Middle Fork American River: Back in the Mix and Better Than EverPosted July 6, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth
The Middle Fork of the American is truly a classic California river, flowing over 16 miles through a deep, lush, 2000 foot canyon past side creeks, old mining tunnels, and sandy beaches. It is embodied in the thrill of guiding a raft through Tunnel Chute Rapid and yelling “Get Down!” at the very last second; in warm afternoons in Camp 6, drinking lemonade and cooking dinner as the sun sets behind the canyon walls; in morning competitions between boats to see who gets stuck most often on the many rocks that are exposed because the dam upstream has not yet released the day’s water; and finally in the butterflies I still get in my stomach each time I do the jump at Ruck-a-Chucky Falls. For many guides, a 2-day Middle Fork trip is their favorite overnight trip to work.
For a few months now, however, a swollen snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains has kept the Middle Fork American River at levels too high for rafting. I’ve been ranting and raving about the Kaweah, the Tuolumne and the North Stan, and have given no mention to the poor Middle Fork, which actually happens to be one of our most popular rivers. But last week, everything around the state started to relax a little bit. The remaining snow in the mountains doesn’t seem to be in quite the same hurry to melt and tumble down to it’s waiting valleys and reservoirs. And so the Middle Fork American River returned to it’s runnable flow window, with Ox Bow reservoir releasing between 1200 and 1600 cfs daily.
Trips started running again last week, and things were in full swing out there from day one. It was almost all back to normal: Tunnel Chute is apparently still just as thrilling, Kanaka an absolute blast, the surf hole kicking, the food delicious, the canyon beautiful, etc.. On top of all that, though, there are a few changes to report for this season. First, because the Middle Fork is such an amazing place to take your time and truly explore a river canyon, All-Outdoors is offering more 2- and 3-day trips out there than ever before. (Definitely something to experience if you haven’t yet, or to bring out some more friends this time if you have.) All us guides love it, because working a 2-day trip can be much more rewarding– sunset in the canyon, river saunas, more time to get to know your guests, watching people face their fears in inflatable kayaks and jumping into swimming holes.
The camps themselves have also changed a little bit. This, however, is due to more natural causes. The floods and high water this last winter and spring acted as a cleaning service for the river’s many beaches and riparian habitats, wiping away non-native overgrowth and smoothing out the sand. A lot of our favorite stopping points thus look totally different than they did last year, making it a whole new experience even for us.
Best story from this first weekend out there? I’d have to say it was the 80 year old couple that really wanted to spend two days rafting Class IV rapids and camping. We set it up so that they were in an oar frame, able to hold on while Noah rowed them downstream. Brooke, (another guide on the trip) informed me that it was absolutely amazing how determined and lively they were, just loving every splash and drop. They even rode through Tunnel Chute! It took one of them almost an hour to walk around the portaged rapid, but he never complained nor gave in. Something to think about next time I’m nervous about making that jump.
That’s the beauty of the Middle Fork– it’s so accessible. It manages to be a great adventure, while not being exclusive. Families, bachelor parties, couples, and guides all seem equally satisfied at the end of a trip. I’m glad that it’s finally running again, and can’t wait for all those 2-days!