A record 20,000 party their way down the Sacramento River for the traditional Labor Day float
The biggest crowd in the history of Chico’s annual tubing party hit the 65-degree Sacramento River water 20,000 strong this Labor Day, and the river (and maybe an adult beverage…or 10) hit back.
Lt. Tony Burdine of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department, said that by 5 p.m. there had already been 49 river “assists” and 25 major rescues.
From his perch at the command center atop the high-water cliff above the river bank, Burdine had a wide-angle view of an endless stream of crummy orange rafts and over-inflated inner tubes transporting partiers in the distance down to the dog-leg in the river that turns toward Scotty’s Boat Landing. He did not agree that things appeared to be running smoothly.
“We had a major fight at Beer Can Beach,” he said. “The helicopter flew over and broke it up. We have a couple people in custody for being drunk in public. … Things are getting ugly. It’s going to be a late night.”
Despite a cautionary “You sure are brave” from the California Department of Forestry’s Information Officer Janet Marshall to an intrepid reporter and the State Parks and Recreation Department’s estimates of 20,000 participants (up 5,000 from last year), the route along River Road provided surprisingly clear sailing all the way into the eye of the storm at Scotty’s Boat Landing, with several parking spots open at 4 p.m.
The traditional disembarking zone for the day’s float, which begins at Irving Finch boat launch on the Tehama County side of the river, was crowded but fairly mellow. The first big push of sun-drained revelers was nudged along by a small army of CHP officer, sheriff’s deputies and mounted police at the top of the boat ramp, and aside from a bloody gash in the side of one angry-looking young man’s bald head, the whole operation was pretty clean.
“It was slow at first, but now it’s starting to pick up,” said Robert Gonzales, who was selling hot dogs from a cart as people exited the river ("Only one dollar! It’s three inside!"). This was Gonzales’ fourth year working the spot, and he characterized this year’s crowd as being especially respectful. “It’s been safe,” he said.
“We’re not showin’ tits—what’s the photo for?” was one great line greeting me as I snapped shots of the river, while a parade of young women weighted down by hard-earned Mardi Gras beads passed behind me.
“I’ve had four beers in two hours; am I too drunk to drive?” was another gem, directed at an officer who had to politely explain that he wouldn’t be able to give the young man a breathalyzer test, and that he was sure he was too drunk to drive.
“The sun came up.” That’s the worst thing to happen this Labor Day, according to Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Chandler.
After unloading from his boat a dazed young man who suffered anaphylactic shock after being treated for a bee sting, Chandler and fellow Deputy George Mahon took me and CHP Public Safety Dispatch Supervisor Randy Basner out onto the river to survey the early-evening scene of the big party at Beer Can Beach.
In roughly 30 minutes there were three critical incidents needing response: two incidents of exposure/alcohol poisoning and one near drowning
A 21-year-old student’s eyes rolled back in her head as her friends lifted her into our boat. Speeding back to shore, her friend told the paramedic, “She’s had six or seven drinks … three or four Hennessey’s. We started drinking at 1:30 in the afternoon.”
Back at Beer Can, a Wave Runner spun in a circle as its rider dived into the water to pull a young man to the surface after he and some tubing pals hit a major “strainer” (a giant tree in the middle of the river) that claimed victims throughout the day.
“Our main role out here is medical,” Mahon shared as the enormous party rolled into the evening. And his partner Chandler pointed out, “[Everyone’s] drunk and running out of gas,” meaning things were bound to get worse as partiers grew more fatigued.
Back on River Road, things looked, if not worse, at least very uncomfortable for Jillian Goggin and Katie Gleason. Despite resting on their rafts along the side of the road beside a well-used Dumpster, the two Chico State students gave an emphatic, "Awesome!" to sum up the long day on the river.