Tuolumne River. California
Tuolumne River. “I grew up in Placerville, a town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada gold country,” Nelson Mathews began. “The American River runs near town. My mom met a guy who ran river trips on the American and a few other rivers, and he was looking for local kids to guide. I started working on the American. There were fun white-water sections, but it was mostly about people kicking back and having water fights. I kept hearing the other guides talking about the Tuolumne in hushed tones. The following year, I began my training on the Tuolumne. It was quite a different animal, to say the least.”
The Tuolumne holds an esteemed place among members of California’s paddling community; it’s a venue that combines unspoiled gold country scenery, classic campsites, and abundant Class IV+ white water with relative accessibility. The river begins in Yosemite National Park near its namesake Tuolumne Meadows and flows 156 miles, mostly west, to its confluence with the San Joaquin near Modesto. Though long inhabited by the Miwok Indians (the Tuolumne was named for one of the tribes that lived in the valley), the Tuolumne first came to the attention of Anglos when gold was discovered in the region in the late 1840s. (Though many recognize 1848 as the beginning of the California gold rush, gold had been discovered and reported in 1842, near present-day Los Angeles.) The Tuolumne was the unofficial southern boundary for Sierra Nevada prospectors, though by the mid-1850s most had left; remnants of their brief visitation can be spied in the canyon in the shape of old cabins and abandoned mine shafts. The river would be forever altered to slake the thirst of the San Francisco Bay Area’s swelling population. In 1913, construction began on the O’Shaughnessy Dam, which backed up the Tuolumne to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley, an expanse of land that many considered as spectacular as Yosemite Valley. Not even the passionate appeals of naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir could dissuade the city of San Francisco and the U.S. Department of the Interior from its reclamation plans . . . though not all of the river was lost.
For rafters and kayakers, the section of the Tuolumne that holds the greatest interest is the eighteen miles that flow through the pine- and scrub-oak-peppered canyon from near the town of Groveland to just above the Don Pedro Reservoir. In this brief stretch, there are more than twenty Class IV rapids, plus one Class V—Clavey Falls. “You get the sense that you’re in a very isolated, remote place, even though you’re in California and within one hundred miles of millions of people,” Nelson continued. “It’s usually pretty hot in the summer, approaching 100°F. But the water is pleasantly cool. And you get a chance to cool down pretty quickly, as the Tuolumne starts out with a bang—there are two Class IVs within the first half mile of the put-in at Meral’s Pool. There’s lots of moving, dodging, taking drops, riding big waves.” Like most snowmelt-fostered rivers, the Tuolumne experience varies greatly depending on the time of year you run it. Rapids that might offer playfully rolling waves in May are highly technical rock gardens come mid-July. Nelson shared a few of his favorite sections.
“Rock Garden is the first rapid, and it requires some technical moves to get you from river right to river left. Nemesis is next, and there’s a slot you have to hit or else you have a good chance of wrapping your boat. Sunderland’s Chute (named for Dick Sunderland, one of the first kayakers to run the Tuolumne) comes after Nemesis. One of the two times I flipped a boat was at Sunderland’s; one second my paddle boat was hitting a wave, the next, I was watching one of my raft mates drift past me. A little ways down you come to Ram’s Head. Here, the river takes a big, sweeping turn to the left, where a rock face creates a curling wave and a hole. When my brother, Walt, and I were training during high water to run the river with guests, one of the trainees was distracted by the gaping maw below and wrapped a raft on a rock just above the big hole. My brother and I went back with some senior guides to try to recover it. We got a line out to the raft, and Walt and I volunteered to go out hand over hand to the rock. We tried deflating the raft but couldn’t get it off. Eventually, we started returning hand over hand, only to have the rope break free. Luckily it stayed tied to a tree, penduluming us both back to shore rather than the far less attractive alternative. We probably should have checked the rope.”
Clavey Falls is the Tuolumne’s signature rapid, a Class V that earns successful boatsmen and women serious bragging rights. It’s formed where the Clavey River enters the Tuolumne. “Some people will do the Tuolumne over several days,” Nelson explained, “and there are some great campsites just above Clavey Falls. If I was running a multiday trip, I’d always try to camp at one of these sites so you could hear the roar of the river as you went to sleep. It would certainly give you some butterflies. Right as the Clavey comes in, the river drops significantly, ten or twelve feet; this is the falls. The current pushes you against the cliff face, and there’s a big hole you try to navigate around. That’s the place where I had my second flip, in an eighteen-foot raft. We went nearly end over end! If you can thread the needle between the cliff face and the hole, you’ll generally pop out cleanly.” Doing the river over several days allows time for some hiking up the side canyons (like the Clavey River and the North Fork of the Tuolumne) and for trout fishing.
Tuolumne River. Not long after Nelson began being mentored on the Tuolumne, the river faced its second great threat — a hydroelectric project (again, championed by the city and county of San Francisco) that would place three dams in the eighty-three-mile section of river between Hetch Hetchy and the Don Pedro Reservoir, essentially eliminating the river’s white-water attractions. “I remember seeing the helicopters flying in and out as they were surveying the river,” Nelson recalled. “It was not long after the flooding of the Stanislaus River [not far north of the Tuolumne], where Mark Dubois had chained himself to a rock in protest. Mark and Friends of the River, the organization that formed to oppose the dam project, lost that battle. But a lot of people in the rafting community were mobilized. When the Tuolumne proposal came up, the Tuolumne River Trust was formed. The trust and other committed parties were able to defeat the dam proposal and gain ‘Wild and Scenic’ designation for the Tuolumne between the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Don Pedro.
“The successful fight to save the Tuolumne had a huge impact on me. It inspired me to go to law school . . . though rafting had ruined me for being wrapped up in a three-piece suit every day. I ended up as the Western Rivers program director for the Trust for Public Land, protecting and providing access to wild rivers.”
Tuolumne River. Nelson Mathews began working as a river guide back in 1980 on the American River near his hometown of Placerville, California. He is currently the chairman of the board for ARTA River Trips. When not floating down rivers, Nelson is the West program director for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), where he works to conserve land both along rivers and elsewhere. During his twenty-two years at TPL, Nelson has successfully negotiated, acquired, and conveyed into protective public and nonprofit ownership well over one hundred thousand acres of land with recreational, historic, and environmental significance. These accomplishments range from protecting more than fifty-four thousand acres of watershed on the St. Joe River in northern Idaho with working forest conservation easement to helping create a thirty-two-acre new urban state park from an old rail yard in downtown Los Angeles. Nelson; his wife, Joanne; daughter, Casey; and son, Theo, live along the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon. Nelson earned a BA in economics from UC Davis and a law degree from UCLA. He is a member of the State Bar of California. He is also an avid fly fisherman and skier.
If You Go to Tuolumne River:
Getting There: Groveland, the staging area for Tuolumne trips, is roughly three hours from the Bay Area and Sacramento, which are served by many carriers.
Best Time to Visit: Commercial trips are run from early April through early September. Flows are significantly higher in the early spring.
Guides/Outfitters: A number of rafting companies lead one- and multiday trips on the Tuolumne, including ARTA River Trips.
Level of Difficulty: On guided trips, less seasoned paddlers will be fine; self-guided paddlers should have extensive white-water experience.
Accommodations: The Groveland Hotel and the Hotel Charlotte are both in Groveland.
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