High waters

The Truckee River is dangerous in spring

Some out-of-state travelers stopped to survey the Truckee River in downtown Reno on April 30 but seemed to have decided to leave their kayaks atop their RV.

Some out-of-state travelers stopped to survey the Truckee River in downtown Reno on April 30 but seemed to have decided to leave their kayaks atop their RV.


The Truckee River has already claimed the lives of two people this year. On April 20, an experienced kayaker died west of Reno near Verdi. And on April 22, emergency responders pulled the body of a man from the river near the Kuenzli Street bridge in downtown.

“The river is flowing at 4,000 cubic feet per second,” said John McNamara, a battalion chief for the Reno Fire Department. That’s considerably faster than it moves in most years, McNamara said. It’s running just a few feet below flood stage right now, and it’s expected to rise a bit more with spring snowmelt before beginning to slow down.

“We are encouraging everybody to stay away from the river until the flow drops and it warms up a little bit,” he said. “That’s the safest thing.”

The fire department has only had to conduct a handful of rescue operations so far this year. And most have not been the result of recreational activities.

“There are a lot of people who are homeless who are living along the river banks. It’s the same thing. Some portions of the riverbank are really steep, and that’s a whole other part of the population we have to contend with. … It’s not even recreational use of the river, just people living along the river having trouble.”

People seem to be staying away from the river, but McNamara knows that’ll change with the weather.

“If we get the sudden rise in temperatures—if we get a bunch of 85-degree days together, people are going to go in,” he said. “That pretty much goes hand in hand.”

The problem is that warm weather doesn’t mean warm water.

“The National Weather Service is saying the water temperature is about 40 to 45 degrees, which is the equivalent of jumping into Lake Tahoe—and we all know how fun that is at this time of the year,” McNamara said. “It takes your breath away. If you go into water that cold, it’s only a matter of minutes before you lose the ability to make meaningful efforts to get out.”

This is something that rescuers from the Washoe County Sheriff Department’s Hasty Team—a volunteer outfit of rescue experts—has also seen in the areas where they respond to emergencies outside of city limits.

“People get into that bitter cold water, and they don’t really appreciate how fast it saps their energy and ability to do something, to self-rescue if something goes wrong,” said rescue technician Bill Macaulay, who’s been with the team since 1979. “And as the river drops down, people start hitting more rocks. More of that debris that’s been flushed into the river during high waters—it’s still in the river but with less water covering it, so there’s more things to get pinned on or tangled into. And you see more drinking as the weather warms up. Every year, alcohol is a big factor in an awful lot of the calls that we get.”

In high water years like this one, Macaulay says people should be particularly aware that areas they’ve gone to many times in the past may not be as they remember them.

“When the river is up and deeper there are a couple of areas people like to go jumping off rocks into the river, and they don’t realize that the rock they usually jumped off of is covered and that they’re actually jumping from a level above,” he said. They’ve jumped into what they thought was their deep pool and landed right on the rocks they normally jumped off of.”

According to Macaulay, this has resulted in fatalities both west and east of town, near Farad and near Tracy-Clark. This year, he said, like the RFD, his team has had to respond to relatively few calls.

“I think part of it is that this year the river has been pretty darn intimidating,” he said. “So the only people who are out there are the recreational boaters who are pretty skilled, you know, your higher-level kayakers or rafters. They’re trained and equipped and experienced enough to handle the river when it’s like this. It’s been up and rocking enough that we really haven’t seen a lot of kind of mom and dad grabbing the kids and an innertube to go jump in the river sort of thing.”

Macaulay said that for the time being, those experienced recreationists are the only ones who belong on the river. Of course, some might argue that even experienced people should stay out, given the recent death of an experienced kayaker. Macaulay doesn’t necessarily agree.

“That was an anomaly,” he said. “It’s rare that we see those really experienced boaters being the ones who get into trouble. It was one of those things where all of the cards got dealt just perfectly to end up with a tragic outcome. He was a highly-skilled guy who was with another highly-skilled guy. The circumstances just all stacked up right to have a bad outcome. But that’s not the community we see much in the way of problems out of. They’re usually able to handle what they run into—and they’re not out there boating by themselves.”

In fact, Macaulay thinks experienced river-goers make the Truckee safer.

“I’ve been doing this since 1979, and I think we used to have more river rescue calls when there were fewer people on the river—because if somebody got in trouble there was nobody else out there to do the rescue,” he said. “With the more skilled boaters becoming more prevalent in this area, I think a lot of the things that would have turned into a major rescue event in the past are handled by the people who are already out there.”