Rafting the Tuolumne River

A fine river proceeds much like life, spells of quiet interspersed with wild bouts of feverish activity.

The Tuolumne is a fine river. From its headwaters in Yosemite National Park, the Tuolumne flows, eddies, dashes and cascades through the Sierras and some of California's loveliest landscape. For those whose focus is the water itself, the Tuolumne possesses a steep gradient, producing long rapids that will keep your hair on end (until it gets soaked) for, well, a long time. Rapids the likes of Gray's Grindstone, Nemesis and Clavey Falls provide an adrenal jolt that keeps on giving; shorter bursts like Little Niagara, Hell's Kitchen, Pinball and Let's Make a Deal provide additional fun, and prove that river guides have a deft and dark way with words.

The Tuolumne is also a Congressionally designated Wild and Scenic River, selected because of its "outstandingly remarkable values;" but honestly, dull legislative phraseology sells any truly wild and scenic place far short, and the Tuolumne is no exception. But here's the real beauty of a float down the Tuolumne. The land surrounding the river is largely road-less. I like my fellow man well enough, but I prefer my wilderness experiences bereft of tour bus droves. Short of boating down the Tuolumne, much of the river can only be reached with great difficulty or a long fall. And so the river is yours.

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Numerous outfitters ply the Tuolumne. I chose Sierra Mac River Trips. I have had the good fortune to raft an assortment of this country's most glorious and adrenal rivers with some of the country's best whitewater outfitters. The best river companies make it all look easy, thanks to years of river experience and ruthlessly efficient behind-the-scenes prep. Far more important in my mind, the best never forget the crucial element of any adventure. As Marty McDonnell, Sierra Mac owner and founder, put it, "Life is short. Whoop it up."

Sierra Mac offers single and multi-day trips on various sections of the Tuolumne and American rivers. All the trips require that at times you hang on (and hoot) for your life, but some are tamer than others. Cherry Creek, a run on the upper Tuolumne from Cherry Powerhouse to Meral's Pool, is one of the most challenging stretches of whitewater in the country; or, if you prefer to view it in hooting terms, one of Mr. Toad's wildest rides. River outfitters tend to be fussy about safety, and Sierra Mac is no exception. Before running Cherry Creek, and rapids the likes of Jawbone and Miracle Mile, clients must complete a brief training seminar and Class V paddler's test.

But much of the Tuolumne requires little more than a degree of fitness, a reasonable attention span, and, in case you do forget, the ability to quickly follow directions, issued calmly or otherwise, by your river guide.

In the midst of a four-day meander through Sierra Nevada gold country (if you like empty ribbon roads lined with oak and wind-swept meadow, up front folks and haunted hotels -- ask about Lyle at The Groveland Hotel -- Gold Country is your place), my own time was short. I chose Sierra Mac's single-day trip, 18 miles of Class IV rated Tuolumne, from Meral's Pool to the Ward's Ferry Bridge take out. It wasn't Cherry Creek, but as our guide Tom McDonnell said before we pushed out into the river, "Things can go bad here, so no heroics." During safety briefings, river guides are required to be dour sourpusses, instilling some small degree of respectful fear to get their ducklings' attention. As soon as our boat slipped out on to the river and we exhibited a modicum of paddling and instruction-retaining skills, Tom became, well, a hoot. He was not short on Tuolumne experience either. Marty's son has been running the river in one form or another since age nine. At six-foot-seven, he could also apply substantial torque to the oars.

Rivers aren't all about rapids, but for most paying customers (and guides) rapids are the main attraction. Every guide (and every boat load of flailing paddlers) approaches a rapid in their own style, but it is also true that every rapid holds the same certain truth. Running a serious rapid is like dancing with an unhinged partner; all proceeds smoothly until you step out of line, and then you are slapped, throttled and otherwise rudely mistreated. As we jounced, bounced and plunged through various rapids, Tom saw to it that this didn't happen, pulling and pushing on creaking oars, making fine, and not-so-fine, adjustments, while we, his four minions, paddled madly, helping (and sometimes hindering) him in some small fashion. Paddlers, too, ferry their own philosophical checklist. After one particularly enervating rapid, one of my companions turned to me. "Each time we go through one of these I wonder, 'Do I have my hat? Do I have my glasses? Do I have my teeth?'"

Though much ado is made of the adrenal, in my opinion it's the quiet moments on the river that matter. Ours was a cool spring day, with the threat of storms, but as we drifted downriver sunshine slowly won the day; flaring first in bouts that saw the river's surface erupt in sequin spackling, before finally appearing for good. On the river's banks tan meadows ran in the wind, and dark, craggy escarpments vaulted into the sky and clumps of oaks made silent conference. Between rapids, our raft spinning slow and aimless, Tom pointed out the crumbling wreckage of gold miner's cabins (there wasn't gold in every prospector's pan) and bald eagle chicks spreading their wings in an airy nest. We stopped for lunch on a sandy beach, wolfing down healthy sprouty sandwiches balanced nicely with cookies (river trips are also very much about eating). Back on the river, Tom recounted stories of his own wild stupidity (if there is a river guide who doesn't have a rapier sense of humor, I have yet to meet them), and how, at Christmas, in the nearby town of Groveland, practically everything upright is wrapped in lights.
It is the finest enterprise to drift in a boat beneath Nature's sky, listening to tall tales while forest and meadow pass, silently attentive, and beneath the boat the river makes slaps its small fidgets and commotions. Quietly, barely without notice, rivers dispel rush and our obsession with time. There can never be enough of the world wafting past at a syrupy pace.

But in the end, it is the combination of raucous rapid and serene silence that makes river magic. As each rapid approached, Tom surveyed the minefield of rocks and leaping, swirling, suctioning water; plotting his course before instructing us quietly. Then we might follow a slick tongue of water moving dreamily until it dropped away. The oar locks creaked as Tom applied the pressure that mattered, and the rest of us stabbed wildly at the water with our paddles as the boat lurched and bounded. We shrieked and, yes, hooted, and sometimes, for the briefest instant, the waves of water enveloped us, not violent, only heavy and pressing away the world. And then we were through, everyone laughing like village idiots and clacking our paddles together overhead in a misguided self-congratulatory salute.

The river, and the moment, pass. But you do not forget.

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