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Rapids — and rafting — roar back to life as Sierra Nevada snowpack melts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After years of drought, rivers across California are flowing fast and furious. The record-setting melting snowpack is pushing water down from the mountains. The deluge has caused billions in damages to some farms and communities in parts of central California, but it's good news if your business is whitewater rafting. Joshua Yeager of member station KVPR takes us to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the upper Kern River.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

JOSHUA YEAGER, BYLINE: Almost as soon as we launch our boat into the river, the directions start coming in a cascade as swift as the water.

MILES CURTIS: Forward, forward - keep going.

YEAGER: Our guide is Miles Curtis. He's been navigating the Kern for decades, which is a good thing because we've got a major rapid right ahead of us, and the water feels like ice, even through my wetsuit.

CURTIS: Dig in. Keep going. Yahoo. Yeah, baby.

YEAGER: Millions of gallons of white, foaming water swirl around us. This rapid is called Powerhouse, named after a century-old hydroelectric plant that towers overhead. After about 45 seconds of adrenaline-pumping paddling, we're through it.

MATT VOLPERT: So we are having what we call a big water year.

YEAGER: That's Matt Volpert, who runs Kern River Outfitters here. His shop looks like a stable. Big rafts hang from the ceiling. We talk outside.

VOLPERT: We've had flows now that are higher than anything we've seen since 1983.

YEAGER: The snowpack here in the southern Sierra is 300% of average.

VOLPERT: And when that starts melting, we have high water, and people love high water. Think of, like, the best powder day you've ever had.

YEAGER: But the high water also brings more risk. Authorities are urging people to be extra safe on surging, freezing rivers. Already this year, several people have been swept away. Volpert says customers have to show that they're fit enough to raft, and guides are doing extra training.

VOLPERT: They have to know every rock, every wave, every hole.

YEAGER: The potential danger hasn't deterred customers from enjoying the massive flows. In fact, here on the Kern, a big water year means big business.

VOLPERT: It means we're going to be really busy. So we opened on April 1, and we expect to be running until mid-September.

YEAGER: That's months longer than the most recent seasons, if you could even call them that. The Kern was barely a trickle before a dozen-plus atmospheric rivers drenched California this winter. Drought conditions have been so severe at times that they forced Volpert to close his business. At one point, he considered quitting for good.

VOLPERT: You know, we actually talk about it all the time. Like, man, what are we doing here?

YEAGER: It's a question outfitters throughout the West ask with increasing frequency. That's according to Aaron Bannon, director of America Outdoors. He represents 300 whitewater companies nationwide. He says many in California are working hard to adapt to the state's extreme weather whiplash, worsened by human-caused climate change. Some have modified trips when flows are piddly.

AARON BANNON: Maybe you, you know, do two half-day trips instead of one full-day trip.

YEAGER: Despite biblical-seeming challenges - the pandemic, wildfires, drought, flooding - Bannon and others say outfitters are a resilient bunch.

CURTIS: Forward two. Forward two.

YEAGER: Back on the river, we've just gone through another rapid. Our guide, Curtis, has his fingers crossed that the so-called big melt of the record snowpack doesn't happen too fast and make the river too dangerous. In the meantime, Curtis says rafters should make the most of a banner season.

CURTIS: Yep, this is the season to raft.

BANNON: And as high temperatures rise across the Sierra, the high water might be the place to beat the heat.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua Yeager on the upper Kern River.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joshua Yeager