By mid-April, the snowmelt from the Eddy mountains has produced a churning, frothing river high enough to float the first wave of rafters over boulders and rocks. Rafting season has begun on the Upper Sacramento River.
John McDermott, who at 57 boasts that he’s run this river “more times than anyone alive,” is about to launch his first boatload of white-water thrill seekers: two retired schoolteachers, a general contractor from Chico and this reporter. We listen a bit apprehensively to his safety lecture on the best swimming techniques if we flip out of the boat – which, McDermott quickly assures us, isn’t likely to happen.
If you can picture a warm and fuzzy Marine Corps drill instructor, a faint smile always playing across his face, that’s John McDermott. Friendly and approachable on the outside, he’s clearly someone who’s accustomed to having his orders obeyed. And we soon learn that we’d better turn left when he barks “Turn left!” if we don’t want to capsize on the boulder directly to our right.
In a stretch of calm water, we practice those turns, learning to row as a team. Then it’s “off to the races,” as McDermott puts it, heading into our first stretch of white water. It’s part baptism and part thrill ride as we bob and weave our way around boulders, splitting through waves that crash over our bow.
No one comes even close to going overboard, and as our confidence grows McDermott decides it’s time to play, to “dance” on the river. At one point, he positions the boat so it’s pointing upstream, motionless in an eddy just below a medium-size boulder, with the river surging on either side of us.
A little later, he swivels us around to float backwards and prolong the enchanting sight of a creek boiling and foaming over rocks into the river. Then we’re “surfing,” riding a wave by dipping the bow of the boat down into the wave. The boat is once again almost motionless in the midst of the surging river.
McDermott calls his rafting company River Dancers. He wants people to think of the river as a watery playground, as well as a place to appreciate and learn about nature.
“The river has been a good friend for me, and I want other people to feel that way, too,” he says.
McDermott, a native of Long Island, N.Y., moved to Mount Shasta in 1984 and began working as a river guide two years later. In 1995, he and his wife, Chantal, a native of France, formed their own rafting company. (The two have recently separated, but continue to work as partners in River Dancers.)
Their season stretches from mid-April to the end of September and includes runs on the Klamath, Salmon and Trinity rivers, as well as the Upper Sac.
For McDermott, it isn’t just about the thrills on the river. He has a deep love and respect for nature that’s evident as he points out features of the landscape along the way: a favorite tree, an eagle’s nest, the special coloring on some rocks lining the stream.
He talks about the time he sighted a dozen bald eagles on a single river outing, right when the bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List – proof, he says, that “mankind can make the right decisions.”
Days on the river can be filled with stories, legends from Native American lore about the revered buffalo, eagle and salmon. There’s the story of the “Holy Hole” in the Klamath River near a former Karok village, a spot where a rafter went under the water, began to panic, but heard a mysterious voice telling him to relax as he floated easily to the surface.
McDermott asks rafters to remain silent for 10 minutes as they glide by a sacred site of the Karoks near Happy Camp, a gesture of reverence but also a way to connect more deeply with their natural surroundings.
Over the past 14 years, John and Chantal McDermott have used river outings to forge connections with the larger community. They have at various times taken troubled teens and foster kids out on the water. On Saturday, they’ll guide a trip for the Upper Sacramento River Exchange to remove an invasive plant, the Scotch broom, from along the river’s banks. And they’ve guided countless trips for schoolchildren from Shasta and Siskiyou counties.
“John is a born teacher,” says Geoff Jones of the Redding School of the Arts, who reward his sixth- through eighth-grade honor students with a River Dancers outing every year.
“He does a fabulous job of incorporating nature into the trip without losing sight of the fact that the kids are there to have fun. They never feel they’re being lectured to, but they do learn a lot about natural history,” Jones said.
Tim Holt is a freelance journalist who lives in Dunsmuir.