1. Get there The Coloma to Lotus run on the south fork of the American (at Coloma, about three hours from the East Bay) is excellent for beginners. For a pittance, you can camp at river's edge and go again the next day. Once you're ready to progress, try the Coloma to Greenwood run, the Mokelumne-Electra run (outside Jackson, less than three hours), and Cache Creek (at Guinda, about two hours).
2. Do it now The season starts with winter rains and continues through summer, which is best for beginners. Newbies swim a lot while learning, and nothing beats a warm day for keeping up your core temperature and enthusiasm.
3. Know your ratings Note that any river can be dangerous, and that these subjective ratings change with weather and flow volume.
Class I -- moving water, good for tubing, no rapids
Class II -- waves up to three feet, looks like fun, but scary for wimps
Class III -- bigger waves, narrow passages, complex maneuvers required
Class IV -- long, difficult rapids with narrow passages, very turbulent, rescues difficult
Class V -- extreme difficulty, congested routes, mishaps can be life-threatening
Class VI -- only idiots need apply
4. Stay alive Never run a river alone, or without an experienced person who knows that river well. Novices should start with a professional rafting trip or kayaking class. A guide or instructor can teach you about the safety issues that apply to your river-running desires.
5. Be prepared You'll need scuba booties or Teva sandals, shorts, sunscreen, food, and drinking water. Guided trips provide gear such as life vests, helmets, and sleeveless wetsuits. These may also be purchased or rented from California Canoe & Kayak (Oakland, 510-893-7833, www.calkayak.com), REI (Berkeley, 510-527-4140, www.rei.com), Pacific River Supply (El Sobrante, 510-223-3675, www.pacificriversupply.com) and other specialty retailers.
6. Hire a guide Most people get their first river-running experience in a raft. A guided trip lets you experience the beauty of the river and feel the different classes of rapids while someone competent watches your rear end. For a list of rafting outfitters, visit the South Fork American River Web site at www.coloma.com/sfam or call local outfitter Cal Adventures at 510-642-4000.
7. Learn to kayak A two-day weekend class will introduce you to moving water. Be prepared to make friends, as you may need some boating buddies for future beginner runs. Here are four reputable outfits: California Canoe & Kayak (see above, class info: 800-366-9804); Deriemer's Adventure Kayaking (Lotus, 530-295-0830, www.adventurekayaking.com); Fluid Dynamics (Lotus, 888-882-1740, www.kayakclass.com); and Current Adventures (Lotus, 888-452-9254, www.kayaking.com).
8. Get involved Gold Country Paddlers is a Northern California association of casual boaters -- a great place to meet boating partners (510-482-9673, www.rivervilla.com). Experienced boaters might consider volunteering with Environmental Traveling Companions (415-474-7662, www.etctrips.org) or the Sierra Club's Inner-City Outings (415-820-3988, www.sierraclub.org/ico).
9. Read a book Useful guidebooks give you directions, river ratings, seasonal flow information, and colorful commentary on each run. Two good options are California Whitewater by Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun, and The Best Whitewater in California by Lars Holbek and Chuck Stanley.
10. Go online The Net is an indispensable resource for modern-day boaters. You'll find up-to-the-minute flow info for California rivers and entertaining photos of runs you'll enjoy vicariously or eventually. www.creekin.net and www.boof.com are two favorites. -- Drew Rawles
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