A confluence of whitewater and watershed scientists

UC Davis watershed scientists immerse themselves in rafting guide training on the South Fork American River, April 2013. Video by Eric Holmes

By Chris Bowman

Researchers here at the multidisciplinary UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences convey the power and behavior of rivers in many ways.

Geologists measure the movement of sediment and the scouring of beds and banks. Ecologists read the physics of stream flows by the type of aquatic creatures and plants that live in and along the channels. Engineers calculate how rivers will respond to changes such as climate warming.

Zack Steel

Zack Steel

Zack Steel, a landscape ecologist affiliated with the Center, recently found another, more personal way to test the waters. Armed with helmet and life jacket, he threw himself at the mercy of a fearsome rapid in the North Fork American River.

“I found myself submerged in frothy chaos, inexpertly flailing my arms as if my life depended on it,” Steel recalled of his frigid plunge. “I was able to drag myself on shore only after the rapid spit me out in the pool below.”

Steel’s sacrificial-like leap is part of whitewater rescue training that the Center offers its field researchers for job safety. Often these scientists are immersed in the rivers they research. Current projects have one team snorkeling spring-fed rivers and creeks near Mount Shasta while another wades northern Sierra rivers in the spring as they run fast and flush with snowmelt.

Steel enters Triple Threat - class 3 rapids.  Photo/Eric Holmes

Steel enters Triple Threat – class 3 rapids.
Photo by Eric Holmes

Steel and fellow Center researchers Ryan Peek and Eric Holmes earned their Swift Water Rescue certification earlier this month from UC Davis Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Adventures, one of the largest university-run mountain recreation programs in the country.

At the same time, the three also learned through Outdoor Adventures how to pilot whitewater rafting trips, a tradition among Center researchers and faculty that dates back – and actually gave rise – to its founding.

The Beginning Whitewater Rafting Guide School consists of 12 classroom hours and 8 days rafting on the South Fork of the American River, a Class 3 stretch and one of California’s most popular rafting runs.

Peek said he felt fairly comfortable “reading” the water for potential hazards having waded many Sierra rivers and creeks for years as an aquatic biologist. Steering a 14-foot paddle raft in whitewater, however, is another story.

Ryan Peek Photo: UC Davis

Ryan Peek
Photo/UC Davis

“Guiding a raft is not like driving a car,” he said. “A road doesn’t move under your feet, pull you back into holes, or push you out of your lane.”

“Imagine driving a bus on ice with bald tires,” one trainer quipped.

The trainees nervously took turns at the helm.

“The first day was a bit chaotic and involved pretty much every boat getting stuck, perched, bumped, or spun around more than once,” Peek said.

Directing passengers to paddle when you need them to, and in the way that you need them requires nimble river-reading skills and decisive, timely calls.

“The river is dynamic, always moving, never waiting for you to decide whether you are ready or not,” Peek said. “You must always be aware, and you must be prepared to react quickly if the river does something unexpected.”

Steering becomes all the more important when heading into Class 3 rapids named “Meatgrinder,” “Triple Threat,” “Deadman’s Drop” and the like.

Eric Holmes said he could hear his blood thumping above the roar on approaching “Satan’s Cesspool,” a rapid that dumps into a deep, funneling pool. Rafters must hit the hole dead on at full speed.

Eric Holmes

Eric Holmes

“My heart raced as we passed the point of no return and entered the mouth,” Holmes recalled. “The hole grabbed at the right side of the raft as we skirted around the side” – a good run for a novice pilot in wicked waters.

By day eight, the trainees had a much better grip on the American.
“It looked much more like ducks in a row, with everyone keeping up and floating smoothly down the river,” Peek said.

Scientists say their swift-water skills have enabled them to survey a greater range of river habitat in their field research. Rafting reduces time spent hiking and hauling gear. Proficiency in river-reading tells them where they can safely wade and place equipment, like fish traps, and where they can’t.

“You learn to use eddies to slow yourself down. You look for the smooth tongues of water to pass through a rapid,” said Andrew Nichols, a geologist with the Center.

Rafting guide trainees celebrate passage through “Surprise,” the last rapid in their run. Photo by Eric Holmes

Rafting guide trainees celebrate passage through “Surprise,” the last rapid in their run. Photo by Eric Holmes

The Center grew out of its founding director’s love of whitewater rafting. Thirty years ago, a couple Outdoor Adventures guides – undergraduates – talked Jeffrey Mount and other UC Davis geologists into running a geology field trip in oar-frame boats down the Tuolumne River, a foamy staircase winding out of Yosemite National Park. Rafting aficionados call its Class 4 rapids the “champagne” of Sierra whitewater.

Mount, now retired from the university, reflects on that spring 1983 trip not only as one of the most frightful and exhilarating adventures of his life but also as a, well, watershed event in his career. The experience inspired him to broaden his research from rocks to rivers.


Jeff Mount

“Every geologist on this trip just went nuts viewing this glorious transect across the foothills of the Sierra,” Mount recalled in a recent interview with California WaterBlog. “At the end we all said, ‘This is the way to see geology.’”

Mount went on to become a rafting guide and lead annual river-geology trips, which he later blended into a popular “Rivers of California” course. He didn’t get far into river research before meeting UC Davis’ Peter Moyle, the leading expert on inland fishes of California. The two saw a niche in interdisciplinary studies of freshwater systems and occupied it, eventually forming the Center for Watershed Sciences, in 1998.

This spring, three of the Center’s researchers – Carson Jeffres, Joshua Viers and Sarah Yarnell – are leading a dozen students in a Sierra rivers course that culminates with a four-day rafting trip in the Tuolumne watershed. Students will produce short videos and written reports using the Tuolumne field data to address management issues in the watershed.

All three instructors are Outdoor Adventures-trained rafting guides and veterans of the Mount trips. The whitewater tradition lives on.

Chris Bowman is Communications Director at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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2 Responses to A confluence of whitewater and watershed scientists

  1. Pingback: Blog round up: Bloggers on the costs of the BDCP, the fortress Delta option, plus more on infrastructure spending, the Borba email exchange, whitewater rafting and a peripheral playground … ? » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

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