Use ‘light’ on newly restored river stretch

Local rivergoers suggest ways to get more paddles dipping
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Suppose you open a new stretch of river to boaters and nobody comes? After another year of light use, people are asking whether the American River in the canyon below Auburn has a future for boating. And while some with a knowledge of the scenic river run see its potential, they say some changes in flows and access need to be seriously looked at to give kayaking, rafting and tubing a chance. A state Parks Department count this summer shows an average of five paddlers a day taking on the newly restored stretch of American River in the canyon below Auburn. Key access points are open weekends only. “Use has been light,” said Mike Lynch, Auburn State Recreation Area supervising ranger. The tally was made at the Maidu Drive entrance to the China Bar area where kayaks or other craft can take out after entering upstream for a three-mile paddle at the American River confluence. The stretch was opened for public paddling at the start of 2008 and a Parks Department kiosk was set up that spring for weekends only to control vehicle traffic into the canyon. Before that the canyon area had been closed to public boating for more than three decades. Last year, an average of about 15 to 20 day-use passes were sold Saturdays and Sundays at the China Bar entrance into the canyon. This year, the count is up slightly, Lynch said. Most are for hiking, running and other activities. Lynch said a high point for the season was a free day in early June in conjunction with the Protect American River Canyons American River Festival that brought 200 vehicles down. And to encourage the public, park employees at the kiosk allow drivers a half-hour drive to the bottom and back to take a look at no charge, he said. “But it hasn’t generated a great amount of use,” he said. The China Bar area improvements were rolled into the Placer County Water Agency’s $78 million pump station project, with much of the money coming from the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation has jurisdiction over the recently opened river run. It’s part of the long-delayed Auburn dam project and the river was closed to the public as a safety precaution after construction of a half-mile long diversion tunnel. The river restoration, spurred by threatened legal action by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer in 1999, led to closure of the tunnel and construction of improvements that include man-made rapids and parking facilities. But the parking facilities are a 10-minute uphill hike from the shoreline where boats can be landed and river flows occur in the evening because of upstream releases from Middle Fork American River dams that provide earlier afternoon flows for rafters. The higher water levels reach the new stretch at about 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. Nate Rangel, president of the statewide California Outdoors rafting business organization, said the promise of increased interest on the new river run would depend on whether water flows could happen during the daytime. That could be explored during ongoing negotiations over relicensing upstream water storage facilities with the Placer County Water Agency, he said. “But it’s a great little stretch of Class 1 or 2 rapids (suitable for beginning and intermediate boaters with proper safety equipment),” Rangel said. “A lot has to do with it not being known because it wasn’t runnable for so long.” Laird Thompson, a member of the recreation area’s volunteer Canyon Keepers, has kayaked the river run from the confluence to China Bar. If you can deal with the sight of the many naked men on the shoreline, it can be an enjoyable float, he said. “Most of them are respectful of boaters,” Thompson said. “They’ll turn around or sit in the water.” A stretch beyond the Mountain Quarry Railroad Bridge has been a favorite sunbathing location for nudists for at least three decades. The stretch was closed to boaters because of safety concerns over the downstream diversion tunnel. The river was re-opened to boaters after the tunnel was closed and the river rerouted into the open. Thompson said he could see a supper run proving popular, with a barbecue at the China Bar shoreline and transportation back to Auburn by a rafting business contracting with state parks. Another possibility is rafting businesses volunteering to man the entrance kiosk to allow China Bar access seven days a week, he said. Thompson has also casts his gaze to the shoreline on the El Dorado County side, where a flat area could serve as a parking lot and a road for vehicles could allow easier access. “Unfortunately, the bureau doesn’t want people down there,” he said. “They want to build their dam. There are opportunities down there but there area also impediments.” Eric Peach, a Protect American River Canyons board member, said the section of the river run where manmade rapids had been constructed proved popular this past spring with sport-boaters. The shortened plastic kayak allows boaters to do tricks in the whitewater. But whitewater flows had dropped considerably by the time the Maidu Drive entrance kiosk opened, he said. Peach also said flows earlier in the day would likely result in more people on the river. But word of mouth could be one of the run’s strongest advertisements, he said. “I still think people are learning about it,” Peach said. “Many people are surprised to hear the stretch is open.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at