Two weekend rescues on American River

Auburn rafting company brings family to shore
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal features editor
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Last weekend saw two swift-water rescues at the American River Confluence, as people out to spend a day at the river found themselves stranded after the water rose.

Norm Schoenhoff, owner of Auburn’s Whitewater Excitement, was taking a group of people down the company’s new China Bar Run Friday when the group saw a fire truck, ranger truck and an El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office vehicle about ¾ of a mile from the confluence.

The incident was called in to the El Dorado Sheriff’s Office at 5:27 p.m., according to Sgt. Phil Chovanec.

“We responded to a call of seven people stranded out in the middle of the river at the confluence,” he said. “Apparently the water was rising, as it often does in the late afternoon.”

A Search and Rescue ground unit and helicopter were dispatched, but by the time they arrived Schoenhoff had assisted by sending someone in a raft to pick the family up and bring them to the other side, he said, where they arrived safely.

“They walked across the river and they were picnicking on a nice sandy beach, and all of a sudden the river came up and they were stranded over there,” Schoenhoff said.

The group – a couple with young children – had walked across the river earlier in the day, before water released from the Oxbow Powerhouse, about 25 miles upstream, reached the area, Schoenhoff said.

 “By then, people have already hiked across and they don’t know that the water’s going to rise every day,” he said. “The river rises significantly, and they get stranded out there. It’s nothing new.”

The water can rise up to a foot or two in some areas, he added, and there are signs that warn people of the dangers.

On Sunday, another Whitewater Excitement tour witnessed a rescue situation in which a teenager was stranded on a rock in the middle of the “Heaven’s Gate” rapid, which Schoenhoff said is approaching a Class III status.

Schoenhoff said a firefighter swam out to the girl and threw a safety throw rope to another firefighter, who was sitting on a rock upstream. That firefighter attempted to pull the rescuer and the teen back to the calm area, but was unsuccessful and the firefighter and girl ended up floating down a rocky section of the rapid before reaching shore.

“Just that extra foot or two of water makes the river impassable by swimming,” Schoenhoff said. “It makes it very dangerous in that area down by the confluence … when the water is low, when they first get there, it just looks like a little tranquil place with some calm pools, but once the water comes up, it turns into a pretty dangerous rapid.”