Rage over troubled water

Sacramento’s booming river-party culture is more than just bros and girls gone wild. It’s a brand, an industry—and a nightmare for law enforcement.

illustration by john malta

It’s summertime in the sun-stewed waters that bottle Discovery Park, and the first giant river party of the summer is off and flowing.

Clusters of nuzzling motorboats form bobbing islands of youthful indiscretion. Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” tweet-tweets as life-jacketed cops putter around on Jet Skis through a linked flotilla of buoyed watercrafts. Law enforcement regards the scene with a kind of stone-faced ennui as partiers hump the air until it whistles, jamming their fists skyward like they’re punching away God’s disapproval.

Women spin on stripper poles, which boat-owners have cleverly mounted atop their vessels. Young men guzzle from red cups and cozy up to topless babes, whose nipples are covered only by strategically placed promotional stickers. Their fever will spread as the day stretches on and additional liters of ultra-light swill are quaffed.

In the meantime, a chubby deejay perched on the upper level of the black-hulled monster boat tries injects energy into the carnival. “Aw, yeah! How’s everybody doing out here today!” he demands. “Rage on the fuckin’ rivah! … Yeah! Woo!”

“Woo” is a universal term in these slippery haunts, and it has numerous meanings, none of them too profound. With this particular incantation, the sweaty mix master is imploring his captive audience to party like there’s no tomorrow.

Because there may not be.

A month ago, some 3,500 drifting souls were drawn to a pearl-gray stitch of the lower American River for the third annual Rafting Gone Wild, a Facebook-driven event that outmaneuvers Sacramento’s holiday-drinking prohibitions on the river. The hordes partied hard and left our watercourse choking on beer cans, broken bottles and bodily fluids. And blood: There were dozens of fights, men hurled rocks at safety crews and the event quickly devolved into what one county ranger later called “a riot.”

Rafting Gone Wild in July was so bad, law enforcement stopped trying to arrest people and instead focused on simply quelling the mob.

The media had a field day, crowing about the two-dozen arrests and trashy brawls that hopscotched from one shoreline berth to the next.

Those charged with keeping the peace differed only on how bad the scene actually got.

As chief ranger Stan Lumsden remarked: “In my 31 years of law enforcement, it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

By comparison, Discovery Park’s Rage on the River in June enjoyed a much quieter day in the sun. Hundreds congregated on expensive motorboats and chic river cruisers to drink and dance their way into viral-video notoriety. YouTubes of floozies clapping their butt cheeks soaked the Interwebs. But no drunk bros were busted for scrapping with oars and rocks.

Rage organizers hope to double down on their success with a Facebook-advertised sequel this Saturday, August 25, again at Discovery Park. But the flap over July’s Rafting Gone Wild—which recently led to the county board of supervisors expanding its alcohol-ban policy on the American River—means a higher profile and more derision for youth-centric events such as these.

This was Lumsden’s first foray into the river-party scene, and he was appalled. Deputy Jason Ramos of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was around for two previously troublesome Rafting Gone Wild bashes, and expects the next one to present similar headaches, even with the county taking a more restrictive approach to allowing booze on the river.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Ramos said. “We’ll do what we can, but alcohol will make it out there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, SN&R is on a downriver crawl to confront the madness of war. But this is a war of generations and class, bros and babes, commerce and temperament, and a whole lot of beer—rather than of bullets and napalm.

The horror.

Bros, boobs, beer—and a ‘riot’

By now, most people know the unflattering stats.

On July 14, thousands of pumped young hellions set sail for a meandering booze cruise along an 11-mile stretch of the lower American River between Sunrise Boulevard and Watt Avenue. By the end of the day, 23 Rafting Gone Wild attendees had been arrested and a dozen more detained.

Boats link together into a giant party island during Rage on the River events at Discovery Park. The next one goes down this Saturday, August 25—and, yes, it’s the calmer, more sophisticated of Sacramento’s summer river parties.

photos courtesy of rage on the river’s facebook page

There were also 58 parking citations, 15 water rescues and one fractured cop-car windshield: A handcuffed and clearly wasted 21-year-old catapulted himself onto the patrol cruiser like he was trying to qualify for the men’s long jump.

But the numbers don’t tell the full story. This is one of the few things law enforcement and Rafting Gone Wild apologists actually agree on—but for vastly different reasons.

The river float didn’t begin in absolute mayhem. Far from it, actually. For a good chunk of that sun-kissed Saturday, it was hippie-dippy heaven, with mellow strangers exchanging good vibes and cold brewskis. Oh, and generously flashing their ta-tas.

“[Beer] and tits—those were the currencies exchanged on the river,” laughed first-time Rafting Gone Wild attendee Amy Geiger.

Shortly before 4 p.m., however, things went pear-shaped.

