Sunday, July 01, 2007


Kayaking on a class I+ river by moonlight

Sunscreen is not needed, but bring your vampire repellent!!

If you have good boating skills and do the necessary planning, then kayaking by the light of a full moon can give a fresh perspective on a river trip. A section of river that is very familiar and very easy by daylight becomes a new challenge when explored by moonlight. We were very careful to scout our put-in and take-out in advance by daylight, making especially sure that we wouldn't miss our take-out in the dark.

We got there a little early, so we waited for while at put-in and watched the last light from sunset fade away in the west and the stars and planets appear in the darkening sky. Then we launched when we saw the first glow of some moonlight in the east. One boat was overly eager to get going and launched without its paddler, but once it was recaptured the boat was well-behaved for the rest of the night.

Heading down the river in the very faint twilight it was quite a shock when we got to a gap in the trees along the shoreline and suddenly we were bathed in full moonlight. It felt as if somebody had switched on a spotlight. Pretty quickly the moon rose above the treeline and then we had full moonlight for the rest of the trip.

Vision was greatly reduced relative to that in the daytime, especially the lack of color vision and reduced depth perception. While still straining to see as much as possible, I became more aware of sounds and the feelings of the boat interacting with waves and currents in the water. Even the easiest of class II- rapids were heard long before they were seen. Tension built as I struggled to see, realized that I couldn't see as much as I am used to, then used whatever sensory inputs I could to deal with the situation.

Pay extra attention to safety

The hazard profile for a moonlight river trip is different from that in daytime. It is extra important to keep the group together because boaters who drift apart quickly become unrecognizable dots in the distance. It is hard to recognize hazards at a distance. It is critical to know what hazards look like in the daytime and how to avoid them because you will have less time to react when a hazard finally becomes recognizable in the moonlight. To avoid losing people and gear make sure you don't swim and don't ever let go of your paddle! If a swimmer rescue was ever needed it would be exceedingly difficult to recognize hazards along the shore, so it would be really critical to find a safe place to get to shore. The shoreline on the side where the moon is located was in a deep, dark shadow from the trees along the shoreline. Most places the only hope of finding a safe beach for a rescue would have been on the opposite shoreline where the light was typically much better.

We heard and/or saw lots of wildlife, including deer, beavers, ducks & geese, owl, bats and crickets. Fortunately no human wildlife was encountered, either on or off the river.

Newman's chocolate chip cookies were a big treat at take-out.

More about:
This part of the lower American River is protected in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Program.
Trip Reports - California Whitewater River Kayaking.

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The moon light paddle on the lower American River was a wonderfully mellow and delightful excursion. We at least think that we 'saw' beavers. In one spot several large creatures went off the bank into the river leading to massive splashes. Half a minute later there were the loud 'whaps' around us for a minute or two that I have seen beavers produce. Someone did not want us where we were. We did see quite a large number of water birds asleep on the shore and a few foraging in the dark and of course some large splashes which I assume were salmonids. However, the real treat was watching the trees zip by in the dark, the stars move overhead as the boats twisted their way down the river, and the moon first on one side of the river then another. Surprisingly until the end there were no city noises and few houses were visible. The moon light on the water was quite bright, but the light was still dim enough for a mystical quality. This was truly a relaxing and memorable experience. As one would expect with a moderate gradient in a 5000+ cfs river there were occasionally some large waves and funny water that one does not see on small rivers, but there was no adrenaline on this trip. Maybe it was the magic of the moment or maybe a chance to drift and think, but the trip brought back pleasant memories of paddling a canoe all night under the norther nights in Canada's Quetico while the loons sang and paddling a perogue through the Atchafalia swamp in pitch black trying to record frog calls and avoid the cotton mouths. The only downer on this trip was that the expedition photographer took no pictures.

On the other hand, such a trip on any river is worth thinking carefully about. Both the surprisingly large (but gentle) waves and funny water could easily have eaten a beginner. This is a big river and warm by kayaker standards, but a long swim would have been a very cold swim. Clearly boats, paddles and swimmers could easily be lost in the gloom and strong current. I was surprised once to run around on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. Also a small mid river island turned out to be the strainer from hell when we got close to it. The put-in and take-out were smooth because of the excellent homework of BruceT. However, one could easily have problems with petty officials at the put-in and miss finding a take-out along the steep, strainer lined bank at the other end. After deciding the portage was more dangerous than the run, we did Trouble Maker on the S. Fork of the American in the pitch black years ago. No one swam in Trouble Maker but this was not an experience I would want to repeat. The lower American is an experience I would like to repeat. Since we do get stuck out sometimes, maybe running the occasional class II with closed eyes to get the feel of the river is good training.
I am also disappointed that our photographer was such a slacker!! Next time I'll have to remember to get the camera out of the pocket in my pfd. What can I say, maybe mesmerized by the moonlight?
great paddle. felt comfortable with the logistics of the trip when bruce t. handed us maps to the initial stop, and knew i was in for a mellow trip. the put-in area was easy and the portage to it smooth, and the wait for the moon was the classic summer night. got to see the variety of creatures that cruise the bike path a dusk, and we appreciated the latent heat the path collected through the day while contemplating if we could actually float down without a risen moon.

we waited. once we recovered a boat that pushed itself into the water, we were off. passed on the traditional roll as i get into the water as i am not geared up with winter paddling gear, and being submerged to start the paddle would have been really cold.

the moon rise was worth the paddle. it was behind a tree as the river bent, so the moon light lit the river in an instant. at that point, there was no question that there was enough light to paddle by.

the run was more a perspective from the river at night than challenge, and it was nice to be on the river with the people who were there. the splashes referred to in earlier posts are hereby confirmed, and my bet too is on beavers in the water. it sounded like 15 pound fish jumping out of the water, and at one point there were three of those within a couple of minutes. so there is a lively group of fauna active at night.

the final part of the paddle was really smooth and was a good way to warm up. found the pull-out with ease away we went. was really tired on the way home, but well worth time and energy. great way to appreciate the place i live. thanks for including me.
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