While the majority of our Highway 120 corridor businesses have their eyes on road repairs that will reopen our northern gateway to Yosemite National Park, Sierra Mac River Trips has their eyes on the river. The Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River (or the “T,” as it's called by the rafting industry), is a fickle friend whose ebbs and flows are impacted by everything that happens upstream, which in turn affects the many small businesses and farmers whose livelihoods depend on our rivers.
Back in January, after nearly a month of heavy snowfall and bomb cyclones, when we ran this roundup story When It Rains, It Pours. Finally., Sierra Mac’s Tom McDonnell predicted big water on the Tuolumne and big water we got. We asked Tom to give us an update on the 2023 rafting season on the “T”.
What obstacles are you facing in opening the 2023 rafting season?
Access to and from the river has been the biggest variable for us to run trips. Lumsden Road, our normal road in, is under an extended closure. It looks like we’ll have a viable alternative on the South Fork Road down to Put-In starting this Monday.
Our normal access for takeout, Wards Ferry Road, will be closed until July. Our alternative--boat towing to Moccasin Point--is not secure yet. There are still several acres of woody debris blocking the obvious passage.
While these issues exist, we hope to run our first training trip next Tuesday, May 30.
What changes occur when snow pack/melt is this substantial?
As owners, and guides, we spend a tremendous amount of time forecasting and projecting what the river will run at. The hardest flows on the river are from 6000 CFS to 9000 CFS (Cubic Feet per Second). Flows above 9000 allow us to sneak past some of the bigger features. And below 6000, flips are fairly rare. We can’t run Cherry Creek until probably August this year, as its maximum flow is 2000 CFS for commercial trips.
What do you, as guides, do to react and adjust to these new conditions?
We spend a fair amount of time training, we rely on our senior guides to lead the way and develop our team. The guides are anxious and cautiously excited to tackle whatever the T has to offer our 2023 whitewater adventurers!
How are you, as business owners, adjusting to the conditions?
It’s been tough to adjust. We typically have trips starting in early April, but ended up having to cancel a fair number of trips as we haven’t been able to get on the river yet. In addition, we have to vet our clients more rigorously, increase our usual age minimums, and talk a lot differently about how the experience of the river will be.
When will visitors be able to run the river safely?
I still maintain that an hour on the river is more safe than an hour in the car driving around Yosemite! River trips with experienced guides provide a bigger, more active adventure. We expect to run our first commercial trips in the beginning of June.
Are there other, safe ways to enjoy the T and other local rivers during this unprecedented high water season?
That’s a good question. We’ve canceled some of our Merced trips this year already because of high water. It’s possible that the river may get too high for us to consider the run a good idea. There are sections of the Tuolumne that you can access down in the valley near Modesto. But hiking up in Tuolumne Meadows and getting to the river will be an exceptional challenge for the casual user this year.
What advice do you have for anyone wishing to enjoy water sports of any type this season?
Do your research, wear a life jacket, and remember that just because you went and enjoyed a body of water last year, there may be unique challenges and increased flows for rivers and streams. Don’t ever underestimate the power of the river!