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White Water Rafting

Take an Exciting White Water Rafting Ride
Down California Rapids

By Susan Van Allen

They were screaming their lungs out, paddling their rafts furiously as they plunged into the rushing rapids. My palms began to sweat and my heart raced, as I turned the pages of the Whitewater Voyages brochure. Soon I would be one of THEM -- it was too late to bail on this adventure my friend Charlene had talked me into. We were in her SUV, halfway up the California highway to the South Fork of the American River for a weekend of rafting. Yikes.

Charlene had made it sound like the perfect escape from Los Angeles. Whitewater Voyages would provide everything we needed for two nights of camping: tents, sleeping bags, hot showers and home cooked meals. "Make sure you bring your own pillow," Charlene said. I laughed off her advice. No way would I show up carting a pillow into the cushy campsite. It would be like waving an "I'm a wimp" sign over my head. This weekend would be city gals getting back to nature and going for it.

We agreed the adventure would be a great break from our lives as writers in Hollywood. Charlene had rafted before, so I'd trusted her when she said, "It's only a Level III, we'll just be bumping along the river." And after all, how could rafting be more terrifying than going to pitch meetings and job interviews? If we could deal with that insanity, the river has nothing on us.

It was impossible for me to get back that cavalier attitude in the SUV as I kept thumbing through the brochure again and again, unable to find any photos of rafters "Just bumping along the river." Charlene was pumped up with excitement, singing along to "Everyday Is A Winding Road" as she sped us up the highway towards Sacramento. This was no time to fess up. I had to keep my "I'm a wimp" confession inside. I tossed the brochure into the backseat, and decided to immerse myself in distractions to stave off the panic.

Thankfully, the River Park campsite offered plenty of peaceful ones. As promised, it was well set up for our arrival. They even put cushy mats under our sleeping bags… Were they on to us? There were picnic tables, the sharp, fresh smell of Ponderosa Pines and above all, silence. I could feel my ears adjusting to no traffic sounds, car alarms or horns.

The river --a short winding walk away -- looked so calm at sunset, and was even warm enough for a swim out to a rock. As it grew darker, we marveled over the star-filled big night sky. I slept with that great exhaustion that fresh country air brings and woke at dawn to the dreamy symphony of birdsongs.

But a triple latte at the local café, and signing Whitewater Voyage's insurance waiver got my heart speeding again. Next thing I knew we were at the grassy riverside, strapped in our life jackets, listening to Jasmine (one of the guides) rattling off a safety lecture.

Jasmine's delivery style was like a stand-up comic's -- all that was missing was the bad lighting and two drink minimum. In a marvelous deadpan, she got chuckles demonstrating hand signals for us to make in emergency situations. I struggled to make her words stick in my panicked brain: "Cross your arms over your chest if it's an emergency, cross your fingers together if you're injured but it's not an emergency." She even got applause after, "If you dive head first into the rocks, that's natural selection, you've signed the waiver." Double yikes.

In the Port-A-Pot line where we stopped before manning our rafts, I confided my fear to a 30-something guy who'd come with a bachelor party group from San Francisco. He and his pals had dressed up in campy drag for a Friar's Club style all day celebration. "This is nothin," he told me. "I was on the Snake River in Utah last weekend. It'll be just like that… just bumping along the beautiful river." Somehow I trusted him. Despite the fact that he was wearing a purple wig and tutu.

The sun sparkled off the water where nineteenth century prospectors had first discovered gold. Seven of us took our places in the raft. As Toby, our other guide, lead us through paddle training, she pointed ahead, shouting over the rushing river: "That rock is called Can Opener. We're going to go around it and then take on Meat Grinder Rapid. Forward!" Now at the point of no return, I braced myself.

White Water Rafting

We were paddling smoothly on our way - and then - WHOOSH! We weren't going around Can Opener - the raft had whooshed up ON Can Opener!

"HIGH SIDE LEFT! HIGH SIDE LEFT!" Toby shouted. We shifted to the left, terrified, as water rushed into the stuck raft. There was no comfort to be found in any of the six pairs of eyes I searched - all were wide and waiting for the inevitable - this raft was set to capsize!. I struggled to get my paddle out of the strong current. When I finally wrenched it loose, knee deep in waves, I grabbed Charlene's arm, and let my confession rip, "I AM A WIMP!" Her jaw dropped with a silent scream and to my horror she nodded, "ME TOO!"

Then… suddenly… the raft slid off the rock and there we were, screaming with relief, paddles in the air, as we rushed down the Meat Grinder rapid.


And just as quickly… everything calmed down. We were bumping down the river, with adrenalin-rushed eyes. Charlene let out a whimper and crossed her fingers -- the "Help needed, but not an emergency" signal. Then she held up her hand. She'd broken her fingernail.

I had no more panic left in me as we paddled down river that day, passing otters, ducks, and trout fishermen. It was a cinch to maneuver the other rapids with names like African Queen, Trouble Maker, and Old Scary. After Meat Grinder, I could conquer anything. We even dared to jump out of the raft and let the current carry us as we floated giddily along.

That night, our guides transformed to chefs. We joined the bachelor party group and a couple of guys from Liverpool for a delicious barbecue of steak, chicken, salad, rice and beans. We'd become a family of adventurers, chugging Red Horse Ale, sharing stories of our lives and our travels. But always, the conversation drifted back to the day's most exciting moment: how our raft got caught on a wrap on Can Opener rock. We were the day's heroes.

Tanned and exhausted, Charlene and I headed back to our tent, looking forward to tomorrow's adventure. In the morning we'd meet up with our new friends for a breakfast of French toast and coffee… and welcome whatever excitement the river would bring. As stars popped into the big sky, Charlene lit a kerosene lamp, took out her emery board, and got to work repairing her fingernail. I rolled up my jeans and t-shirts, wrapped them in a sweatshirt, lay down…and wished I'd brought my own pillow.



Rafting trips available on California Rivers April through September

(T): 1-800-400-RAFT or 510-222-5994,

Prices range from $130 to $750, including camping
accommodations and meals
Group rates available.