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Sensi Magazine

Whitewater Dreams

Apr 24, 2019 05:58PM
When I was baptized by my first “combat” kayak roll 10 years ago in the Trinity River, I thought I was living in the mecca of river running. In the Emerald Triangle, it was easy to find boating buddies and mentors. As my skills improved, the list of new runs becoming available to me in the local watershed felt endless.

After I moved away from the area in 2012, a boating friend back in Humboldt lamented that it was becoming harder and harder to find people to kayak with. Despite the region’s stunning beauty and abundant whitewater, the paddling community up north seems to have grown smaller in recent years. We always knew our calling was niche because of the high bar to entry: Whitewater kayaking can be scary, dangerous, and gear-intensive. It can also be safe with the proper precautions, and it’s totally worth it. With rain still falling across California this spring and snow pack at 150 percent of normal, 2019 should be a banner year to convert new devotees to the river.

When people decide to try whitewater paddling, they often ask which river is best or whether a particular river is easy or hard. I revel in every opportunity to spread the gospel: every river has something for everybody. A river, like life, is constantly changing. From the top to the bottom, along with daily conditions, throughout the four seasons, and over the years, its character revolves and evolves countless times over.

Emerald Triangle rivers have a ton of whitewater to offer locals and visitors alike. For those not interested in downriver travel, river-side picnicking and sunbathing are sublime. To sweeten the scenario even more, your paddling buddies will happily pay in beer for being their “shuttle bunny.” (Once you go down the river, the logistics of getting back requires a shuttle or sticking out your thumb). For those who do want to paddle, most rivers have several distinct reaches that range from “the gnar” you see on Red Bull commercials to flat, slow, and beginner-friendly.

The first time I sat in a river kayak, in flat water on the Mad River, I was simultaneously terrified and in love. Fear is a sign that you respect the river. But local outfitters have plenty of knowledge and experience to get you started. Also, it’s a great idea for everyone who gets on the river to take a swift water-rescue course to learn basic safety protocol and emergency rescue techniques. Always remember that getting in moving water without basic knowledge, skills, and equipment can be fatal. Yet engaging the right instruction and guidance can make river boating arguably safer than driving a car, according to American Whitewater.

“I think the public should be reminded that [this year] we will have higher-than-normal flows,” cautions Michael Charlton, co-owner of Redwoods & Rivers in Trinity County. “I strongly recommend that everyone exercise caution in and around the river and only go boating with experienced boaters.” Charlton and his wife, Wanda, have operated Redwoods & Rivers since 1994 and are widely known for treating everyone like family.

Down the highway at Six Rivers Rafting, head guide Pete Harrison explains that big water years can be the most fun when proper training and equipment are employed. “Traditionally, the media scares people out of rafting due to high flows, yet this is when the commercial companies should be the busiest with specialty runs that aren’t available every year or all season,” says Harrison.

In addition to the number of quality outfitters that can help you get on the river in the Emerald Triangle, two nonprofit organizations specialize in access: Disabled Adventure Outfitters hosts teen and adult camps for people with rare bleeding disorders from across the United States. While DAO could host the camps in a more centralized location like Sacramento’s American River drainage, it values the peace and solitude of life behind the “redwood curtain” (and spotty service helps to keep teens off their phones). Further north on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, the Warrior Institute’s whitewater program for native youth is interwoven with STEM, team sports, CrossFit, and cultural programs. Founder and Executive Director Joseph Marshall says, “Our tribes have always had a symbiotic relationship with the river. The river is our lifeline, and we are stewards for the water. Whitewater rafting helps us stay connected to our local rivers.”

For me, it’s hard to remember how I existed before finding the support of this river community and the life lessons I’ve learned from whitewater. For anyone unfamiliar with the Emerald Triangle’s breathtaking watersheds, you can’t get a better perspective of the region and of yourself by embarking on your own downstream journey.

So Many Boats!

Different types of kayaks and rafts vary based on a paddler’s experience and type of water.

Raft: Large inflatable rafts carry one to 10 paddlers led by a rafting guide.

Sit-on-Top Kayak or IK (inflatable kayak): Designed for one to two paddlers, it’s easy to fall off and get back on (imagine a seal and do as they do). Great for beginners!

Whitewater Kayak: Paddlers sit in a cockpit covered by a neoprene skirt. These are the least stable type of boat, but give the paddler maximum control. Kayakers need to know how to “roll” their kayak up after capsizing.

Whitewater Outfitters

Center Activities at Humboldt State University Arcata // (707) 826-3357

6 Rivers Rafting, Willow Creek & Big Flat // (707) 599-4221

Redwoods & Rivers, Big Bar // (800) 429-0090

Bigfoot Rafting, Willow Creek & Big Flat // (530) 629-3033

Trinity River Rafting, Big Flat // (530) 623-3033

Redwood Rides, Crescent City // (707) 951-6559

Liquid Fusion Kayaking, Fort Bragg // (707) 962-1623