status and philosophy ensure that all surplus revenue is donated to conservation organizations who are working to protect the wild rivers and canyons of the west.
To Learn more: Visit ARTA at http://www.arta.org/ or call (209) 962-7872.