What tells the story better than anything else is an operational log updated in real time throughout the day by the boots on the ground. The log—made available by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and analyzed by SN&R—depicts a 12-hour period in which struggling swimmers and rafters cutting their feet on broken glass earlier that day gave way to wild brawls and violent assaults that continued to spark well into the night. The pandemonium followed the southwest trajectory of the river and grew more uncontrollable as the day wore on.

The Sacramento County regional-parks system assigned eight sworn rangers to the slow-cooking operation. They were joined by 18 sheriff’s deputies, who also provided a couple of boats and units from the Rancho Cordova Police Department, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, and Sacramento Drowning and Accident Rescue Team. It was a good-sized detail—but, obviously, not enough.

Most rangers patrolled the slop-caked lips of the river, from Sunrise Boulevard to the confluence at Discovery Park. One of the scuffles chief ranger Lumsden personally witnessed involved “fairly intoxicated” individuals throwing up gang signs. But he couldn’t say what, exactly, had caused the fight. Such answers are hard to come by.

“Who could say what precipitated that?” he said. “You’re talking the end of the day, when the sun is hot, and people are dehydrated because they’ve been drinking all day.”

Law enforcement received a few distress calls, and most interventions began with skirmishes they themselves witnessed, the worst being chaotic brawls featuring dozens of rock-throwing, oar-swinging participants at the roped-off Gilligan’s Island sandbar near Ancil Hoffman Park.

“We’re talking basically a riot,” Lumsden asserted.

At one point, medical and fire personnel were forced to retreat when the mob turned its hostility toward them.

“They actually couldn’t render aid,” Ramos explained. “You’re talking just lawlessness.”

Lumsden said the few deputies that were on the ground at the time began “screaming for help, as you can imagine,” and every available unit surged toward the battle royale, including a black rescue DART 8 jet boat boarded by four heavyset mean muggers from the sheriff’s department, cops on Jet Skis and rangers armed with pepperball guns.

Two-dozen hooligans were detained while a couple others sat along the shore in handcuffs. Even after the main scrum was quelled, smaller altercations continued to break out the rest of the day.

By 5:30 p.m., approximately 2,000 people started their exodus toward River Bend Park, the operation log shows. Multiple scraps broke out at shuttle and bus pickup areas, and continued to pop off at the park well into the evening.

At 7:28 p.m., officers responded to Goethe Park, where a 20-something male reportedly slugged a woman in the face.

Law-enforcement officials said they could have easily cuffed up to 50 people if the operation was more about law and less about order, and if the main jail wasn’t turning away people who were too blitzed to even sit down.

“It was what you’d call a target-rich environment,” said Ramos. “But this was a safety-driven event, not a sweep.”

An “overwhelming” number of that day’s busts were for public intoxication, and there could have been a lot more, Ramos noted. “There was no shortage of people who were guilty of that.”

Maintaining order became a balancing act for officers, who had to make real-time decisions about whether they were doing more good taking a couple hours to remove a drunk from the field of play, or by sticking close to assist their outnumbered colleagues.

PHOTO courtesy of rage on the river’s facebook page

When officers did make the call to put the cuffs on and go through the process of transporting and booking their catch, members of the main jail’s triage unit sometimes concluded the intakes were “so far blasted,” that they wanted hospital clearance before agreeing to take them in, Ramos said.

That’s why a number of people never made it through the booking process, because officers had to get back to the scene of the still-devolving bacchanal.

Well past nightfall, the operation log shows several drunks being denied at the jail and released to “someone.” Back at the river, meanwhile, the party refused to die.

Selling the rage

Sean Ruiz looks like the lord of Pizza Rock.

Draped in an ebon club T-shirt with beefy forearm tats and a trim beard, Ruiz sits with his back to the wall at a small table in the dark K Street eatery to discuss all things ragey and rivery. The former nightclub promoter wears a perpetual grin, which gives his youthful features a mischievous baby affectation.

A modern-day carnival barker for a trio of K Street restaurants, including Pizza Rock, Ruiz also moonlights as one of the wizards behind the curtain of the twice-annual Rage on the River bash that is growing in popularity and bro-ness—and quickly losing hold of its low profile.

Ruiz—who helps coordinate Rage independently and without any connection to his day job—is keenly aware of the encroaching spotlight threatening to take away his good times on the river. Each year since 2010, there have been more boats, more babes, more sponsor swag—and more cops. This Saturday, area law enforcement will have up to six trawling watercraft with two- to three-person crews, according to Sacramento Police Department officials. The beefed-up presence is a direct result of last month’s Rafting Gone Wild fiasco.

Sgt. Jason Bassett of the police department’s marine detail said that because of Rafting Gone Wild, Saturday’s Rage on the River “will be staffed with as many or more officers and there will be zero tolerance for violations so that the event does not get out of hand.”

Ruiz has good reason to worry about getting lumped in with the rock-throwing hooligans and catching some of the alcohol-prohibition heat.

