After years of PG&E politics, whitewater rafting returns to Feather River’s North Fork
“Forward, forward, forward, forward!” came the authoritative yell from the back of the boat, urging us to row whenever we flew through yet another stretch of rapids, sometimes getting doused with bracingly cold water in the process.
It seemed a little odd at first to be paddling our hardest through the fastest sections of the river’s current, but we were following the commands of our seemingly fearless leader, rafting guide and program coordinator Bob Hoyman of Feather River College’s Lost Sierra Adventures. The outfit is connected to FRC’s Outdoor Recreation Leadership Program, which offers commercial rafting trips down the scenic and exciting North Fork of the Feather River.
The exhilarating experience we had on Sept. 25 of rafting the Class 3+ Rock Creek reach of the Feather River’s North Fork would not have been possible even as recently as six years ago. It wasn’t until 2000 that a settlement agreement was reached—among PG&E, the U.S. Forest Service, the State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Fish and Game, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Plumas County and a number of nongovernmental organizations, including American Whitewater and Chico Paddleheads—that provides for regularly scheduled water releases to meet the recreational needs of rafters and kayakers.
Rather than the previous custom of the river being diverted into pipelines running to PG&E powerhouses, leaving the river bed “de-watered,” as whitewater advocates describe it, 2005 marks the fourth season—June through October—of one-weekend-a-month, six-hour-a-day, 1,000-cubic-feet-per-second whitewater releases on the Rock Creek reach and Class 5 Cresta reach of the North Fork.
Paradise resident Dave Steindorf, currently California stewardship director for American Whitewater, couldn’t be more pleased. “We have a very good relationship with PG&E now,” Steindorf say, adding: “The reason why American Whitewater has put so much focus on the North Fork of the Feather River is that without the hydroelectric project, it would have been the premier whitewater destination. It has very high-quality whitewater.”
In June 1998, the CN&R ran a cover story called “Whitewater Investigation: Why Northstate Paddlers Want PG&E To Loosen Its Grip On The Feather River.” The writer of that piece, David Rolland, was looking “to learn more about a quest by a group of ‘paddlers’ to open up two contiguous reaches of the North Fork of the Feather River to whitewater rafting, commercial and otherwise.”
The controversy at the time was whether or not PG&E, whose licenses to operate their two hydroelectric power plants on the Rock Creek and Cresta reaches (west of Belden on Highway 70) were up for renewal, would give in to the requests from whitewater enthusiasts for water releases. PG&E’s concerns at the time included disturbance of wildlife habitat from fluctuating water flow and increased cost of power to PG&E customers to make up for the loss of power generation during potential whitewater release days.
Steindorf says that “after doing almost $2 million worth of studies, we haven’t found any significant impacts. Actually, it’s beneficial to the river. Flatlining a river is not healthy; the biodiversity disappears. … Also, there are now more fish than four years ago.” Steindorf is also careful to point out that there have been no whitewater releases in June, the breeding season of the foothill yellow-legged frog, on the Cresta reach for the past three years out of concern that “the flows would scour the egg masses.” Lost hydroelectric power, Steindorf says, amounts to “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total power production for California.”
Steindorf describes some conditions of the agreement: If it’s a dry year, releases are shortened; if there’s a power emergency, releases are cancelled. “We’re in full support of that,” he emphasizes. “I mean, the last thing we want is a headline that reads, ‘California Sits in Darkness while Kayakers Frolic.'”
But let’s get back to the frolicking. There’s me, along with my trusty adventure sidekick (my brother Scott), and six others, getting ready to ride a four-mile stretch on that big, inflatable raft, which includes Hoyman at the back acting as rudder and shot-caller, and Maria Garcia, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, checking out the safety of the operation after the agency recently approved commercial rafting on the North Fork.
After suiting up with the provided helmets and life jackets and each grabbing an oar, we rafters listen on the riverbank as Hoyman thoroughly runs down the safety precautions we need to know before “putting in” to the river: things like the correct way to float in whitewater if you fall in. I don’t want to fall in the river on this, my first, whitewater ride, but if I do, I know what to do.
We quickly learn to respond to rowing commands such as, “Forward three!” “Back one!” “Right [meaning rowers on the right side of the raft] forward two!” or “Left back one!”
At times we float along over calm stretches, taking in the breathtaking view of the tree-covered canyon walls or listening to Hoyman tell us stories about Bigfoot, and about his (Hoyman’s, not Bigfoot’s) adventures in Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia.
Partway down the river, a robust 70-something man from Quincy named Phrank riding at the rear, who says he’s been rafting every month possible for the last five years, compliments us, his fellow crew members, on being such strong paddlers. (Later, Hoyman tells us we were “a good crew.")
After all, though we all got wet, none of us fell in, our raft never got hung up on rocks (unlike another raft full of people that was going down the river at the same time), and, though we came darned close (”this close,” as Hoyman put it, holding up his thumb and index finger) to flipping on one particularly wild stretch, we didn’t.
I now know first-hand why the paddlers fought so hard in 1998 to get the river back. The whitewater experience is fun, exhilarating, great for one’s health and visually exciting; and you damn sure earn that delicious half-pound Fat Boy cheeseburger at Scooter’s in Jarbo Gap on the way home!
Last chance of the season to whitewater raft with Lost Sierra Adventures: Saturday, Oct. 15 (Cresta reach) and Sunday, Oct. 16 (Rock Creek reach). Contact LSA at Feather River College (530) 283-0202, ext. 216, for more info. Cost is $30 per person. Money generated goes to the Outdoor Recreation Leadership program at FRC to help provide students with “commercial guiding experience and more gear for the program,” according to Hoyman. www.americanwhitewater.org