RIPON – Water enthusiasts are dropping rafts into the Stanislaus River expecting the usual lazy float trip that is the trademark of summer on the idyllic waterway between Knights Ferry and Caswell State Park.
This year, due to runoff from a wet and snowy spring, the Stanislaus is running significantly faster, higher, and colder.
The river has claimed three lives in the past month and put countless others in jeopardy.
On Sunday, 13 people had to be rescued between Knights Ferry and Oakdale when their rafts overturned.
Ripon Consolidated Fire Department’s boat crew last week had to rescue four rafters who became stranded on the Stanislaus River when their float tube snagged on a branch and ripped open.
Ripon Fire Chief Dennis Bitters said it’s something that’s happening at least twice a week on the Ripon segment of the Stanislaus River.
The water at times is rushing at more than six times its normal flow for this time of year as large releases from New Melones are made to accommodate the unusually late Sierra snowpack melt.
The branch-laden canopy that used to hover over the bank now sits on both sides of theriver at water level and serves as an additional hazard to those using store-bought float tubes made of thin vinyl that tears easily when it gets snagged.
The fact almost none of those that the fire department has had to come and rescue were wearing life jackets disturbs Bitters who fears that his firefighters will end up retrieving a body before the summer is over.
“We want people to keep in mind that the river is high, it’s flowing at a lot higher volume than normal with currents that are strong and the water is cold – they’re going to fatigue a lot more easily in that water,” Bitters said. “The first thing they should remember is to have a life jacket or life preserver on if they’re going to be in the water.
“When those lightweight rafts catch on those branches they quickly become ineffective and all of a sudden people themselves and all of their possessions in the river and they don’t know what to do,” Bitters said. “That’s where they get into trouble.”
Even those who think that they’re taking the proper precautions, Bitters said, can find themselves in trouble with the way the current has transformed some of the ways to get into and out of the river.
While submerged obstacles and branches protruding from both sides of the bank pose dangers, fallen and uprooted trees that are swept downstream and washed along banks make it difficult for rafters to get out of the water.
One such tree, Bitters said, has blocked the final takeout beach inside of Caswell Memorial State Park – one of the most popular daytime floating spots for teenagers and young adults. Those who miss the beach, he said, often end up going around the next bend in the river and are left to search for a new spot in unfamiliar ground to exit the river and often find themselves somewhere that they’ve never been.
“That’s when we end up getting calls for lost rafters and we have to go find them along the river someplace,” Bitters said. “These are the kinds of calls that we get during the summer, but we’re getting them every week now. With no beaches because of the vegetation and no place to get out, sometimes people end up several miles downstream and we end up getting the call from parents or friends who expect them back.
“The most important thing to remember is to always have a lifejacket,” the fire chief said. “I was on a call last week where there were two kids stranded in the river younger than the age of six with their mother. They didn’t have any lifejackets with them.”