It seems fitting that regulated commercial whitewater rafting on the Kaweah Rivers is now in its 20th year. The 2017 season will feature the most extreme local whitewater since the ordinance - Kaweah River Management Plan - was first adopted by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on December 16, 1997.
In the provisional ordinance, there was a built-in two-year review to see if eight permitted companies could coexist with each other and the community while running eight trips daily with an average of eight rafters per boat. The quotas were based upon the previous season(1997) that proved lucrative for several companies.
In fact, Beyond Limits Adventures pioneered local commercial whitewater rafting and has been successfully operating on the Kaweah on and off since 1988. In 1995, Dave Hammond, a partner in Beyond Limits, purchased a lot in the Pumpkin Hollow area along Sierra Drive as a designated put-in and river access.
The seasons of 1995, 1996, and 1997 featured extreme high water and were a free-for-all of sorts as more commercial operators arrived to get in on the action. Some riverfront property owners complained of excessive noise, which was mostly the joyous whooping as a raft plunged down a particular rapid.
But, the complaints also alleged that rafters left trash, changed clothes by the river, and urinated indiscriminately. The Tulare County plan brought regulation and a behavior standard to the commercial sector at a time when the Kaweah River was assuming its place on the map as an extreme California whitewater destination.
The names of the commercial whitewater operators who attended the Board of Supervisors meeting in December 1997 reads like a who’s who in the annals of California whitewater rafting: Jim Plimpton, Whitewater Connection; Michael Doyle, Beyond Limits; William McGinnis, Whitewater Voyages; Nate Rangel, Adventure Connection; Dave Hammond, Beyond Limits; and, then the only local operator, Frank Root, Kaweah Whitewater Adventures.
The principals and their clientele behaved themselves under the watchful eyes of a small group of locals who were poised to register complaints. With one or two exceptions, the complaints never came except for a few loud whoops. At the end of the initial two-year review, the consensus was that whitewater rafting was a worthwhile attraction.
During those inaugural first seasons, there were a couple fatalities. One rafter, who died on Mother’s Day, had his cardiologist in the boat, accompanying him just in case. He died of sudden cardiac arrest doing what he loved to do.
What those early operators weren’t counting on was during the majority of the ensuing years there would be a lack of runoff that made most seasons a bust before they even started. Because of the unpredictable nature of the Kaweah, several companies went elsewhere.
A day trip with lunch typically costs just over $100 per person so those who book a trip count on rafting, not a refund. The more dependable venues like the Kern and American rivers attract more rafters on a consistent basis.
Three Rivers has had some decent whitewater since 1999. Years like 2004, 2006, 2011, and 2014 featured excellent flows but were short seasons. Optimal rafting on the Kaweah requires upwards of 2,000 cfs; put-ins at the Pumpkin Hollow Bridge, the “Condos,” Three Rivers Hideaway, or farther down the river determine if the trip is a more extreme ride (Class 4 or 5) or some smaller rapids (Class 3).
The original 1997 plan designated certain properties as sanctioned put-ins because the owners had written a letter to the County granting access. It’s no coincidence that Dave Hammond, then of Beyond Limits, purchased the Three Rivers RV Park (2003), changing the name of the property to the Hideaway.
“We had been camping there for years and using the facilities for our clients,” Hammond said. “When I heard the property was for sale I made an offer right on the spot with a handshake and closed the deal 90 days later.”
The purchase price was $350,000.
“I didn’t know then how I was going to make it but I loved it here, the people, the mountains, and the river,” Dave said.
In retrospect, Dave says it’s the best deal he’s ever made, and rafting has thrived — when there’s water in the river.
Since 1999, the County has received little feedback on the ordinance, and in the instances when county inspectors visited to observe whitewater rafting, all operators were licensed and there were no complaints. The two-year review became a five-year review and, today, the ordinance will only be revisited if there are a number of complaints.
Of the eight permits available this season, only six have been taken to date: Sequoia Adventures (Dave Hammond), River Runners Inc., All Outdoors Inc., Adventure Connection, and Kaweah White Water Adventures, which holds two permits.
“On some weekend days during this crazy season, I expect to be running more than eight rafts in a single day,” Frank Root said, explaining why he doubled up on his permits. “We’ll be booking trips through July and maybe even some trips for kids and families into August.”
And the best news of all? There’s water in the river, and lots of it.