Travel & Recreation: Get wet!

Some of the gnarliest white water in the world is right in Sacramento’s backyard

Illustration by Mark Stivers

A white 11-passenger van zigzags down a canyon hillside on a one-laner just outside Colfax. Behind the wheel is Steve Liles, founder of W.E.T. River Trips, an outfit he established in 1978 that today is the lone rafting company based in Sacramento. Pine trees and oaks shoot past outside. The descent ends at the North Fork of the American River, whose world-famous whitewater rapids furiously rip downstream.

Before embarking, rafters squeeze into wetsuits, life vests and helmets, and nine-year veteran river guide Alex “Wolf” Wolfgram gives a safety talk. “Most rafting accidents happen outside the water,” he explains. If you’re “lucky,” as he puts it, and fall in the water, remember to stay calm, float on your back, point your toes to the sky and enjoy the ride. W.E.T. provides safety kayakers and multiple guides who will help you, he reminds us.

Although Wolf has sought out white water worldwide, and even has a cameo in kayaking documentary The Last Descent, he’s still “stoked” to hit the local rapids. Soon enough, rafts are on water. Wolf steers a 12-foot rubber boat and instructs a pack of five, including three W.E.T. guides-in-training, through the day’s first rapid, “Entry Exam.” It’s passed with high marks. The next gauntlet, “Slaughter’s Sluice”—a snaking, narrow run dotted with huge rocks and flanked by thousand-foot-high canyon walls—ends with an 8-foot drop at Chamberlain Falls.

“Forward!” Wolf yells.

Everyone paddles steadfastly. Then, like the Millennium Falcon caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam, our raft is sucked towards a sedan-sized boulder. Slam! We T-bone it. The raft launches perpendicular to the sky.

Time to get wet.

“You have to have the right mindset for it.” This is what Liles, a full-time school principal when he’s not in the water, answers when asked if rafting is a daring endeavor. “There’s some daring involved, but it’s not daring like ‘I’m going to die.’ It’s daring because it’s requiring me to operate outside of my normal world.”

Back when Liles first fell for white water in 1977, on a trip down the Tuolumne River, California was just coming out of a drought. Rafting—and mountain biking and snowboarding, for that matter—was a fringe endeavor at best. “Adventure sports were kind of mythical,” says the 55-year-old. “They weren’t in the mainstream.”

The end of the state’s drought, and the cult appeal of the film Deliverance, changed everything. By the mid-’80s, Liles’ company was operating on all three forks—North, South, Middle—of the American. Technology evolved from Army-surplus-type boats to smaller, faster, self-bailing rafts. Life vests and paddles improved, too.

Today, W.E.T. employs more than 50 guides who lead some 6,000 rafters annually down the American River, plus nearby Klamath and Salmon rivers. They offer one-day runs, plus two- and three-day overnight jaunts and wilderness trips.

W.E.T. guide Wolf shares Liles’ passion for the Sierra Nevadas. A schoolteacher during the offseason, he was born in Sacramento during the “epic flood of 1982” and calls the American River his “favorite place on the planet.” His mom first took him rafting at age 10, and he now hits the water six days a week. Once a year, he even kayaks from Soda Springs all the way to Auburn.

“It’s insane,” he says of the journey through the upper reaches of the Sierras, complete with eight-story waterfalls. “If you were to walk in there and look around, it’s an unreal place.”

“But I really value my spinal column,” Wolf admits, “so I don’t run those 40-footers or 50-footers. … I’m no adrenaline junkie. For me, it’s about exploring.”

During the summertime, while guiding rafters on all three forks of the American, he prides himself in showing people a good time. “I want them to gain appreciation for the waterways,” says the preservationist and outdoor activist. “I want them to [think], ‘Wow, that’s an amazing experience.’”

“Wow,” for instance, aptly describes the bizarre sensation you feel when staring down on rushing water, knowing full well that, before you can catch a gulp of air, you’ll soon be flipped over and at the river’s mercy. The temperature of the North Fork averages 40 degrees year-round. Take a dip and white water locks the body stiff, like how your tongue feels after a mouthful of sour grapefruit.

Time slows down after our raft T-bones the boulder. Rapids do as they please, sucking us under and spitting us out, their force so powerful it even rips a sneaker off my left foot. After nearly a minute, a fellow overboard guide seizes my arm and helps me to another raft. Someone grabs me by the life vest and hoists me in. Oxygen, icy and rich, never tasted so good.

Everyone’s accounted for—except Wolf and another guide!?

Turns out, just as the raft collided with the boulder, Wolf hopped onto the rock and then back onto the capsized raft, which he rode for a stretch before helping a fellow guide onboard.

And then, as an encore, the duo rodeoed the upside-down raft down Chamberlain Falls’ 8-foot drop.

As Wolf might exclaim, “Gnarly!”

W.E.T.’s guides can handle any kind of situation on the water, Liles says, but he recommends first-timers begin with the Class 3 rapids Chili Bar run on the South Fork, then move on to the North or Middle forks.

“California is a mecca for white water around the world,” he says. “Just having the North Fork within 40 minutes of downtown Sacramento is amazing. That’s why I live in Sacramento.”

At the day’s end, Wolf and everyone high-five with their paddles. An unforgettable whitewater trip all hinges on your guide—so when you ride this summer, be sure to tip yours generously.