The current Sierra snowpack melt is a welcome occurrence for Californians and its visitors for several reasons ranging from agriculture to water recreation. Yosemite National Park is now reaping the water runoff benefits. One recreation benefit includes floating the Merced River between Stoneman Bride and Sentinel Beach.
With the Pohono Bridge river gauge now below 6.5 feet, the Merced is active with folks floating through the Valley. Unfortunately, increased activity, along with lack of planning, preparedness, and inadequate equipment has led to three search and rescue cases involving four persons just in the past week as follows:
#1 - Near North Pines Campground (above Stoneman Bridge) a young male and female adult in an inflatable raft are unable to negotiate obstacles in heavy current and collide with a tree. Neither have personal floatation devices (PFDs), aka “life jackets.” They scramble up the tree and await rescue.
#2 - A 60 year-old male unties his inflatable raft from a group of other rafts. Although he recently inflated his raft, it is now roughly half deflated which affects its buoyancy and maneuverability. He misses the take-out point, ditches his raft, and tries to swim to shore. He is not wearing a PFD. He is able to grab a buoy and a companion is briefly able to assist him. When he tries to stand, the combination of poor footing and strong current carries him downstream and he disappears. An active search is underway as of this writing.
#3 - A solo young male in an inflatable raft near North Pines Campground is not able to negotiate obstacles in the heavy current. His raft passes through a strainer (a cluster of branches in the river). The strainer separates him from his raft which he is able to grab on the other side of the strainer. He then grabs a tree which he scrambles up and awaits rescue. He is wearing a PFD but rescuers note it is not properly buckled but it is not known if this is the result of passing through the strainer. Rafting in an area of the river which is not open to rafting has dangerous rapids as well as trees and other obstacles. After being rescued the young man is issued a violation notice for rafting in a closed area.
What Went Right
In the two successful SARs, all three persons remained calm and stayed in place to await professional rescue.
Do some planning and research before leaving home. What are current river conditions? Where are there hazards to avoid? What type of equipment is suitable for these conditions? What are the local legal requirements? (Please see https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/boating.htm). In all three cases, the rafts in use were probably not of a suitable quality for current Merced River conditions. While we make no brand recommendations, it is suggested that persons wanting to float any river consult with a reputable outfitter who is knowledgeable about river recreation and can recommend a proper watercraft for such conditions. The old adage is often true: “you get what you pay for.” Are you ready to put your life into it?
Always wear a properly fitted and serviceable PFD on the river – we do. Anyone 18 and older floating the Merced is required to have a Coast Guard PFD immediately available (under 18 must wear their PFD). This is a fairly universal boating requirement. However, occupants of large vessels almost always have time to obtain an “immediately available” PFD if something starts to go wrong or conditions change. This is rarely the case where swift water is involved because mishaps occur very quickly.
Stick to the commercially approved area of the Merced River: Stoneman Bridge to Sentinel Beach. The river is currently about class 1 or class 2 in this area, but above and below are up to class 3, class 4, and higher. Obstacles are also more prevalent outside of the commercial area. When looking for a place to float and you notice your area of the river is nearly abandoned while other parts of the river are full of rafters, ask yourself, “is something unsafe about this section of the river?”
Boat with companions. There is greater safety in numbers.
Strongly consider a wetsuit. The water flowing through Yosemite Valley is recent snowmelt and can be anywhere between 40° and 50° Fahrenheit (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv/?site_no=11264500). Sudden immersions will cause cold-shock and hypothermia can set in rapidly.
In summary, the Merced River is currently providing opportunity for recreation. However, no one should attempt river recreation unless they are well versed in its hazards including its powerful currents, cold water temperatures, entrapments and other dangers. Combine these natural conditions with lack of planning or experience and unsuitable watercraft or no equipment, and your day of river fun can quickly come to ruin. Respect the river.