Whitewater Rafting the Tuolumne River Gave Me Grey Hair

Published: July 23rd 2009
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I arrived into Groveland at 7am after a 3 hour drive, meeting the lead guide and arranging my gear. It was moist and overcast as the driver arrived, and after striking up a conversation with me it soon turned to his family. His niece was in Sweden tagging and tracking wolverines. He couldn't seem to understand why though, saying "Why don't they spend that money to track people instead?" Its a typical sentiment among conservative minds in America. Why spend money on things like wildlife when there are people to help as well?

I always keep my mouth shut whenever I am confronted with someone entrenched so deeply in their own culture, be it coon hunters in Tennessee or elitists in San Francisco. This time was no different- this man adopted children and was an active member of his community. He had a plastic Taco Bell cup that looked to be in use for the thousandth time. He has positively effected lives in a way I might never do, and re-uses a cup I would throw away after single use. Is it possible that despite his seemingly narrow minded views on wildlife preservation, he actually has a more positive influence on humanity than I am? I believe this to be true.

What's also true is his ignorance of environmental protection and the tourism it generates, something I found strange since I was so pumped up for a wilderness adventure surrounded by plants and geology I love. Doesn't he realize the designation of the Tuolumne River as a "Wild and Scenic River" and Yosemite National Park is why he has a job? The local economy is based on tourism from Yosemite, the Tuolumne River and the Emigrant Wilderness- all places that were recognized as special due to the thousands of studies about the plants, animals and geology just like his niece is doing in Sweden.

I'd always wanted to river raft a Sierra Nevada river in the high flows of springtime. After all, I've rafted the Buller River in New Zealand, the Rio Grande in Texas and the Rio Trancura in Chile. Why hadn't I ever gone in my own backyard? Some of the best rafting in the lower 48 is in California, where rivers like the Tuolumne drop 12,000 feet in 75 miles. This same journey takes The Colorado River 750 miles to achieve! Since O.A.R.S. calls the Tuolumne one of "The Seven Whitewater Wonders of the World" I just had to sign up for the 2 day wilderness trip: 16 miles of river over 2 days all while eating gourmet food prepared by the guides.

I couldn't understand why none of my friends wanted to go. I suppose they wanted to go, but I only heard excuses why they didn't. "I don't have the money." "We have kids." "We live too far away." "We have plans that weekend." Or the worst- no response at all. This is my 3 Decade Dilemma of turning 30- with most friends all married with kids, should I choose to wait until they are free or journey alone? the choice is easy for me, I've been travelling alone for over 10 years and don't think I would have it any other way. Instead of bringing my culture with me I bring my camera, and instead of validating my memories by sharing them I treasure them for the transient moments that they are. Brushes with death, 20 marriages ending in divorce and bouts with cancer all teach us to take advantage of the time we have, while we have it. If I wait another year to go on this trip, what if I get cancer again? What if I get in a car wreck and become paralyzed? Get blinded accidentally fixing my car, or die suddenly? Why should I save every penny for retirement and deny myself experiences I will never forget when I may not even make it to old age?

Soon the first group arrived, The Currie family of 4 and they soon proved to be my best friends during the trip. A larger group from SoCal arrived a bit late, which probably helped us in the long run. Remember it was overcast and wet? That's because a massive storm had arrived in the Sierra's 2 days before after weeks of unseasonably hot and dry weather. The storm dumped a foot of snow in the High Country and several inches of rain. The best whitewater river in the state was far more interesting for this trip than any other of the spring! The lead guide told me before other people had arrived: "If I'm quiet today it's because I'm thinking about the river, not because I have nothing to say." ha! It seems my wish of getting the shit scared out of me to feel more alive was about to come true...

Little things like the fun family who arrived and the amazing river conditions are hints, a combined effort between Father Sky and Mother Earth that tell me I made the right choice, and my friends did not. The hint actually had a number. The guides said they usually run the Tuolumne at around 4000-5000 CFS, and the highest they had ever run it is 11,000 CFS. Our number today? 8000!

"Above 8000 CFS: Very high flow. Racing current, huge waves and very long rapids! Previous paddle rafting experience strongly recommended. This level is best suited to fit, adventurous people eager to paddle like crazy!
4000-8000 CFS: High flow. Thrilling Class IV+ whitewater ideal for experienced paddlers. Large waves and fast current."

We had 5 boats total, with 2 gear boats, 15 rafters and 5 guides. That first day was one to remember, and not only for the SoCal crew for which this was their introduction to whitewater rafting. For their first day in a raft, they went down the most impressive river in the state in extreme flow conditions- and one of their boats flipped twice. I actually feared for their safety as well as my own. The rapids were incredibly imposing, requiring great paddling effort to effectively navigate through without flipping. My boat was a great team- I was with the 4 Curries and an animated guide name Ryan. We pulled in a few people when the other boats flipped, and a few were very shell shocked and unable to respond to commands. One guy's wife was far beyond, out of sight of our boat. When we pulled him in the look on his face was of pure terror, not only in response to the 40 degree water and adrenaline but for the concern for his wife. Later that night, one of the others in the boat that flipped twice told me in 100% seriousness: "If we flipped one more time, I wouldn't have made it." He was totally serious, and this gave me even greater appreciation we didn't flip that first day.

