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‘I’ll Do It’: Restricted, dangerous waters Rafting on the wild Mokelumne River

News-Sentinel reporter and photographer cleared for run on river with expert guides

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Posted: Friday, July 1, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 10:54 am, Sat Sep 17, 2011.

Before we even reached the gate of Stillman Magee Park on the Mokelumne River, a sheriff's deputy with a hard stare was trying to get us to leave.

"No one is going on the river," the deputy said behind a pair of silver sunglasses and through a bristly mustache. "You may as well turn around and go back."

I was inclined to agree. Less than 100 yards behind him, whitecaps from the Mokelumne River lapped around trees as branches raced across the surface of the water.

It looked plain dangerous.

But several locals who know the river had taken time out of their day to arrange this trip on extremely short notice — we owed it to them to get out there. One well-placed phone call to the San Joaquin Sheriff's media relations department cleared us for passage.

But what was in store for me? Emails about increased flows from Camanche Reservoir had clogged my inbox all week. My sources in the sheriff's department had also given me the heads-up that the river was not a place for leisure. Snags and swells were among the threats in the bone-chilling waters, they said. But my editor had basically dared me to try and get out on the river while I still had the chance. So I said "I'll Do It" before strapping on a life vest and seeing for myself what was really going on.

We left a vehicle at Stillman Magee Park to take us back after our journey ended and drove to our launching point near Camanche Reservoir. It would only be minutes before we started our voyage down the suddenly mighty Mokelumne — a river authorities are doing everything in their power to keep people from being on. The normally placid waterway that has turned remorseless in the wake of a wet winter and melting snowpack.

Our guides

Bill Ferrero, who started Mokelumne River Outfitters in 2006 and has 50 years experience fishing and navigating the river, was my main contact for this assignment. James Jones, a biologist for EBMUD, also jumped at the opportunity to guide us down the river and make sure me and News-Sentinel Chief Photographer Dan Evans didn't hurt ourselves. Alan MacIssac, a triathlete, was there to provide experience and assist Ferrero if we hit a rough patch, since I'd probably be too busy wetting myself to be any help at all.

'We're committed'

Getting to the launch point at the Mokelumne River Day Use Area was an adventure in itself. Evans and I were riding in the bed of Ferrero's Chevrolet pickup with his raft hitched to the back when he started driving through what we all figured was a shallow portion to back our vessels into the river.

Suddenly, steam started coming up between the gap of Ferrero's cab and the bed we were sitting in. Frigid river water was coursing through his vehicle's undercarriage and engine. Fortunately, we reached our destination and unloaded the raft before the water level rose another few inches and inundated his powertrain.

I jumped out of the bed and into the river. The water, which Jones said was about 52 degrees, swirled around my bare calves. My knees felt swollen and lethargic within a few moments. And that was in the shallow, sunny portion of the river. I can't fathom what it would be like if I were stranded downstream and fighting for my life.

With a simple turn of my head, I could see the water bursting out of Camanche Reservoir at more than 4,400 cubic feet per second. For perspective, 5,000 cfs is the maximum release the channel can handle. And that's the rate at which water is currently being released.

Just downstream, a walking bridge by the Mokelumne Hatchery had water virtually lapping along its bottom. The last time I was out here — April — a person could have easily navigated a raft underneath the bridge and not so much as bumped their head.

This wasn't the peaceful, meandering Mokelumne I'd encountered before. This river clearly has a split personality. One that is hostile and callous.

Ferrero, MacIssac and I climbed into the raft. But mom, don't worry. It was not some blow-up raft from a big-box retailer that's patched together with duct tape. This vessel was damn near ocean-worthy.

Evans rode in a drift boat with Jones, who also deftly maneuvered the watercraft through the snaking river.

As we prepared to head out, Ferrero pointed to a picnic table completely submerged by the water that our raft was passing over. With a turn of the vessel, we headed into the flow.

"OK — we're committed," Ferrero said as we entered the heavy current of the rolling river.

Warning signs

Parts of the river will lull you into tranquility, but don't be fooled. Although there are still stretches where the river is wide open and the pace is soothing, this isn't a place to throw back a couple of Coronas.

Within minutes of taking off, we spotted the first sign of those who'd been stranded or capsized.

