Why California's Record Snow Year Is Bad for Kayakers

May 3, 2011
Outside Magazine

You would think kayakers all over would be chomping at the bit after watching record precipitation build up in California—58 feet of snow at Squaw Valley! The reality is, the summer of 2011 may be the worst for high Sierra paddling California has seen in a while. Here’s why.

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“In some basins, we’re expecting flows eighty percent higher than average," says Frank Gehrke, a snow scientist with the California Department of Water. 

Flows that high will push many runs in the high Sierra out of consideration. During years with low snow packs peak flows produce ideal kayaking conditions, which can last as long as a couple weeks on each river. This year, Gehrke expects high Sierra rivers will hold high flows until the snow is almost gone. By the time flows drop into a reasonable range, water levels will be on their way out for the season. Darren McQuoid, a Sacramento, CA-based photographer and expert kayaker, expects to see perfect flows for a day or less on Upper Cherry Creek, a Class V classic.

The flip side to this is all 330 or so of California’s whitewater runs will flow this year. The trick is timing your paddling with the water.

“The best thing you can do is watch the gauges and the weather,” says McQuoid. Sunny weather is your friend. Cloudy days and nights equal more—not less—runoff because clouds keep night time low temperatures from dropping below freezing, keeping the melt going 24 hours a day.

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But there is good news for California-based paddlers. Snow in the foothills has already began to melt, opening up dam-controlled runs like Silver Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the American, that haven’t been paddled in a decade.

“We’ve been re-exploring creeks in the Sierras that rarely have water,” says Stephen Wright, a Reno, Nevada-based kayaker. The huge runoff will fill reservoirs to the brink, forcing dam operators to accommodate the influx of snowmelt with water releases in the spring, which they're doing now on Silver Creek, or releasing steadily throughout the summer, which is likely to happen in the San Joaquin drainage. Dry Creek 1
“I've been paddling since March,” says McQuoid. “And with way things are looking, will be kayaking natural flows all the way through August." 

--Kyle Dickman 

Photos: California kayakers getting some early season goods. By Darin McQuoid. 

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