Winter Rafting in Northern California

Posted January 16, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

It’s getting close to that time in winter; three months since your last time out on the river, and you’ve forgotten about all those little things you ever got burnt out on. Instead, memories of the river are these beautiful, hazy images of the best days of your life. And New Years is a bit of a tease because “next season” is now a part of this year. So… what to do?? Sit around and wait for the snow to melt?

Dry Top and WetsuitIf you’re brave enough to don those stylish wetsuits and layers of smelly capilene, then there is actually a solution– winter boating DOES exist. It just takes a bit more discipline and determination. You have to monitor flows and take extra precautions for the cold, but the remoteness and beauty is well worth it.

OK so on to the specifics. I’ve asked friends about their favorite winter runs and done some research in California Whitewater (Cassidy and Calhoun, North Fork Press). The Following list is what I’ve come up with. Hope to see some of you out there!

1. North Fork of the American- Chamberlain Falls Run (Class IV)
9.5 miles, 1 day
Flows: The optimal flows for this AO Spring 05 048 comp.jpgrun are somewhere between 1000 and 2000 cfs. Below that it gets a bit rocky, and above it things can get more intense and pushy.
When To Go: Flows come up in winter months during a rain and the first week or so after, and more consistently beginning in March.
Surroundings: In terms of scenery, this is one of the most beautiful Northern Sierra runs, with turquoise clear water running through boulder gardens, and plenty of side creeks and waterfalls after a rain.

3. Main Eel, Dos Rios to Alderpoint (Class II-III+)
46 miles, 2-3 days
This run requires a bit more water due to heavy winds trying to push you back upstream. California Whitewater lists 1500 cfs as the minimum, meaning that probably somewhere around 2000 – 2500 is optimal. This run remains Class III all the way up to flows of 15,000 cfs.Coastal Mountains, Eel River Wilderness Area
When To Go:
A genuine winter run, starting in December and lasting through May.
Surroundings: This is supposed to be an absolutely beautiful river, with big sandy beaches to camp on and the Coastal Mountains as your backdrop. The scenery is surprising because you approach the area from the dry western side of the Central Valley. I’ve never actually done this trip, but have backpacked in the Coastal Mountains and viewed the river from ridges high above. We only got glimpses as it wound it’s way around corners into crevices we could not hike to. Ever since then I’ve always wanted to go back and explore those unreachable canyons.

North Fork Smith River, Grotto 3. The North Fork of the Smith, Class IV
13 miles, 1 day Flows: 700-2000 cfs
When To Go: This river starts flowing even earlier than other winter runs, running as far back as November and lasting all the way through May.
Surroundings: As you can tell from this picture (courtesy of taken at “The Grotto,” this river lives up to its description in California Whitewater as “a pristine jewel”. It’s a very remote run through a small canyon that has never been logged, making it one of the best California has to offer. I’ll be on this river in February, so will be sure to come back with pictures and a story.


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