What the Cali Snowpack Spells for Paddling Season

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Epic Snowpacksville: How the Runoff Year is Shaping Up in Cali

In early March, as part of California’s ongoing “atmospheric river” pummeling, the Kern River near Kernville rose to a 50-year record of 45,000 cfs. But what’s causing more discussions among Cali kayakers and commercial rafters is how much snow is left  up there…record amounts that are making news around the country. And come summer, all that snow has to come down into the state’s many classic whitewater rivers.

Which, of course, got us thinking over here at Paddling Life, about what kind of season it’s shaping up to be out West. So we put in a few calls and surfed a few social media accounts to see what the pulse is like concerning the upcoming paddling season in the Golden State, which, as well as filling much-needed reservoirs, is set to have a golden year for the record books when it comes to river running.

First stop on our sleuthing tour: the Instagram account of longtime big water California boater and pioneer Scott Lindgren (of running the Tsangpo fame). On March 17, he posted a video of a snowed-in Highway 395 that looked like Antarctica, riddled with avalanches blocking the road, prompting a dissertation on the upcoming deluge of water waiting to come down. His take: a later-than-usual paddling season for many of the Class V classics.

“I’ve been getting a lot of DMs asking about the upcoming paddling season,” he scribes. “Unless there’s a rain event of all rain events to flush out some of the snow, which can still happen, all of the high Sierra runs are going to  be at least a month or two later than usual.

“It’s an unpopular opinion but the high Sierra on on big snowpack years makes it tricky to get good flows. Things usually stay above runnable levels and then drop out. That being said, if you’re coming for the long haul you cans till get everything but expect to wait until June, July, August and even maybe September — which would be a first. The good news is that for things like the South Yuba and lower elevation runs it will be glorious with high flows lasting into July. But we’re not done with the weather yet. The models have the storm door open until the end of March. The longer it stays cold the longer the season gets pushed. In ’99 we had 20-plus powder days in April and it didn’t stop until mid-June. My best guess is that it’s going to be a late one this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Royal went in late June this year, which kicks the entire high Sierra season off…”

The post prompted responses from local boaters to the likes of Aniol Serrasolses, all waiting with bated, boating breath to see how the season shapes up…

A Word from Farther South: The Case for the Kern

Meanwhile, down south…

Cali flood
Game of hoops, anyone? In March, the Kern crested 45,000, a first in 50 years…
Photos courtesy Kern RIver Outfitters.

In March, the Kern River swelled to a 50-year record 45,000 cfs, causing boaters—and flood control experts—to cringe, but also to celebrate the moisture and what it means to the area’s depleted reservoirs

“This winter has been amazing to watch and the timing has been fortuitous as the completion of the Lake Isabella dam construction project will provide the right conditions to fill the lake to maximum capacity, which is something that we haven’t seen in over 15 years,” says Matt Volpert, owner of Kern River Outfitters and a co-founder of Gorafting.com.

“Kernville is one of those special whitewater towns where everyone – not just guides and kayakers – talks about big water and this year the water is bigger than ever,” he adds. “The word historic is often misused, but not in this case. Our closest analog year is 1983, which until this winter was the highest snowpack on record. While there is excitement, we want to ensure safety is prioritized during this unprecedented season. As a result, we have put big water protocols in place to ensure our trips are finely calibrated to both customer skill levels and water flows.

“The 45,000 ifs we saw we hadn’t seen since 1966, when twe lost the Kernville Bridge. During this go-around, the water got close to the bridge but didn’t overtop it. I took a video of it, which ended up on the Colbert Report…

“Our season outlook is that we will be running trips on both the Upper and Lower Kern for the entire summer, with high flows through early July. The Forks will open sometime in the mid to late-July timeframe and will be available for trips through September. Specifically, for the Lower Kern, our water master recently stated the flow will be at 5,000 cos for an undetermined period of time. However, from my calculations, the flows on the Lower Kern will likely be north of that until late June.

“The Upper Kern flows are tougher to define as no one has seen this much snowpack. Ultimately, how quickly the weather warms will determine the intensity and duration of our flows. My best guess is that there will be a sustained peak of 10,000 for approximately a week and then base flows of 4,000-7,000 cfs from mid-May through the first week of July. It’s going to be all-time fun, that’s for sure…”

And Melissa DeMarie of the California Watersport Collective adds these thoughts on the year’s runoff:

“With the second biggest snowpack in California recorded history, we are stoked for this season’s spring runoff which has already begun in the low elevations. Before you go out on the river, be sure to keep an eye on weather, as well as if flows are rising or falling so you don’t get yourself and your team into trouble out there. Have fun, be safe and make smart decisions.”

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