“That’ll put a big damper on us if they say the day before” that people can’t drink, Ruiz said of the recently expanded alcohol ban. “I think that’s a little excessive. People have to be responsible, of course, but there has to be a limit.”

Past Rages have so far toed that line. Sure, there’s a lot of behavior that fathers of college-age daughters wouldn’t approve of. But from a law-enforcement standpoint, Rage on the River is Ashton Kutcher to Rafting Gone Wild’s Charlie Sheen.

At the June Rage, for instance, only 25 citations were doled out for a variety of boating-safety infractions, and one person was hospitalized for over-intoxication. But there were no busts for boating under the influence, zero arrests and no drunk assholes chucking rocks at paramedics.

“The good [thing] is that each vessel that was contacted had a sober operator designated,” said Bassett.

Organizers point to self-policing that happens with boaters looking to shun crafts that don’t come prepared with the proper safety gear—anchors, tie-ups, buoys and life jackets for everyone onboard.

Ruiz also notes that his event doesn’t promote drinking as overtly as Rafting Gone Wild, instead choosing to focus on the three-girls-to-one-guy attendance ratio, dance-party atmosphere, and the free apparel provided by sponsors like Rockstar and Monster energy drinks, and Two in the Shirt—or TITS—whose acronymic pasties can be seen on many fleshy surfaces.

There are also socioeconomic differences.

Law-enforcement officials to party planners to event attendees remark that one of the reasons Rage is the calmer affair is because only people who can afford boats end up attending, whereas Rafting Gone Wild appeals to the greater 99 percent of the river culture.

In other words, Mitt Romney’s sons would never be caught dead going Wild in a rented rubber raft. But they might Rage.

“It’s probably a different type of clientele,” police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Pettit surmised. “People who rent rafts aren’t necessarily the ones who can [purchase] boats.”

That exclusivity—along with provocative promotional dance videos posted to Vimeo and YouTube—has helped cultivate Rage’s debauched spring-break mystique.

Rage on the River promoters have design concepts for apparel and also recruit sponsors for the event. It’s partying—but it’s also an industry.

photos courtesy of rage on the river’s facebook page

“Hot girls in bikinis,” Ruiz smirked. “And it’s free.”

As long as you can afford to be on a boat, that is.

The Facebook factor

Getting someone to speak on behalf of the biggest aquatic meltdown since Kevin Costner wore latex gills is more difficult than explaining that analogy to Mom.

But it makes sense. After all, Rafting Gone Wild was absolutely savaged by the media in the days following the July river float. Time magazine, Yahoo! and national newswire service Reuters all reported the story, as did hundreds other media outlets that usually don’t give an inky fart about what occurs in our local tributaries.

Ironically, much of the resulting public-relations damage was self-inflicted, as attendees of the hugely popular event uploaded dozens of unflattering videos and took to the event’s Facebook page to defend—or decry—the behavior they saw on display that eventful Saturday.

As sheriff spokesman Ramos said, people weren’t using their phones at Rafting Gone Wild to call 911 for help. “They were using their cellphones to videotape this to put on YouTube,” he said.

Rafting Gone Wild attendee Athonia Cappelli uploaded nearly 20 photos of the scene from Ancil Hoffman Park, where law enforcement used nonlethal artillery to quell a massive brawl around 5 p.m.

“It was a frenzy, but most of the kids kept partying, as though they were completely oblivious,” the Rancho Cordova woman told SN&R. “Totally surreal.”

That same social-media compulsion helped public-safety officials plan for the event in the fist place, and is allowing them to organize for what comes next.

“Social media is huge. It’s an open door. It’s a revolving door,” said Pettit, whose intelligence unit monitors Facebook and other social-media websites for potential leads.

Those leads will be more crucial after the county’s latest decision.

Earlier this month, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that enhances officials’ ability to ban summer imbibing on the river. It’s a targeted ban that won’t collaterally affect events like Eppie’s Great Race, but the 2013 Rafting Gone Wild will definitely be festival non grata.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” contended Wild attendee Geiger, who witnessed none of the ballyhooed drama at last month’s Rafting Gone Wild. “There was a unity that was created at this event that far surpasses the fights that happened.”

While plenty of other attendees agree, they’re sharing that message exclusively online. A dozen critical gray hairs got up to speak on the day the board of supervisors considered the alcohol ban, but the youth vote was notable only in absentia.

Retired Cordova High School teacher John Barris pushed for a year-round alcohol ban and fumed like Chris Farley’s vein-popping motivational-speaker character about kids hatching evil chat-room plans on “the social media.”

“They’ve declared war on you,” he thundered. “I hope you understand the consequences, because they’re serious about this.”

If it’s war, then only one side is stressing. No one under 30 showed up to the board meeting on August 7. The youthful hordes have consistently proven their devotion to the river party scene but have shown little interest in attending to the fallout.

