American River Middle Fork near Foresthill
This is an excellent commercial rafting run, with more exciting rapids and better solitude than the South Fork American offers, even on weekdays. During “crowded” weekends on the Middle Fork American, you encounter so few people that you might be glad to see them. Tunnel Chute (usually rated class V) is quite an adrenalin rush, and the portage around Ruck-a-Chucky (formerly rated unrunnable) is amazing. Additionally there are two challenging class IV rapids, and many class III rapids for several miles at start and finish.
Due to difficult shuttle and long distance on the river, this stretch makes an excellent overnight trip with a commercial rafting outfitter. The outfitter takes care of shuttle, provides meals, optional camping, and puts a trained guide in each boat.
This is also a good kayaking run in summertime, especially as a change of pace from the Tuolumne or South Fork American. There are fewer rapids here than on the Tuolumne, but the scenery is better. Usually starting in July, there is a bountiful blackberry harvest in the middle (flatwater) portion.
In his 1974 guidebook, Charles Martin wrote that this run has “by far the most interesting rapids of the dam-controlled rivers that flow during the summer. However, the long paddling distance, the strenuous portages, and the difficult shuttle have kept this run from gaining the popularity it deserves.” Things have improved since then! A dedicated put-in eliminates one mile of flatwater paddling on Ralston Afterbay and a portage around Ralston dam. The rocks at Tunnel Chute seem less sharp and intimidating than they did over 30 years ago, eliminating a second portage. High water in 1992 changed Ruck-a-Chucky rapid from unrunnable to merely class V+, so the portage doesn't seem so bad now.
It should be mentioned that commercial rafting (and kayaking) would be eliminated if Auburn Dam were ever built. At one time this entire run was to have been drowned under Auburn reservoir, but discovery of an earthquake fault near the dam site worried downstream residents in Sacramento, so the project was shelved. Meanwhile requisite construction costs have escalated, so the dam becomes increasingly unaffordable in these days of budget deficits. In late 2007, construction features were removed, the first phase of converting the dam site to a recreation resource.
In early summer, Oxbow powerhouse usually releases 1150 cfs around the clock. In late summer, releases start around 6:00 AM, except for occasional unpredictable days with no release. In drought years there are often no releases on Sundays. You can put in as soon as hydropower releases start, or at sunrise, whichever comes last. Given the length of this run, it's good to begin early.
For the first few miles, water is swift with good gradient. At mile 2.5 you must choose to either run or portage class V Tunnel Chute. In the olden days, fiberglass kayaks turned sideways would be destroyed here, but nobody paddles kayaks that long nowadays. Commercial passengers sometimes fall out of boats, getting bruised and occasionally breaking bones here. However most people, if they swim, do so at the bottom where there is little risk of injury.
After passing thru a man-made tunnel, boaters encounter good class III rapids for another few miles. At mile 5 comes Kanaka Falls, a class IV similar to Sunderland's Chute. Avoid complacency: kayakers have dislocated shoulders here. A 4WD road climbs out of the canyon from Cash Rock at mile 6.
After that the gradient tapers off, and boaters encounter flatwater (class I-II) until near the end. However this the section has fine scenery and, along the banks, ripe blackberries in mid summer. It would be wonderful to camp overnight in this section. There are several campsites with composting toilets near mile 13.
Around mile 14 the whitewater begins again, with class IV Upper Ruck-a-Chucky rapid, a portage, and a long series of class III-IV rapids to end the trip.
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Map of Rivers