Floating the Upper Sacramento River

Herald and News

Paddle rafters find safe thrills while rafting down the Upper Sacramento River south of Dunsmuir

Story and Photos by Lee Juillerat, Herald and News, Klamath Falls

Upper Sacramento River
The joy and magic of a shared adventure

Don’t wait too long to see for yourself the beauty of the Upper Sacramento River. How many times have I driven along Interstate 5 between Dunsmuir and Shasta Lake, caught glimpses of the Sacramento River and wondered what it looked like from river level.
Those wondering days are over. After a exhilarating day-long paddle raft trip along a 12-mile stretch of the Upper Sacramento, wondering has given way to a sense of wonder. The Sacramento truly is a river of wonders. California’s largest river, its headwaters are in the Trinity Mountains west of Mount Shasta. The river flows south through Dunsmuir, Shasta Lake and along the Interstate 5 corridor past Redding, Red Bluff, Chico and Sacramento until draining 327 miles later in the Suisin Bay northeast of the San Francisco Bay area.
The river takes in a massive area, a region that spans 27,000 square miles. The Sacramento is a major source of irrigation water for a diverse agricultural economy, is an important fishery and offers a variety of recreational opportunities.
One of those recreational opportunities is traveling the 12 miles by paddle raft. Unlike the wildly ferocious Upper Klamath River, the Upper Sacramento is relatively easy river trip, with a long series of Class 3 rapids that keep the travel interesting but not dangerous.
Surprisingly, it’s an easy drive via Highway 97 and I-5 to the Sacramento’s put-in, less than a two-hour drive. In contrast with the Klamath, or even the Rogue, shuttles are simple.

A recent trip included two first-time paddlers. Both had previously been intimidated by more rollicking rivers. Despite some initial hesitations, both had great times. Well into the trip, one newbie found her way to the front of the raft and quickly savored the occasional full-body baths in larger rapids. “The excitement,” she said of the allure. “Crashing through the whitewater. Being able to stay in the raft. The scenery.”

Ah, the scenery. The Upper Sacramento is a passage through hidden beauty, especially sections where the watery trail narrows through tight canyons and pauses in grottoes decorated with seeping springs and canopies of trees, cascading flowers and vines.

We passed underneath a bald eagle nest, where a white-headed guardian stood sentinel. We were intoxicated by fragrant scents of blooming azaleas, saw western pond turtles sunbathing on rock and tree limbs, and marveled at the profusion of Elephant’s ear and Indian rhubarb. Solitary mergansers jetted up and downstream, but more often we viewed pairs of males and females quietly glided in the current, or mothers herding groups of fuzzy-haired babies.
River guide John McDermott provided a commentary on waterfowl, fishing prospects, legends, geology, flowers and raptors while confidently and gleefully directing our paddle raft into the heart of blubbery rapids.
Paddling the Upper Sacramento means that driving along I-5 between Dunsmuir and Shasta Lake will never be the same. Now the only thing I’ll wonder is why I waited so long to see it from river level.