Riding the rapids

Story by Jenn Sheridan  ·  Photography by 4 Tribes Photography  ·



Prepare to get wet on any adventure offered by Truckee Whitewater Tours.  ·

Looking for a way to cool off on a hot August day and adventure outside of the Tahoe Basin, I joined Tahoe Whitewater Tours for a whitewater rafting adventure down the South Fork of the American River.

Truckee Whitewater Tours offers a variety of whitewater adventures ranging from close to home on the Truckee River and the Carson River to full-day excursions on the American River. Beginning and advanced rafters alike enjoy various options of sections of rivers to run from Class II to IV on a scale from I to V used to rate the difficulty of rapids.

The Gorge run on the South Fork of the American is the perfect trip for both beginners and advanced paddlers. The stretch begins with Class II rapids and long expanses of flat water, perfect for swimming, before an action-packed stretch with back-to-back Class III rapids.

I arrive at the Truckee Whitewater Tour office first thing in the morning to catch the bus ride to the river just outside of Coloma. I’m joined by Steve, his daughter, Riley, and son, Roland, who are visiting from Winnemucca, Nev., as well as a family from Ohio. After meeting our guides John and Adam and making introductions among ourselves, we climb into the van for the hour and a half drive.

The American River begins in Sierra Nevada just west of Lake Tahoe. Three forks – the South, Middle and North – flow through the foothills before converging east of Sacramento. Water flow in the South Fork is a controlled release from the Chili Bar dam, so when we arrived at the put-in a few other rafting groups were eagerly waiting for the water level to rise to the perfect level for floating. As Adam and John go over safety and hand out gear, we watch the water level begin to rise.


The crew must paddle together to navigate tricky rapids.  

The first part of the section we are running is pretty mellow and provides a great opportunity to enjoy the surroundings. The hills are dotted with Blue Oaks, Interior Live Oaks and Foothill Gray Pine, and the riverbanks are home to willows, lupine brush and California Buckeye. We also spot a gaggle of Canada geese and a pair of Mergansers.

The South Fork of the American River is the first place in California where gold was discovered before the Gold Rush in 1949. The original site, which is located upstream from where we started our float, is preserved as the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park and open for exploration.

The first Class II rapid we hit is Barking Dog, which provides a big splash and provides some hoots and hollers. We continue down, hitting a few more riffles and rapids before stopping on an open, sandy beach for lunch. We practice skipping rocks across the river while John and Adam set up a delicious spread to make sandwiches complete with fresh pineapple and a cookie to finish it off.

After lunch, we work our way down a few more Class II rapids before the real excitement starts. Suddenly, the river narrows and the walls of the gorge stand tall on each side. Fowlers Rock is the first Class III rapid we hit and leads us into a chain of action-filled, fast-moving rapids.


This crew is all smiles as they crash through a big wave on the Truckee River.

The most popular rapid includes Satan’s Cesspool, which is a fun drop into a big hole, and Hospital Bar. Photographers wait at both of these locations to capture the carnage or success of every group that paddles through.

After Hospital Bar, we continue through Recovery Room and Surprise Rapid before ending up in Folsom Reservoir. In a normal water year, boaters paddle on the reservoir until they reach the take-out. However, this year, with low snow pack, the reservoir maintains a strong current and a few bonus rapids and wave trains await.

Before we head for land, Adam has one more trick up his sleeve. Instructing us to paddle hard, we ferry across the river toward a small hole where we are able to surf the rapid in a raft. We hoot and holler as water pours into the raft enjoying one last kick before paddling for shore. After a paddle high-five we help load the gear back into the bus and head back to Truckee with tired bodies and big smiles.


For more information about Truckee Whitewater Tours, visit truckeewhitewatertours.com or call (530) 587-5777. Be sure to use the coupon in this issue of The Weekly when you book your trip.