The food was incredible, with lunch of sandwiches and drinks and soup and cookies. A gourmet dinner with 2 alcoholic drinks provided and assisted the camp conversation about the crazy day we went through. I was truly frighted with a knot in my stomach for most of the rapids, which is something that doesn't normally happen to me! I think seeing others fall in and extreme flow made me more nervous- I din't want to be in water that unforgiving. The SoCal crew seemed to be generally pleased and excited about the trip, which was comforting. By this time the Currie family and I knew each other pretty well, and the mom insisted I pitch my tent near theirs. Despite the college kids seeming to be sometimes annoyed with their parents- how many other families go together on a 2 day wilderness rafting trip? Not mine.... Our camp was enchanting, surrounded by the lush wilderness of low elevation Sierra forest. Ponderosa Pines, Black Oaks, Grey Pines and Yucca's hushed us to sleep.

The next day the river receded substantially, probably 2-4 feet. The sun was peeking out here and there and the temperature was rising. The rapids were more of a mellow character, but since the guides shuffled the boats around due to requests from the SoCal crew I wasn't with the Curries. One guy even sat on one of the gear boats, which due to their weight and skillfull guides with oars rarely flip. Flipping on this day was reserved for the Currie family. It was quite amusing for me to watch to be honest, and Josh the son said it was fun for him! Probably not so much for the dad who wasn't too good at swimming...

Im eagerly anticipating my next rafting trip. The scenery, adrenaline, food, guides and atmosphere was beyond my wildest expectations! Will it be the legendary 15 Day trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the Futaleufu of Chile or the Klinaklini River of British Columbia? I hope it happens soon!!



Additional photos below
Photos: 43, Displayed: 29


Gourmet lunchGourmet lunch
Gourmet lunch

As soon as we got on solid ground the guides set up soup, drinks and cookies, then the sandwich platters!

23rd July 2009

Wow, so neat!
Hi Steve! Thanks for the in-depth, descriptive, and very personal sharing about your trip! It sounds really amazing. I'll bet all your friends are wishing they'd gotten off their booties and gone with you....I wish I had gotten to do it! Our work team went kayaking 2 weeks ago on a river by Harper's Ferry...very fun but SMALL rapids...nothing like what you saw! Glad you had a great time and met a neat family. I enjoyed the link to the San Fran Wife-Swap dude...what a horrible meanie!!!! Miss you and love you, Christa
23rd July 2009

Wow, that spider with the egg sack is Crazy looking! And I love the thistle :)
23rd July 2009

Thanks SISTER!
Thank so much to my wonderful SISTER who posted that comment! haha
23rd July 2009

Great Blog!
Stunning panorama :) - loving the innovative ways they get used. You have so many amazing national parks in the US - I was surprised how few people were visiting them when I was there in 02. 1 day walk from Yosemite valley - not a soul around. Keep on exploring, enjoying and sharing!
23rd July 2009

Great blog!
Hi Steve :-) Always nice to read your blogs, and really nice one you got here! Love the human dimension you add to it and wow the river looks really impressive! Glad you had a great time, and yes we live only once so better be good!
25th July 2009

Great photos as always!
Wow! Seems you had an amazing time. I would say I´m jealous but nearly drowning doesn´t come high on my list!
25th July 2009

thanks to alL!
haha thats funny Kat- yeah I can't say the first day was something I actually enjoyed, but the fear of danger really made me feel alive. I swear I found some grey hairs on my chest that were NOT there before! nice to hear from you Laetitia!! And Ali- you're totally right. We have so much wilderness here and so few people actually pursue it. I love the Western US!
26th July 2009

Neat blog & pictures of course
I've been following your blogs, guess this is the first I comment on. Your blogs are well described. As mentioned earlier, you give an emotional dimension in your thoughts that kind of comes across without much blur. Keep traveling. I'll keep envying:-) travelbuffs
27th July 2009

I love the "mossy crack"!
6th August 2009

Grey Hair and the Tuolumne!!
Well Steve, your blog is terrific and describes our trip extraordinaily well, inclusive of my lack of swimming prowess!! However, I will say in my defense that trying to swim in 25-30mph flow, with giant waves crashing overhead, hydraulics sucking you down and bouncing you off the bottom (thru 3 sets of rapids) small boulders crashing and moving on the same river bottom - all the while trying to avoid crashing into larger ones coming at you at that same 25mph, does not leave one much time to swim!!! Ok! - enough of my escuses!! AND you are so right - what a fantastic trip, with you making it all the better. We loved being with you that first day and were very sad when the guides took you from us (which is of course, the reason we flipped!). Great pics as well. Thanks for the memories!!!!

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