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A Short Run for Some California Whitewater Rivers This Season

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A mid-June 2007 view of Cassidy Falls rapid on the Kings River. Low water on the river has cut short the rafting season on the Kings and other Sierra rivers. (Erik Meldrun/Flickr)

Justin Butchert drops bags of ice into huge coolers and lifts them onto his pickup truck.

“This is our only form of refrigeration up there,” says Butchert, owner of Kings River Expeditions.

He’s referring to his company’s base camp on the Kings River, east of Fresno in the Sierra Nevada. The outfit has run overnight trips, complete with cookouts and goofy campfire skits, for more than 30 years.

But this is the first time in 25 years he’s packed the food.

“You know I just do everything now,” he says. “We used to have a full staff doing this and we don’t have that anymore.”


He has the same number of employees, but they’re working fewer hours. In the best of years, his company stays open until Sept. 1 and guides about 6,000 folks down miles of roaring rapids.

But due to a record low snowpack, the foam and chaos of big rapids will be short-lived this summer for the Kings and several other rivers.

“It’s the lowest water in the 40-year history of commercial rafting on the Kings River,” Butchert says. “This year we’ll probably do 800 people and be done before the end of May.”

The Kings is a natural flow river in the mountains above Pine Flat Reservoir. However, rivers that are dam-regulated, like the South Fork of the American River and the Tuolumne, should run all summer.

Because of the drought, Butchert’s two competitors on the Kings River haven’t been open for the past three years. But Butchert says he can’t imagine hanging up his paddle.

“High water, low water, this is what we do,” he says. And first-timers on the Kings are still having a good time. “They’re coming off the river and they are high-fiving me!” he says.

Tom Moore, owner of Sierra South, has guided trips on the wild scenic Kern River for 30 years. And he has no plans to quit anytime soon.

“If we stopped today and said, ‘OK, that’s it,’ and next year was a big wet year, we’d go crazy,” Moore says. His company is based in Kernville, the hub of whitewater recreation in the southern Sierra.

He concedes the rafting season will be shorter this year, but he says there’s still fun to be had.

“I have really nice tubes that have mesh floors in them, so you don’t hit your heinie on rocks as you’re going down,” he says.

But lower down on the Kern, near Bakersfield, there’s just not enough water for companies to stay open this year. Darren Nilsson of River’s End Rafting and Adventure Co. says this past winter proved depressing.

“I had my fingers crossed. I was saying my prayers. I was doing the rain dance,” he says. “And I was sure that at some point the snow was going to start falling in the mountains.”

But instead, he had to send out emails and make phone calls telling his employees not to show up this summer.

“That was hard,” he says.

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