The Middle Fork of the American River is a tailwater that flows out of Oxbow Reservoir near Sacramento, California. It is world famous whitewater and for good reason. With seven class III’s, eight class IV’s, and one class V+, there is no shortage of technical water. The float is about eighteen miles long, and there is really only one way in, and one way out. If something were to happen, all you can do is keep floating and hope you make it out.
While rafting companies are required do the float with multiple boats, (as everyone should), we decided to go at it alone. Conor Grundtisch, Blake Hunter, and myself (Andrew Engel) are all accomplished oarsmen, so we figured we’d just go for it.
I would like to preface this by saying that it was stupid for us to go at this with just one raft. I don’t care how good we think we are. Whitewater is super fun, but when something goes wrong, which it can at any moment, you need to have safety precautions in place, and taking one raft is rolling the dice. Fortunately, we made it through every rapid perfectly, and it was an incredible experience, but shit happens, even with the professional rafting crews, so we were fortunate.
I woke up that morning feeling sick to my stomach. The car ride down to the river was as quiet as I’ve been on. Blake and I tried to joke about how we were being wimps, and it’s gonna be super fun and blah blah blah, but deep down, we were both shitting bricks. I’m sure Conor was in the car behind us feeling the same way. When we arrived, we were greeted with garbage news, as some NorCal redneck had shot some power generator, so they were going to be dropping the flows and switching the river to top release as opposed to bottom release, meaning water temps were going to have a near 10 degree swing by the time we’d be getting to the good fishing zones. Great.
We thought initially the guy was saying the flows were going to drop to 50cfs from 1200cfs, and we would hardly have any time to fish, and would be forced to just ride the bubble to make it out while there was still water in the river. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how relieved I was when I got that news. I thought there was no way these guys are going to want to still float this. Well, I was wrong.
The moment we started the float, we were met with a Class III, aptly named Alarm Clock/Panic alley. Getting through that first rapid was all it took to erase the nerves and get me stoked for the rest of the trip.
We made it through the first 4 miles, which consisted of a couple insane rapids as you’ll see in the video, and that’s when the fishing really started. This section of the river has really only been fly fished a handful of times, due to the risk involved. Crystal clear water, and big, aggressive brown trout were the appeal, but the temperature swing made fishing pretty tough. We had a lot of short strikes, and Blake hooked and lost a few nice fish. I joked that the moment I would start fishing, I’d tag the biggest fish of the trip.
Well, about fifteen minutes into fishing, I stripped set into a really solid 24” brown, that ended up being the fish of the trip haha. Once I got back on the oars, Blake saw a huge shadow, that slowly followed his fly. A definite upper 20” trout. It darted back and forth, following and rejecting each cast. Any other day that fish would have eaten, but the temperature change really put a lot of fish down.
Not a whole lot of action in the following seven miles, and that was when we saw Ruck-a-Chucky for the first time. An insane V+ rapid that starts of with a fifteen foot drop, which immediately goes into a submerged rock garden that water cyphens through. If you go right, into “coffin rock,” that’s a little less than ideal. It’s a V+, meaning that it’s nearly deemed unnavigable, and it is illegal to run commercially. Only one guide ran it, and the other guides portaged the rafts. If something were to happen at the top part of the run, you would be sucked into the rocks, and there’d be little chance of survival. Keep in mind that a class VI means certain death. It’s that intense.
Long story short, Conor and Blake decided to run it. I was good on that one. I was happy with the day and didn’t need to run that one. Following Ruck-a-Chucky was 5 class IV’s varying in technicality and size, with no time between them. They all and stacked right on top of each other, and require you to be on your game.
All in all, the trip was pretty insane, and I’d like to do it again in better conditions. Enjoy the video on the float.