It's time for the long, cold winter to pay us back. The melting snows and pouring rains of last winter mean one thing to whitewater rafters this spring and summer: the fun of riding roaring, rushing, gurgling and churning rivers.
The unparalleled exhilaration of river rafting can be enjoyed by anyone, from the most experienced rafters to first-timers. What's more, great whitewater rafting is found from the ranges of the West—the Sierra Nevadas in California, the Cascades in Oregon, the Bitterroot Range in Idaho, the Wasatch in Utah and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado—to the forested mountains of the East—the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the Berkshires in Massachusetts, the Appalachians in North Carolina, and the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
River runners crave the navigational challenges (not to mention the spectacular views) of the most exciting Class IV and V rivers. They include: the forks of the American River near Sacramento, California; the red rock canyons of the Bruneau River in Idaho; the Penobscot River of Maine, with its 70 feet-per-mile drops; and the 2,000-foot cliffs of the Colorado River in Utah.
Few are so difficult, however, that fit first-timers can't run them under professional instruction, though the wise wait to tackle the most difficult. Expect sporadic four- to five-foot drops that can bounce you from the raft—all part of the adrenaline rush that breaks up the idyllic calm of pools, lagoons and waterfalls.
When the flow is strong, river rafting companies use bigger rafts to navigate faster currents and crash through larger waves. In the East, off-season or shoulder-season excursions are fun, too, because companies generally use smaller boats that require more teamwork to avoid exposed obstacles. Rivers controlled by upstream dams generally have consistent water levels year-round.
Keep in mind several guidelines for choosing an outfitter. Most important is experience, especially on a particular river. A related question is the frequency of trips an outfitter makes; some conduct only a couple a week, others make a half dozen per day.
Gregg Armstrong, co-owner of All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting in Walnut Creek, California, also recommends that customers ask whether an outfitter trains and uses its own guides.
And don't forget to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Wet suits are almost always in order.
To learn more, visit www.rafting.com, www.raftingamerica.com and www.gordonsguide.com/whitewater-rafting/.