River festivities take a violent turn

A closer look at the annual float down the Sacramento River shows its violent side.

Law enforcement officials arrest a man who allegedly threw rocks at them as they attempted to disperse a large crowd at Beer Can Beach. The arrest followed an unrelated rock-throwing incident between two other men.

Law enforcement officials arrest a man who allegedly threw rocks at them as they attempted to disperse a large crowd at Beer Can Beach. The arrest followed an unrelated rock-throwing incident between two other men.

Photo By Tyler harbaugh

Meandering around a corner of the Sacramento River to the infamous Beer Can Beach, people frantically began kicking and paddling toward the east bank to join the celebration. The first glimpses of the beach from hundreds of yards away showed a sea of people tossing dozens of inner tubes in the air like oversized confetti.

This was the first indication that this year’s float on Sunday (Sept. 5) was fairly wild, but a closer look revealed the truly violent and out-of-control side to this annual Labor Day weekend tradition.

People were stumbling and falling while attempting to work their way into the crowd. Several tubers were vomiting on the shore, while numerous others lay passed out in their tubes and rafts at about 5 p.m.

There were several sizeable crowds on the beach, and the most densely packed group seen at the foot of this small strip of land proved to be the most chaotic. People were constantly being struck in the head by tubes, some being knocked to the ground. This started several fistfights from drunk and angry young men trying to protect themselves and their friends who were being pelted.

“This was a relatively busy year,” acknowledged Lt. Rich Warren of the Glenn County Sheriff’s Department.

Indeed, at one point a large crowd gathered behind one man as he chased after another, eventually catching up and throwing rocks the size of softballs at his head. The man running away had suffered a large gash and was bleeding profusely from the back of his head. Shortly thereafter, police and rescue boats rushed the shore and dispersed the crowd watching the mayhem.

As police roamed the beach looking for others who were throwing rocks, they were attacked by yet another individual throwing stones and chased after him until the man was caught and arrested. He was dropped to the ground, treated for his wounds on scene, and then taken away.

“When we started seeing the rocks and cans and bottles and stuff fly, we were trying to make sure that our officers got off the beach safely … because even though we had a well-staffed event coordination going on … at any given time we probably only had 25 to 30 law-enforcement officers in the various different groups,” Warren said, “and there’s no way that we can safely deal with 15,000 people in that confined of an area with that small amount of law enforcement personnel.”

Other disturbing scenes included young women being hoisted into the air and having their bikini tops removed—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not—and repeatedly groped by nearby drunken revelers. Several defenseless women had to be dragged away for their safety, and in the process lost the remaining portions of their bathing suits, which were ripped off their bodies.

All this took place despite the fact that a large-scale, organized party at Beer Can Beach, complete with live music and a stage, was preemptively shut down by law enforcement more than a week ago. The event, planned by Ambriz Top Shelf Productions, would have needed a permit, according to Glenn County’s outdoor-assemblies ordinance. Officers showed up at organizer Marcelo Ambriz’s house to notify him he’d be breaking the law. He agreed to cancel the party, notifying the nearly 4,000 confirmed guests invited via Facebook.

The violence and pande-monium this reporter witnessed on this small portion of riverbank contrasted with the start of the event. Beginning at the launch point at Irvine Finch River Access, people eagerly crowded the ramp as park rangers helped guide those with bigger rafts into the water. This flotilla of college students and young adults—an estimated 15,000 throughout the day—overtook the river in neon-orange inflatable rafts, black rubber tubes and numerous other flotation devices including inflatable giraffes and air mattresses.

“It was like something out of a movie,” said Chico State sophomore Karen Tomczak. “It almost crossed the line into being too overwhelming, but I had a great time.”

A relatively calm and leisurely hour-long float down the river became hectic only for those who were stranded in parts of the river with no current, or where the water had become too shallow. Most people had no problem keeping a steady pace, such as a man in an inner tube toting behind him a raft holding a small barbecue grill.

Every 20 minutes or so, the floating crowds would emit a loud cheer that emanated from downstream and quickly spread to the inebriated participants up the river.

More chaos ensued at the exit point on River Road. People covering the pavement barely allowed cars to pass. More fights broke out over stolen rafts and people attempting to hop into random cars, buses and limos so they wouldn’t have to walk home. The question that rang out constantly in the background, “Do you have a cell phone I can borrow?” was always followed by some form of, “No, I’m sorry.”

Some people were able to find rides home, but just as many began the long trek back to Chico on foot. In the darkness, the headlights of cars lit up swimsuits and orange rafts from stranded tubers taking the hours-long walk. Among the unlucky ones having to hoof it home was Chico State sophomore Garrett Tickle, who thought he had prepared by paying $15 for a bus ride to and from the river.

“We probably walked home for a total of two hours,” he said. “We missed the bus, so we grabbed some tubes and ran through the orchards.”