Feast of snow runoff has yet to give rafting companies boost in business on Truckee River
June 21, 2017
It's been feast or famine for area rafting companies that make their money running the Truckee River.
After several years of drought that curtailed the summer season — and the majority of their profits — rafting companies in Reno and the Truckee area are dealing with record-high flows that once again are impacting their peak season.
"Just can't seem to get it right," says Jim Bell, owner of Sierra Adventures in downtown Reno.
Contrary to popular belief that the Truckee River is too high to tangle with — which is certainly true for all but the most athletic and experienced swimmers — Sierra Adventures and other rafting companies have already begun running guided trips on the river.
But the rules have changed. The wettest winter on record just keeps giving.
Flows on the Truckee River in early June hovered above 3,000 cubic feet per second, the U.S. Geological Survey reports. By way of comparison, average flows this time of year are 785 cfs, and the 75th percentile is 1,720 cfs. Any way you look at it, there's still a tremendous amount of snowmelt coming down the river.
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And rafting companies are taking no chances with inexperienced rafters or swimmers.
Sierra Adventures ran rafting trips all Memorial Day weekend, but current trips are on more conservative sections of the river, Bell says. Regardless of ability, all rafters are required to wear full river protection: life jackets, helmets, wetsuits, and booties. They also must have a guide in the boat.
The company has several beginner runs, including Chrissy Caughlin Park to Wingfield Park in Reno, and the Glendale Dam to Cottonwood Park in Sparks. It's most advanced local run is a 13-mile venture from Crystal Peak Park in Verdi to a lower takeout in Reno depending on rafters' preference. Sierra Adventures partners with IRIE Rafting in Truckee for rafters who want to run the upper sections of the Truckee River. The companies have rafted on flows this high before, Bells notes — the heavy winter of 2010-11 provided ample runoff for months.
Sierra Adventures is located just west of the Century Theater on Sierra Street, an ideal location for people looking to beat the summer heat by shooting the rapids at the Whitewater Park at Wingfield Park on float tubes. Tube and kayak rentals are another good piece of business for Sierra Adventures, but Bell has stepped up safety measures for floaters and boaters as well.
"We have to assess everyone, and they will probably have to have a guide if they are a beginner," he says. "It will be a case-by-case basis."
Tubers don't normally need life jackets or helmets, but they'll have to rent those this year, he adds. Ironically, Bell notes, the last three years of drought were just as dangerous as the high flows because the low water levels made tubers more prone to bashing their heads against the many rocks in the river bed.
Sierra Adventures usually starts renting kayaks and tubes in May, but the company still isn't offering that service — it's even turned away business in the name of safety.
"If someone wanted to tube now, and if they were athletic and put on a wetsuit, we probably still would have a guide with them," Bell says. "It's case-by-case for the river; we don't want anyone to have problems, and we have turned quite a few people away already."
It's still famine for companies that run tubers on the very beginnings of the Truckee River at Tahoe City. The past few years haven't been kind to Truckee River Rafting Company or Truckee River Raft Co., as flows on that part of the river were reduced to a trickle, making tubing impossible. Now, flows are much too high and the companies remain shuttered due to the unprecedented high flows from Lake Tahoe.
Truckee River Rafting has offered self-guided rafting trips on the lazy, scenic section of the river from Tahoe City to the River Ranch Restaurant since 1973. The company's website says it expects to be open at some point this year. Truckee River Raft Co. also floats the same section of the river. It's taking reservations for Aug. 1 through Sept. 4.
IRIE Rafting runs some of the most popular rafting trips on the upper sections of the river below the town of Truckee. Many blast through the Floriston Gorge, where rafters hit Class III and III+ rapids, including Jaws and Bronco, perhaps the most severe rapids on the entire 121-mile length of the Truckee River. IRIE Rafting owner Frank Wohlfahrt expects to run the Floriston Gorge through October this year, whereas river action was all but over by August in 2016.
"We are going to have great flows through October," Wohlfahrt says. "We are going to be running the gorge and all sections of Truckee with wonderful flows. This year we have the most consistent good flows we have had in 15 years. We are very excited."
Bookings have spiked recently, Wohlfahrt says, but he too has changed his operations in the name of safety. Currently, rafters must be at least 12 years. Normally, the minimum age is 5. That may change as flows ebb.
"Potentially we would love to do the gorge, but sometimes we have to take them elsewhere to give them more controlled environments," he says. "The biggest thing for us is this is kind of a comeback season after two horrible and one mediocre seasons on the Truckee. We are excited to be back and doing trips consistently."
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