Recreational whitewater rafting likely began in the 1940s on Wyoming's Snake River, when some intrepid argonauts saw a wooden boat, a gnarled mash of rocks and roiling, swift water, and thought, "That looks fun!" Thirty years later in 1972, it became an Olympic sport at the fateful Munich Games. Now, though the technology has improved — rubber rafts, helmets, lifejackets — the aim has not: It's still about harnessing nature's awesome power in pursuit of a lark.

The Trinity River is one of the few rivers in California you can raft year-round, as are the American and Klamath rivers. Unlike the Eel, whose algal blooms make a hazard for people and dogs alike, or the California Salmon, where appropriate flow exists only in the early summer, the Trinity runs clear enough and high enough that, be it December or June, you can hop in an inflatable raft to try your luck.

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"[No river] really compares to the Trinity in terms of variety and access to all ages," said Trinity River Rafting's co-owner Dana Steinhauser. Whether you're looking for a lazy float, death-defying, Class V whitewater or something in between, the Trinity has what you need.

River rapids are graded by "class." The spectrum starts at the low end with the flat, fast moving water of a Class I rapid, and goes up to Class VI, which is considered "extreme and exploratory," and generally a no-go even for the most experienced of rafters. The typical simile for a Class VI rapid is that it's like going down Niagra Falls in a barrel. The Trinity is primarily comprised of Class II and III rapids.

Steinhauser and her husband, David, have been running Trinity River Rafting since 1988. It is one of two companies along the river that offer commercial trips down the infamous Burnt Ranch section of the river. A 10.5-mile, 18-rapid-long venture at the bottom of a 700-foot canyon that offers some of the most technical and challenging stretches of river in the state.

What's kept Steinhauser and her husband at the banks of the Trinity so long is its character. "Rapids are rapids wherever you are," said Steinhauser, "but each river has its own personality. The Trinity is a beautiful, healthy river. It's remote — we see eagles every day we raft. It's an amazing river environment."

Brianna Carreira, owner of Bigfoot Rafting, agrees. "The Trinity was my first river — I'm a spoiled, spoiled girl," she laughed. "My favorite part is it's not so dangerous to where you have to be scared all the time. Whenever you do something risky, there's the 'fun-to-fear ratio' and this one's pretty even."

That said, a river is not a plaything. No matter how "easy" the course may seem, "You don't want to think you can buy your way down the river," said Steinhauser. Rafting requires respect and a regard for risk. During a high-flow year, like 2019, the current is swift and cold from snow melt; when the water is down, there are more rocks upon which to smash yourself. Care and attention should always be paid. Everyone has their own do's and don'ts, but some are more or less universal:

Don't wear jeans, don't raft a river for the first time without a guide or knowledgeable companion, don't wear flip flops and don't bring glass. The biggest do is "tip your guide."

On the Trinity alone — and the Trinity is the chief recreational river in the area — there are no fewer than four companies offering trips down various sections. Bigfoot Rafting Co., Trinity River Rafting, Six Rivers Rafting and Redwoods & Rivers (which also runs a guide school) all operate within 3 miles of one another along State Route 299.

click to enlarge MICHAEL KAHAN
  • Michael Kahan

"We're pretty cohesive out here, which is great," said Carreira. "We share guides sometimes or, if a huge group wants to go out and we don't have the boats, we are not afraid to call each other and ask if they want in on the trip."

Each company offers a wide range of trips, varying in both length and difficulty, from the Hawkins Bar beginner run to the more technical and exciting Pigeon Point trip.

At the beginning of what appears to be a hot, hot summer, there's no better way to spend a day than to strap on a personal floatation device and traverse the wild rivers of Northern California. It looks like fun, right?

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Thomas Oliver

Thomas Oliver

Thomas Oliver lives in McKinleyville.

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