By Land & By River: Tuolumne Whitewater
By Noah Baker, TRT intern
8:30 AM just outside Groveland, California, the last town before Yosemite National Park. The sun is already blazing as four arriving groups congregate at the foot of a wooden lodge. The crew from ARTA River Trips brings out a dry bag for each person to stuff their belongings into and fiddle with folding a good seal. An awkward meet and greet, the potpourri mixes then proceeds onto a worn, yellow school bus. It is time to embark on a rafting adventure.
The rickety school bus bumped and bounced its way down to the Tuolumne River at 7 miles per hour for 35 minutes. We riders were graced by an expansive, scenic route, winding toward the meandering river far below. The anticipation rose until finally we disembarked, grabbed a personal flotation device, helmet, and paddle, then gathered on benches before our burly, be-mulleted guide. We learned to keep our hands on the T-grip at all times, how to properly “California lawn-chair”- the position used for safety if ejected from the raft – and how to grab and use the throw rope. Yet committing to these precautions proved to be unexpectedly challenging in an emergency situation. After “the talk” we slipped and flopped into our rafts to meet our guides and push off into a calm pool in the river to practice paddling.
“Two forward!” We took two ridiculously out of sync strokes forward, clashing paddles and inching the boat. Smiles all around. We had two paddlers on each side and our guide, who sat in the back with an oar in each hand, sculling. Several more practice strokes later we had gotten into our rhythm, keeping the opposite paddler in peripheral view for masterful timing. Other commands included “Back!”, “Bump!”, and “High side!” which guided the raft, kept us in the raft, and kept the raft from flipping. Off we went, sliding down the river. Almost immediately we were greeted by a class III rapid, Rock Garden. We dug into the boat hard, heading deep into holes and shooting up out the otherside. We came out soaked and smiling, hooting as we pulled out of the rapid and into a rewarding calm spot.
Our five-boat fleet continued for another six miles through rapid after rapid, stopping only for one thing: to scout Clavey Falls. How would it go? We green river riders weren’t sure, but we were about to find out. After scoping out the enormous rapid, we anxiously took our positions in the boat. Our guide, Will, reminded us to get low into the bottom of the raft in order to keep from being thrown into the tenacious rapid. We pushed back off shore, Will slipped his oars in and out of the water, seamlessly guiding the boat into an exciting line. We took four powerful strokes in unison peaking over the edge of the falls and got down. The ride was over in seconds. The boat had pitched forward, dropping and slamming the bow into the waves below, shooting it onto its side before slamming back down again and through the next wave. We choked back water as we submerged then shot up and out, then down and submerged again, repeating this cycle until we lay still in the calm water below. We spun around and looked up at the beast we had conquered. Two gear rafts followed, guided only by a single oarsman. Wow. We were left with a feeling of awe, humbled by the power of the Tuolumne.
Soon after we pulled into our campsite. The groups went about setting up their tents and sites and the guides prepared dinner. Delicious aromas filled the air as smoke rose around into the sky. The river rushed nearby as dusk brought quiet evening throughout the canyon and surrounding forest. Some napped under the trees while another rhythmically cast over the river, fly fishing as the bugs came out. The wilderness filled everyone with peace and a sense of wonder. We went to sleep that night exhausted and full from a delicious meal of flank steak and salad. I stared into the cosmos. So many stars twinkled clear as day because of limited light pollution. I counted two satellites and three shooting stars while falling asleep.
The campsite naturally came alive around 6 AM with the rising sun. We ate a delicious breakfast of eggs and hashbrowns, packed up camp, and said goodbye to our beautiful sanctuary. Day two consisted of another five miles of fun and a bit of danger. Steamboat rock gave us a run for our money. A huge hole, we decided to plunge into it aggressively, making it through the wave and out the otherside. Unfortunately we didn’t hit the beast hard enough. We surfed momentarily in the wave before being caught underneath its powerful flow, spinning the raft and ripping every single one of us except for our guide from the boat and beneath the rapids. I popped up seconds later having flowed far down past the rapid. Two of the rafters’ heads popped up from beneath the water while our guide, Will attempted to highside the boat before it was flipped entirely. The last member of our party popped up several seconds later, having been forced under and recirculated through the eddy beneath the rapid. We pulled each other, exhausted and dripping into the boat. We gathered our paddles from the water and nearby rafts along with our wits and confidence before moving on. The day continued with additional challenging rapids and a beautiful hike at lunch to an oasis of a watering hole, complete with a waterfall and a variety of jumping rocks. It was the perfect way to wrap up a wonderful adventure. We finished the final leg and got onto the same bus that had dropped us off as each boat was lifted out of the water by crane. It was time to bid the Tuolumne farewell.
Returning to civilization was surreal. The bus jogged its way up a narrow, variable road. Everyone got out and went into the lodge to look at the trip photos. They were great, but nothing like the real thing. We said our goodbyes and took off away from Yosemite toward San Francisco, accompanied by a new appreciation for the river we work so hard to protect.