Riding the rapids of the Sierra Nevadas
You’re never too old for adventure, but on a spring trip on the American River in California, I was thankful for my younger traveling companions.
As my fellow rafters and I whooped and thrust our paddles in the air to celebrate a successful run through the roaring rapids, our raft snagged on a rock, sending me flying into the water.
I bounced off the river bottom, popped to the surface and grabbed the rope on the side of the raft before I was pulled out of the water to safety.
We were quickly approaching the next rapid, though, so I didn’t have time to resume my paddling position in the front of the raft. I just laid down in the bow.
From my perspective, sprawled on the floor of the raft, I felt like I was watching an action documentary, with water spraying, arms flying and determined faces screwed into looks of concentration and concern. I wish I would have had a movie camera or a Go Pro to capture the action.
In just a few seconds — it seemed an eternity — we were past the rapid. I crawled out of the bottom of the raft and onto the side, grabbed my paddle, braced myself and prepared for the next stretch of churning water.
A family trip
I had expected something tamer when I signed up for this trip with my cousin Dan, his 40-something son, Matt, and 30-something daughter, Alissa.
Dan and I have been taking these annual family adventures for several years now, and Matt and Alissa decided to join us for this year’s adventure with their dad.
Dan, in his early 70s and a relative newcomer to adventure travel, is tackling a movement-related health issue by testing his limits in paddle rafts on whitewater rivers and kayaks on windy, rolling seas.
In deference to our age and his kids’ relative lack of adventure experience, I recommended what I thought would be an easy but fun two-day whitewater rafting trip on the American River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in central California.
The tour operator and my host for the trip was OARS, one of the first whitewater rafting companies in North America (oars.com).
More rigorous than expected
Several aspects of the trip made it especially appealing — easy to get to, easy camping and easy paddling. The reality was pretty close, save for a couple of significant exceptions.
It was indeed easy to get to, with the start and end point less than 150 miles from San Francisco. The camping was also easy. The OARS campsite was just off the highway and featured flush toilets, showers and an outdoor dining area.
Most important, it was also adjacent to a small shopping center where we could buy beer and frozen yogurt.
Dan and I shared a large tent with beds. Alissa and Matt set up a tent and slept on the ground. Age does have its privileges.
However, the “easy” rafting was anything but. One of the attractions of the trip was that all the rafts were paddle rafts. That is, we paddled, sometimes frenetically, under the direction and verbal commands of our excellent guide (“right, forward two strokes,” “left, back one stroke,” etc.).
The participation was definitely a plus. All four of us wanted something more challenging and active than just kicking back while the guide used oars to steer us through the rapids.
What I didn’t realize is that the South Fork of the American River features one Class 3 rapid after another, usually in rapid succession (pun intended).
At times it seemed as if we were in one continuous stretch of whitewater. I have been on trips with bigger rapids, but I have never been on a river with such a density of whitewater, especially where it was up to us to get through the rapids upright and relatively dry.
We usually had just enough time to catch our breath before getting set for the next run. This was the most exciting white-water rafting I have ever experienced.
My biggest takeaway from the trip, besides the rapidly spreading purple bruise on my backside, was the family connection.
For most of our lives, Dan and I have been pretty close. Neither Dan nor I had brothers, so we grew up like brothers. Our mothers were sisters, our families lived near each other when we were young, and we are close in age. These recent adventure trips have been a way to renew that bond.
While Dan’s kids were growing up, I was like Uncle Tonoose from the old Danny Thomas Show, occasionally passing through with tales of distant, exotic places like upstate Pennsylvania and California. I thought Matt and Alissa were cute but never thought twice about them.
After this trip, I now see them as adults: funny and smart with distinct personalities, opinions and well-developed senses of humor. They may not be quite as cute, but given the choice, I prefer them as adults — especially because they can pull me out of a churning rapid.
For updates on Dan Mankin’s travels, visit adventuretransformations.com.