Taking A Bite Out of the Middle Fork of the American River

We labored this Labor Day Weekend by white-water rafting down the Middle Fork of the American River, and had a blast.  We were a mixed-bag family of rafters — the 26-year-old, Dominic, had rafted Class IVs once before; 50-year-old Mom (that’s me!) had rafted down the Class IIIs of the South Fork on two, two-day trips before and had gotten bored by the relatively mellow Class IIIs and was ready to try something more adventurous.  Our older daughter had a bad experience inner-tubing down a rocky waterway when she was younger that had stuck with her, making her anxious about the trip, and the two younger children had never rafted before.   We’d considered a “luxury,” three-day rafting trip own the Snake River in Idaho, that allows for fly-fishing, massages in the evening, and gourmet meals, but finally decided it was too expensive for this summer.  So we elected to stay in California and try out a one-day adventure.  With all of our needs in mind, I selected an advanced beginner/intermediate, one-day trip down the Middle Fork of the American River.  There are a host of outfitters offering such trips, and it’s hard to distinguish one from another.  After some research on TripAdvisor and other sites we selected All-Outdoors, and it was a great choice.  They’ve been in business since the early 1960s, are conservative in their approach to the rapids, are well-organized and have a great group of experienced and fun guides.  Look them up at http://www.aorafting.com.

As their website explains, historic remnants of the California Gold Rush are visible in portions of the Middle Fork canyon (mostly rusted metal, and some caves made when the miners tunneled into the rock and carved out the gold), but no houses.  You’re rafting in a remote wilderness area where thick oaks and pines carpet the steep canyons on either side, with willow and wild grapevines weaving their way down the riverbanks. No clouds interrupted the blue expanse of sky, and the contrast between the intense green treetops carving into the deep blue of the sky, with the clear water beneath us, was so beautiful it made you want to grab some watercolors and paint it.  A few plump blackberries were still visible on the vine on our early Sept. trip, and loons enjoyed the water while turtles sun bathed on the banks.

The Middle Fork is about 140 miles east of San Francisco and 50 miles east of Sacramento. Interstate 80 is 17 miles from the All-Outdoors Middle Fork meeting place.  We spent the night in Auburn, about a 25-minute drive from the meeting place, at the Best Western Golden Spoon.  It was a Best Western, so nothing fancy, but it was certainly adequate for our purposes, and make-your-own waffles were quite good and included in the price of the room, along with pastries, yogurt, bagels, etc. and of course coffee and juice and tea.

Once we made it down the 45-minute bus ride to the launching spot (I recommend taking Dramamine if you tend to get car-sick, because the winding mountain road has views of beautiful canyons but can also be stomach-churning), we had a short intro-to-rafting which can induce fear (what to do should fall out of the boat and end up riding the 6-foot-drop through boulders and churning water curled in a ball and holding your breath), you tighten your life vest and helmet and head out into the crystal-clear and ice-cold water.  Jerry guided us through, from our first step into the liquid ice that is the American River (it was freezing cold!), to riding Tunnel Chute backwards (more on that to come) to the water fight at the end, we came through our 9-hour adventure a little sore, saved from sunburn only by multiple applications of 100 SPF, and looking forward to trying the intermediate runs next summer.

You sit on the inflated sides of the oblong raft and one would think that the rubber would make for a comfortable seat … but your bottom does get sore after a few hours.  Never fear, though, as the rapid you’ll be approaching quickly takes your mind off any sore parts and has you instead thinking in terms of survival!  The ride starts off quickly with a class III to get the day started off with a little excitement.  Then after some time to practice your paddling (each of us paddles, and sometimes to have to dig it in and use those core muscles to keep the raft in the right position as we churn through a rapid), we get out to walk up the rocky path and peer down at Tunnel Chute.  S—, was my initial reaction.  Are we seriously going down that?  Part of me wanted to back out — I did not want to ride that rapid curled in a ball and hoping for the best as my body tumbled down the six-foot drop past sheer rock walls — but I also didn’t want to chicken out and miss a fun ride.  So, we all opted in and went for it.

Unfortunately, our paddling skills were not the best, and despite our guide’s best efforts we ended up riding the rapid backwards.  It was OK for us, because the guests end up getting off the boat’s sides and sitting down in the raft for the ride down, but it was pretty harrowing for our guide.  Later we found out that the one time the raft catapulted him into the water and forced him to ride down raft-less, and his raft guide-less, in part because they had entered the chute backwards.  But this time he held on, and we all made it down wet but safe, and exhilarated.


Packing Christmas

My daughter begs me to only hand 5 ornaments on the tree … at 16, she doesn’t want to take the time to hang them and dreads having to take them down a few weeks later. But I insist that we hang every one, because, other than the “filler” balls, each ornament comes with its own memory that decorating the tree lets me remember each December.

There are baby blue ornaments to celebrate my son’s birth– several times more than the pink ones for my daughter’s birth three years later, which she doesn’t hesitate to point out time — and Barbie doll ornaments from when she was a little girl.

Unwrapping the tissue from Darth Vadar and Winnie the Pooh, Nolan Ryan (my son’s namesake) and Mohammad Ali (my husband’s favorite) reminds me of watching the Star Wars movies with my kids and reading marathons of the Adventures of Christopher Robin.

Henry VIII reminds us of our crazy 5-day trip to London when British Airways offered $99 flights direct from San Diego. I couldn’t pass up those fares, so I took my 6 and 8-year old kids out of school for a few days in the dead of winter and we had a blast making our way through the maze at Hampton Court, hearing tales of days long ago at the Tower of London, and spending hours on end at the Natural History and other Museums.

There is a cotton football player dressed in maroon and white in honor of Texas A&M,and ballet slippers to remember the year my daughter took dance.

I hope when I pass these ornaments along to my children for their own trees, memories of our trips and memories of past Christmases will flood back to them when they unwrap the ornaments from their childhood.

Now they are put away, for next year’s tree, and I look forward to many adventures in 2011 which I can memorialize with an ornament to add to next year’s tree.

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