It was a bright yellow and orange inner tube mangled underneath the branches of an evergreen tree.

Trust me, right now on the Mokelumne River isn't the time or place for a leisurely float.

Sure, there will be time later this summer when the water level retreats and the beaches and shores will return. Feel free to live it up then. But right now the Mokelumne has a mind of its own. And it will push over anyone or anything in its path.

We counted a total of nine inner tubes and rafts that had been claimed by the river.

"Those are pool toys," Ferrero said. "People shouldn't be on those out here right now."

Statistics back up Ferrero's statement. Since June 17, more than 51 people have been stranded and pulled from the Mokelumne River, said Kent Lambert, manager of watershed and recreation for EBMUD. That doesn't mean people have been injured or killed on the river; it means they went out there, got hung up on some snags and needed authorities to help them out before the situation turned deadly.

If the public's access to the river wasn't restricted this weekend, I can almost promise you that someone would die out there. I'm not saying that to throw shade on anyone's ability to navigate the waterway; I'm saying it because this is a drinking weekend, and the river has a reputation as being a rather gentle waterway. People would underestimate its brawn and find out the hard way what happens when you don't respect nature.

The four turkey vultures who stared us down as they perched on rotting trees near one of the river's scores of elbows signified how treacherous this run is right now.

Observing and reporting

Throughout the morning, I felt guilty for not doing anything to help Ferrero steer the raft, and Jones took the chance to rip me for it as he piloted Evans downstream.

"Where's your parasol?" he asked me from his steel boat about 20 feet away.

But I remembered that my job was to describe the river — and explain why the decision to discourage people from getting in the river was made. At times I'd become distracted by the playful river otters. The sprawling house with a hideous yellow paint job and blue tile trim also briefly drew me away from the assignment. But, I quickly refocused when I saw the tops of trees underneath the raft, or a the top of a park barbecue peeking out of the jade green current.

Minutes after seeing what I can only describe as a metropolis (but Jones said is a rookery) of Great Blue Herons and Egrets in the tops of trees, Ferrero was angling the raft to avoid a patch of white water and thick shrubbery that would normally be on dry land. The raft spun slowly sideways, and Ferrero made several tactical strokes to evade the danger.

"You always have to be looking ahead for what's next," he said. "You have to anticipate your next move far in advance."

It was a close call. If Ferrero wasn't a seasoned river veteran with a raft that's essentially bulletproof, our day may have turned tragic.

Had I been someone with dulled reflexes from tipping a few drinks, I would've ended up as a ragdoll for the current to play with. But even those with experience and sobriety on their side can still end up getting abused by the ruthless river.

Although the experts who guided me and Evans down the river never made us feel at high risk, each one of them agrees the public should be kept away from the Mokelumne for the time being. Even though Ferrero's business relies on the river being accessible to the public, the danger isn't worth the reward, he said.

The water was moving so fast that it only took us an hour to travel five miles from the reservoir to Stillman Magee. Upon reaching the landing zone, I quickly hopped out of the raft. With the help of several experts, we had made it.

Ferrero pointed out a snarl of trees in the narrow passageway downstream. Fifteen more seconds in the water and we would've been in the heart of it. I trust Ferrero would've gotten us out of it, but it's just as well we didn't have to find out.

I'm glad the San Joaquin Sheriff's Department let us on the river, but I get why the humorless deputy didn't want to.

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  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 6:41 pm on Mon, Jul 4, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Bill stated...I guess I draw the line when someone does something stupid like take a pool toy down a fast, cold river with out a life vest when the danger signs have been posted and free life vests are available to the public.

    I wish your line were the line drawn. We then could get rid of many rules and regs... so... if we enact an amendment to all mandates...unless a persons activities endangers the life of others, no mandates will be binding.
    Bill... I really like the line you drew. I will stop wearing my seatbelt and if stopped by a policeman, will refer my behavior to your post...

  • Bill Ferrero posted at 5:35 pm on Mon, Jul 4, 2011.

