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Death serves as safety reminder along American River

While area river rescues are common, fatalities are rare
By: Justin A. Lawson Journal Staff Writer
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The American River has been utilized by gold miners, power companies and has served as a water source for towns and cities along the way. It can also be used for recreational activities with the young and old scattered along its shores daily. But the recreational use of the American River can come at a cost if people aren?t safe. ?Over the years how many privates (people who raft without a guide) have we rescued because they?ve been in inexpensive rubber duckies that they?ve picked up at Walmart?? said Donna Hunter, owner of Mariah Wilderness Expeditions. The danger of the river was shown just last week when Stan Decker, 59, of Rohnert Park died during a whitewater rafting trip in the north fork. The results of an autopsy are still pending (a heart attack is suspected), but Decker?s death serves as a reminder of the precautions people need to take around the river. ?Most of our swimmer fatalities are people getting into the river for recreational purposes other than whitewater rafting,? said Scott Liske, supervising ranger for the Auburn State Recreation Area. ?They may be tubing, an innertube, or may get on an inflatable air mattress and they get into rapids that they shouldn?t be in.? Fatalities are a rare occurrence along the river with less than one a year in the north and middle forks near Auburn. In the confluence area last year seven swimmers had to be rescued and only one of those fell in, Liske said. Commercial trips have proven to be the safest with the last death more than 15 years ago, said Liske. River guides are a big reason for safety among outfitters. They undergo intensive classes to learn how to judge currents and participate in swift water rescue training, just as the sheriff?s and fire department do, to ensure the safety of all rafters. ?They are not memorizing the rapids, they are learning what the rapids are saying,? Hunter said. ?So if something changes the configuration of the rapids for that particular day they can deal with it.? The river can be especially dangerous near the Auburn area where the rapids range from Class II to V. The north fork may have seen its peak flow already, Liske said, but cold water from melting snow is flowing higher than what is typically seen in midsummer. The middle fork is most dangerous in the afternoon when water is released for power production cycles. Along the confluence there are a number of gravel bars and rocky terrain that could prove tricky to children, who could be easily swept down river on a misstep. If someone is swept into the river most rescues involve a helicopter, either from the California Highway Patrol based in North Auburn or the sheriff?s departments. Life jackets are available on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the Auburn State Recreation Area. While Hunter received calls following Decker?s death ? which occurred while on a trip with a different outfitter ? from concerned customers who had already booked trips, she said the river guide will do everything to ensure a rafter?s safety. ?The guide is always making decisions that will promote your enjoyment of the trip as well as keeping you safe,? Hunter said. ?The idea there is to look toward their guide as their leader.?