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Tuolumne River’s wild waters, scenic views call to rafters across the country

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Tuolumne River’s wild waters, scenic views call to rafters across the country

Sierra Mac River Trips takes a group out on the Tuolumne River, one of 156 American rivers to earn the Wild and Scenic designation.

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POSTED July 21, 2012 1:21 a.m.

From its headwaters in Yosemite National Park, one extraordinary river winds sharply down the Sierra Nevada. It passes nearly 150 miles through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, foothill villages, and valley farmland before finally emptying into the San Francisco Bay.

The Tuolumne River is truly one of the gems of California, sought out by rafters and wilderness enthusiasts from across the country for its splendor.

“It’s Wild and Scenic, and it’s wild and scenic,” said Eric Wesselman, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, a group formed to protect the river.

It’s an odd sentence, but it explains the river’s importance. Not only is the Tuolumne River one of 156 American rivers to earn the Wild and Scenic designation, granted by the federal government to protect important waterways. It’s also among the most truly undeveloped and beautiful stretches of water in existence.

Few know the river better than Marty McDonnell, owner of Sierra Mac River Trips. He got his start on family rafting trips in Canada and the American River in the 1960s, growing up building and selling kayaks out of his parents’ basement.

“I just loved it,” McDonnell said. “It was a great way to experience gravity and the water.”

McDonnell went on to design the first self-bailing cataraft, led the first professional rafting trip down the Main Tuolumne, and pioneered the Upper Tuolumne rafting run in 1972. Even today, that Upper Tuolumne stretch of river is considered an arduous route, 9 miles of non-stop rapids, chutes, falls, and boulders.

“It’s a steep gradient,” McDonnell says. “The rapids are long and technical. It requires a boater to be at the top of his game to be successful.”

That Upper Tuolumne run is categorized as Class V – just below the maximum rating of Class VI. It’s the most challenging run in America, McDonnell says, and the bar against which other Class V runs are measured.

The Main Tuolumne run stretches 18 miles, from Buck Meadows to Wards Ferry, near Groveland. It’s an easier route, but the challenging Class IV still features rapids with ominous names like “Nemesis,” “Gray’s Grindstone,” and “Clavey Falls.”

Though the rapids are testing, first-time boaters can experience the Tuolumne – with the help of an experienced guide. Even families can enjoy the Main Tuolumne trip, McDonnell said, especially as summer drags on and the river slows. But beginner solo boaters are recommended to look elsewhere, like the tamer American River’s south fork.

Those guided trips come in many forms, from day trips to overnight expeditions. Some include riverside lunches; others include starlit campouts along the river’s edge. Others feature hikes just minutes from the river, to swim in quiet ponds or observe relics from the Mi-Wuk Indian civilization.

While the Tuolumne rapids are only about an hour from either Turlock or Manteca, that wild and scenic wilderness is worlds away from hectic modern living.

“It’s not a Coney Island or an Acapulco beach experience,” McDonnell said. “The idea is to preserve the wilderness.”

Federal guidelines only allow two commercial rafting trips per day on the Tuolumne River. Each trip is restricted to only 20 people, giving trips a more intimate feel.

The Tuolumne River isn’t just rapids though. It’s a place for everyone, from fall canoe trips, paddling alongside the salmon run, to the Trust’s annual 18-day Paddle to the Sea – a relay event which covers the entire length of the river.

For those looking to dip their toes in the river for the first time, Wesselman recommends the easy canoe trip from just below La Grange Reservoir to the Turlock Lake State Recreation Area.

“It’s just such a gem, a special place, and it’s really family-friendly,” Wesselman said.


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