Time to take advantage of Sierra's raging rapids

A torrent of white water is about to be unleashed on the Sierra's rivers, triggering the biggest rafting season in years. All that's needed is a little hot weather.

Combine a larger-than-normal snowpack and mild spring temperatures, and it's no wonder commercial outfitters sound so excited.

"It's going to be a fantastic year," said Justin Butchert, owner of Fresno-based Kings River Expeditions. "The snowpack is sitting up there -- that's in the bank -- and it hasn't really come down yet."

According to the latest Department of Water Resources forecast, released May 1, the statewide snowpack contains a water content that is 143 percent of average.

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, it was 34 percent of average.

Even though the northern Sierra (188 percent) boasts the fattest numbers, the central Sierra (121 percent) and southern Sierra (139 percent) fared pretty well, too.

That's great news for central San Joaquin Valley residents -- who live within easy driving distance of five rivers with commercial rafting -- looking to enjoy nature's finest roller coasters this summer.

"We're expecting the best season in many years," said Bob Ferguson, who started Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions in 1973. "The thing that's been different this year is April and May have been relatively cool, which slows the melt down and keeps the flows steady.

"It's ramping up slowly, but we haven't had the big deluge yet."

Because peak flows typically follow four or five straight days of 95-degree temperatures, when they will arrive is anyone's guess. But whether it comes down gradually or all at once, there is enough snowpack to assure a nice, long season.

As evidence, KRE already has taken 1,500 rafters down the Kings and is booking trips through mid- to late August -- one month longer than usual. Ditto on the Merced River, a popular side trip for Yosemite tourists. The Kaweah River, meanwhile, should have enough flow for rafting trips through mid-July. And dam-fed rivers like the Tuolumne and Lower Kern are expected to ferry passengers into September.

Here's the skinny on the aforementioned five rivers using the standard rating system from Class I (easy) to Class VI (death traps).

Kings: It's the Sierra's largest river by volume. Featuring Class III rapids and sparkling clear water, the Kings is perfect for novice paddlers with an experienced guide. Families with young children typically go in July when flows have mellowed. (KRE offers select half-day trips for $99.)

Kaweah: Steep and swift, the stretch from the Gateway Restaurant outside Sequoia National Park to Lake Kaweah is rated Class IV. In big years like this one, there aren't many dull moments throughout the 10-mile run. (Kaweah Whitewater Adventures has three-quarter-day trips from $100 and afternoon trips for as low as $40.)

Tuolumne: The Mighty "T," as it's commonly known, offers challenging Class IV+ rapids as well as breathtaking scenery with excellent campsites and (in late season) granite-lined swimming holes.

"It's one of the most beautiful and remote Class IV two-day trips in America," Ferguson said.

Merced: Free-flowing stretch between Briceburg and Lake McClure rated Class III+ or IV depending on flow levels, which tend to peter out by late June. Rapids are considered tougher than the Kings, especially at high volume.

Kern: Like three rivers in one, rafters can choose between the dam-controlled Lower Kern, the free-flowing Upper Kern (both rated Class III-IV) or the wild, adventurous Forks of the Kern, which features near-nonstop Class V rapids during its 22-mile run through spectacular canyon scenery.

"The Forks of the Kern is almost designed by Walt Disney in that you drive to the backcountry and then float toward home," said Keith Stephens, general manager of Kern River Outfitters. "The logistics are perfect."