A Rite of Passage: Floating Down the Sacramento River

There are a few activities all NorCal locals have to do and perhaps the most important one is floating down the Sacramento River. But it's far more than just another outdoor activity; it's a rite of passage.

By Frances Griffey 

There are a few activities all NorCal locals have to do: walk across the Sundial Bridge, visit Turtle Bay, go to Lake Shasta and Whiskeytown Lake and float down the Sacramento River.

After being traumatized on a rafting trip in Trinity as a child, I vowed never to step inside a raft again. But I recently broke that promise to do something I should have done a long time ago, and I’m glad I did.

It was an unusually cloudy and cool morning for a Redding summer day. My family and I met Lance Law, owner of North Country Raft Rental, at 10:30 a.m. at Riverside Park to embark on a rafting adventure; I was both excited and nervous.

“I love this river. It’s such an important watershed,” Law told me. His admiration for the river is obvious and contagious.

Because of its cold and clear water, people are naturally drawn to the river, especially in the summertime, Law said. It’s the ultimate refresher on a hot summer’s day.

My parents’ house is on the river, so I had spent quite a few years seeing it from the backyard and outside my bedroom widow. It’s hard to believe that I, someone born and raised in Northern California, hadn’t yet floated down it. It almost seemed like a rite of passage I hadn’t fulfilled.

So there I was, finally at the river’s edge stepping into a huge inflatable blue raft. With oar in hand and the Sundial Bridge looming above us, I paddled out with my family onto the Sacramento River for the very first time.


The number one rule of rafting down the river: wear a life jacket.

“The basics are always wear your life jacket and keep your eyes downstream. Give yourself plenty of time to react to any obstacle that you might be approaching,” Law said. “And have fun; enjoy the scenery, get in the water.”

And get in the water I did. The water itself is around 52 degrees in the summer, but the shocking chill of the river in contrast to the intense dry heat is the perfect refreshing combination.

“That’s kind of the beauty of it, really, because it’s hot out so you get in the water. Nobody really swims in the river but you can definitely jump into the river. Then you get back out and you’re just totally refreshed,” Law said. “It gets your core temp down a little bit if you stay in it for a couple minutes and then you’re fine. You just get out and it can be 105 degrees and you’re just cruisin’. It’s nice.”

For obvious safety reasons, it’s important to have a decent raft or floatation device for going down the river. Law doesn’t recommend using a tube or pool-toy type rafts because with these devices, you have little control and you’re ultimately at the mercy of the current.

“We call them one-trip wonders,” he said. “One trip through the berry bush and you wonder what happened to your raft.”

But floating down the river isn’t that tough. In fact, Law said you could probably float down on a log if you just use some common sense. But if you’re not paying attention, not matter what kind of device you’re in, you may find yourself at the edge of the river and getting drug through the bushes. This results in the raft being filled with spiders, insects and leaves. With my intense arachnophobia, we avoided the overhanging bushes like the plague.

Besides the danger of bugs and bushes, there’s one spot on the river everyone should avoid. I saw it protruding from the water upstream and my heartbeat sped up. Below Bonnyview bridge, there’s an infamous log sticking out on the left side of the river that has not only wrecked a lot of boats, but taken more than a few lives. When people hit that log, they get thrown from the boat and can easily drown in the strong current.

“If you’re not paying attention you will naturally just drift right into the thing,” Law said. “It’s like a magnet. It’s like a black hole.”

The log itself was easy enough to avoid, but with not infrequent press about river accidents many people fear the river. They believe the river equals death (my little brother, who was on the raft with me, must have said the world “die” at least 20 times over the four-hour journey). But compared to the hundreds of successful trips, injuries really aren’t that common.

“I don’t think the river should be feared, I think the river should be respected,” Law said seriously.

For me, the only somewhat scary (but more exciting) part of the float was going through rapids. Coming upon the first big series of rapids, the trauma from my childhood rafting experience flashed before my eyes. I wasn’t paddling at the time so I clutched the side of the raft with both hands. We hit the rapids sideways by mistake and a wave crashed over our boat, covering our feet in a layer of chilly water. But we didn’t die, so it was a success in my book. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be and by the end of the trip, I actually enjoyed going through the white water.

“It is scary. It’s scary-fun,” Law said, accurately describing the rafting experience.

Lance Law calls the Sacramento River an “urban wilderness,” and after rafting down it myself, I can see why.

“This river’s wild. Even though it’s damned and the flows are controlled and all of that, it’s a wilderness,” he said.

The wilderness and the scenery is what makes going down the river more than worth it. During my float, I saw four eagles, dozens of ducks and geese, egrets, herons, and other birds I’d never seen before. Besides wildlife, elegant homes and the lush greenery of trees and bushes along riverbank, the river is scattered with fishermen, boaters, kayakers and other rafters.

At one point on our voyage, the river sheriff stopped next to our raft to ask us how our day was going. We made some small talk for a while and told him we were first-time rafters on the Sacramento River and were heading to Anderson. He told us we’d missed the turn and were almost to Red Bluff.

My heart sunk in my chest. How could this be? We were only on the river for about three hours and it was supposed to take four to get to our destination. Of course this would happen on my first time back on a raft, I thought.

The sheriff laughed and immediately I realized he was joking. Of course we hadn’t passed Anderson. Ha. Ha.

When I saw the orange-painted tree after four hours I knew our adventure was at an end. We had floated almost 14 miles, from Redding all the way to Anderson. We’d made it intact. After that experience my fear of rafting has faded (although I don’t see myself going on any class four rapids anytime soon) and I can’t wait to go again.

“I think people should do it just so that they realize it’s just one more fun thing that they can do. It’s one more activity that you can do in living in Redding,” Law said.

So now’s your chance to float (or continue floating) down the Sacramento River. Soak up some sun, get a little wet and see Mother Nature in action. The Sacramento River is more than just a source of water and energy for Northern California; it’s a part of our identity.

“What makes the Sacramento River unique is the fact that it’s right through the middle of town,” Law said. “If you live in Redding, you’re going over the river all the time. Everywhere you go in town you see the river. It’s an icon.”

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