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.
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.
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.
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.