River Conditions

WhiteWater Voyages Media Articles

May 11, 1995
San Francisco Chronicle

Whitewater Guides Go With the Flow

By Paul McHugh
Chronicle Staff Writer

Sapphire thunder echoes below Grant Bluff in the Salmon River Canyon. As on other California streams, an epic snowpack and high runoff have launched a memorable whitewater season. As boisterous blue water churns past boulders, connoisseurs of rivers savor their options.

"We won't need `mow.' We are gonna need `quick'," Patrick Sullivan tells a group of raft guides who hunker around cowboy coffee at a campground on the Salmon. Sullivan is a manager for Whitewater Voyages, one of the premier raft companies. A company trademark is to gain consensus among all guides before proceeding; under discussion now is whether to load the rafts up light or heavy for a famed, Class V stretch of the Salmon called the Nordheimer run.

All commercially run rivers in California have stretches rated from Class I (easy, moving water) to Class VI (risky cataracts). Newcomers to this sport should start with milder Class II-IV runs. But on May's first weekend, all these paddlers are young guides training for the upcoming season, so there are fit, experienced hands for each paddle and oar.

On Saturday, these crews flawlessly swept twice down the Class IV Butler Creek run. After the second drop through "Gaping Maw," the most awesome rapid on this stretch, Sullivan grinned and commented, "I think I foresee a Nordheimer run." His decision was significant: The Salmon flowed between 5,000 and 6,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), a quite "pushy" level to dare that Class V run, lurking upstream in the river canyon.


On Sunday morning, SOTAR self-bailing rafts are readied for Nordheimer. Boats are rigged for quickness; two will bear five paddlers each and a captain to call moves, and two will get stern oar rigs plus a pair of bow paddlers. We all wear dry suits or neoprene wetsuits, good life vests and helmets. Sullivan refreshes us on a dozen hand signals, used to cue captains on route strategy should the roar of rapids drown out shouts between rafts.

Use of such signals between guides is one subtlety that can escape raft clients on milk runs such as the South Fork American River, where many river-runners gain initial baptism to this rollicking sport.


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