    Bill Ferreo Posts: 2

    I'm all for less rules and less government. I guess I draw the line when someone does something stupid like take a pool toy down a fast, cold river with out a life vest when the danger signs have been posted and free life vests are available to the public. Then when they get in trouble, someone has to risk their life to save that person who made stupid choices. Do this 23 times in less than a week (actual water rescues on the Moke in 2011) then it's time to enforce the rules to prevent the bad decision makers from endangering themselves and those whose job it is to save them. Just another example of the "bad apple" syndrome.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 4:41 pm on Sun, Jul 3, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Bill stated...As for the post about regulators, rules, and the right to do be stupid or do stupid things. I've rescued a couple of people who had that philosophy. Funny how their perspective and their attitude changed after they survived.

    Bill,of course people would appreciate being rescued if the actions they took led to danger for themselves.
    Are you suggesting that this appreciation is justification for government making laws, regulations and rules that takes our freedom to choose away.. So where do you draw the line? I’m sure if someone gets cancer from smoking cigarettes, they would appreciate being rescued by a doctor... should that mean government should make cigarettes illegal? I think people should have the freedom to do stupid things.... then take responsibility for their actions. Government can make us awhere of the risks, just like RX companies do in their commercials, but please fire the nanny.

  • Bill Ferrero posted at 3:54 pm on Sun, Jul 3, 2011.

    Bill Ferreo Posts: 2

    Jordan, you and Dan did a great job on the story, photos, and video. I think the information got to a lot of people and the press brought in a lot of focus such as closing more parks. In addition, The "Kid's Don't Float" life vest comittee is meeting with the SJ County Sheriff and other entities to discuss future criteria for public safety and closing the river.

    As for the post about regulators, rules, and the right to do be stupid or do stupid things. I've rescued a couple of people who had that philospophy. Funny how their perspective and their attitude changed after they survived.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 3:51 pm on Sat, Jul 2, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Geoff Spinner posted at 8:34 am... It's too bad that a select few imbeciles who get sloppy drunk and float the river can ruin it for the responsible kayakers out there.

    I have another take... it is not the sloppy drunks that ruin it for others... it is the nanny mentality of regulators that ruin “it” for everyone. If someone wants to participate in dangerous activity or be stupid and do stupid things, like not wearing set belts or helmets... or going down a dangerous river, that is their business... we live in a country that makes regulations and rules with intent to save us from ourselves...personality I resent the hell out of that attitude. . A warning sign highlighting the dangers of going in the river is sufficient.. As Stossel would say.. give me a break!

  • Doug Chaney posted at 11:00 am on Sat, Jul 2, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    These are the experts that disregard the hazards and proper equipment who think it'll never happen to those well experienced river rafters, canoeists, kayakers and even swimmers/waders. Just like the two well experienced, certified divers who drowned in the water filled mining shaft in the foothills just recently.Experienced professionalls know what proper safety equipment to use and when to avoid the rapidly flowing waters filled with unseen obstacles that puncture craft and snag the unsuspecting on trees, branches and other unseen objects below the water visibility line to send them to their graves.

  • Katherine Evatt posted at 8:23 am on Sat, Jul 2, 2011.

    Katherine Evatt Posts: 1

    Glad the group had a safe trip, but the EBMUD biologist was on the only person visible in your photos who had on the right kind of personal flotation device for a cold, rushing river. You need a PFD that will keep your upper body and head as high as possible, and those little fishing PFDs don't cut it. Also, wearing cotton on rivers when the water is so cold increases the risk of hypothermia if you fall in the water. Cotton stays wet and keeps you cold even after you're back in the boat.

  • Doug Chaney posted at 9:44 am on Fri, Jul 1, 2011.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    Geoff, you are partially right but you have to include the factors that a much more larger amount of water is being released from the dams and the currents are very swift and unpredictable. Adding to that, the fact that there are many obstacles not only along the riverbed but in the river itself, especially trees large enough to snag a body or raft and cause a drowning. And adding to the problem, many of these rafts are not approved for rafting in waters with sharp rock and tree hazards that could easily puncture these flimsy rafts. And then there are always those who feel safe who do not wear a life preserver and could be easily pulled under in the swift currents and unseen undertows that are perilous.

  • Geoff Spinner posted at 8:34 am on Fri, Jul 1, 2011.

    Geoff Spinner Posts: 1

    It's too bad that a select few imbeciles who get sloppy drunk and float the river can ruin it for the responsible kayakers out there.



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