Upper Sacramento River School Trip

International Bay Area school students brave rapids

by Thom Gabrukiewicz, Record Searchlight

Wet is wet, no matter if you’re caught in a spring rain shower or bouncing down some whitewater in a big, blue rubber raft. But a mere downpour doesn’t elicit the kinds of jaw-dropping, deer-in-the-headlights looks that a spring whitewater trip down the Upper Sacramento River can generate.

A steady shower, like what was falling Tuesday in the Upper Sacramento River canyon, also doesn’t produce screaming. Lots and lots of screaming. And about 80 percent of it in French. “Actually, about 60 percent of our students are French,” Katharine Lussen, a teacher at the International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, said about the eighth- and ninth-grade spring trip. “We went to Ashland (Ore.) for some plays and went skiing at the (Mt. Shasta) Ski Park. This is our big fun before going home (Wednesday).

The school, Lussen said, was established in 1979 as a French/American institute to serve the children of French workers in Silicon Valley and at Stanford University. The school has grown to offer bilingual language immersion, either in Mandarin Chinese (pre-kindergarten through fifth grade) or French (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade). The students also learn Spanish and Latin.

Usually, the 13- and 14-year-olds go to Mexico or Washington, D.C. for their spring trip. “We decided not to go after Sept. 11,” Lussen said of the 24 students and teacher-chaperones who made the seven-day trip. “We decided to go somewhere where we can drive.” Which led the group Tuesday to the Upper Sacramento and to guide John McDermott’s River Dancers Rafting of Mount Shasta. The trip started damply at Sims Campground and ended with a warm tour bus parked at Vollmers, a trip of 12 river miles.

“I think this a great idea for a spring trip, something different where you can have fun and learn something,” said McDermott, who has been guiding on Northern California rivers for 16 years and has owned River Dancers for the past eight years. We’ll hit about 50 rapids today,” McDermott told the students during a mandatory safety talk. “We want you to have a lot of fun, but we also want you to know that this is a friendly place, a river where you can swim if you fall out of the boat.”

Spring is the best time to run the Upper Sacramento, where snowmelt swells the river and creates Class 3-4 rapids. With whitewater in that class, boaters can expect numerous high waves, exposed rocks and strong eddies. It can toss a full 12-foot, six-person rubber raft around like a insignificant piece of cork. Twenty-four pairs of eyes went very wide.
“Nervous?” guide Rodney Barr asked the students clustered around his boat. “Oui,” croaked 13-year-old Nastassia Groleau. “And I am cold.” There’s nothing like a little adrenaline to get the blood flowing.

“We’re just heading into a rapid called Hockey Shot, or some call it 16 Tons,” McDermott said. “This one’s got a great drop.”

Hockey Shot got its name after rafters and kayakers continued to run the rapid during drought years in the 1980s. “You had to run it way to the left, then bounce off a rock to continue,” McDermott said. “When the water is up, people started calling it 16 Tons, because it feels like there’s that much water pressing down on you.”

For Groleau and her friend, 13-year-old Chloe Mark, Hockey Shot was just the thrill ride that yielded a beautiful stream of French; fear never sounded so regal and continental.

“You are not dead yet, but you are close,” Mark told Groleau while holding her hands. “I think you will live.” “We’ve not lost anyone yet,” McDermott said, pointing the raft into another rapid. And another stream of screams, shrieks and nervous laughter.

“Hey, say what you will about the weather,” McDermott said. “It may be wet, but there are still a lot of smiling faces.”