The day after Rafting Gone Wild, for instance, only a handful of the previous day’s rafters showed up to pick up their trash, despite appeals from organizers.

This makes all the online carping about overreacting politicians and out-of-town ruffians ring hollow. Everyone wants to offer an opinion, just not on the record.

One of the shy types is the 25-year-old Carmichael woman who operates a Rafting Gone Wild Facebook page and is one of the event’s purported organizers. After multiple interview requests, she finally cut and pasted a wall post, which she’d sent to other media outlets as well, but never replied to follow-up questions or identified herself.

PHOTO courtesy of rage on the river’s facebook page

After the county board’s unanimous decision to ban alcohol on the river more often in 2013 and beyond, she posted on her Facebook wall: “Sad day. Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out for you guys before next summer’s trip.”

As of August 14, the post had seven likes and 29 comments, including this guy’s salient point: “KCRA and people who voted for this—go sit on a dildo—we still Rafting Gone Wild—you can’t stop us!”

The voice of his generation, ladies and gentlemen.

But he’s right in at least one way: When the county enacted summer-holiday alcohol bans in 2006 and 2007, those displaced by the decision took their beer coolers northeast, where the upper American River’s waters are more treacherously swift, but no alcohol bans yet exist. That’s according to Tobias Gautschi, a veteran rafting guide and Coloma resident who’s worried about the obvious dangers associated with this tipsy exodus.

“We’re seeing an influx of people not trained for our Class III rivers,” said Gautschi, who’s counted more imbibing nonlocals and at least one near-drowning on the American River’s upper and lower forks. “On the bigger holidays, we don’t even go down to our local parks anymore. It’s crazy.”

And poised to get crazier. There’s already been online chatter about how to outmaneuver the county’s expanded ban. Gautschi’s past experience suggests it’ll mean more drunks and drownings in El Dorado County, but that doesn’t mean the local river scene is dead just yet.

Party Inc.

River raging has gone commercial. Back at Pizza Rock, Ruiz scrolls through the photos on his iPhone to show concept designs for Rage on the River apparel, including straight-billed black ball caps with the motto “Don’t judge me” kissed across in pink, bubbly font; T-shirts proclaiming “R.A.G.E. to keep your kids off drugs” in the recognizable DARE type; and additional Rage hats that look like they’ve borrowed typeface settings from the RVCA clothing brand.

“I like to get [inspiration] from other brands,” Ruiz said. “I think it’s smart.”

Ruiz fully admits this is the kind of apparel that appeals most to the bro culture, a noisome mishmash of Jersey Shore fist pumpers soaked in Axe body spray who want to defile your daughters and never call them. Ruiz doesn’t self-identify with that tribe, but he knows they have enough disposable cash to keep themselves fat with piss-yellow energy drinks and Tapout tees, so why not a spin-off brand that built its rep throwing mad ragers on Sacto’s rivers?

“That’s what my intent was, and I think if you talk to [co-organizer] Patrick [Fretwell], he’d say the same thing. We wanted to make it a brand,” Ruiz nodded.

And a brand it is becoming, for better or worse. Partying is now an industry. Only time will tell whether events such as Rage on the River or Rafting Gone Wild do more harm than good to the local river scene. Plenty of river enthusiasts have blasted Rafting for endangering their ability to get sauced and drift responsibly.

“It’s sad what the event has become,” Rafting attendee Brandon Bowman told SN&R via Facebook. He and his fellow late-20-something buddies went for some communal fun that Saturday in July, but ended up dispirited by the mass littering and fights.

“Most of the people that rafted that day are not even from the local area and have no idea of the dangers. They ruin it for all of us who respect the river,” he argued.

Whether respect has any place in the evolving river scene is up for a lengthy debate. Everyone is making money off the lower American’s promise of kickback fun, from those renting rafts on the sidelines to those issuing their open-container citations to those of us reporting on the fallout.

Why not the party starters themselves?

Rage organizers envision their budding franchise as an MTV spring break for Sacramento—and possibly beyond—but any talk of future ambitions is quickly skirted as mere daydreaming, a what-if scenario if Rage continues its exponential rise.

“We didn’t really plan on it blowing up that much,” Ruiz said of the self-described nonprofit operation. “This is big, bigger than us. It’s way bigger than us.”

And bigger than the river.

It may be a trite truism that youth is wasted on the young. But in the quick-current grasp of the Sacramento river scene, the youth is mostly just wasted. Some feel nauseous and nostalgic for the days when being tramp stamped, Muscle Milked and possibly soul raped were the bizarre exceptions, not the rule.

But if you do want to dip your toe in the party water, what should a first-time Rage on the River attendee do to prepare for such a wet and wild soiree?

Ruiz grinned his perpetual grin: “If you were to go, well—I’d say you’re not ready for this.”