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The amount of water that flows down a river is guaged as cubic feet per second, or cfs. The North Fork of the American is a free flowing river which means there are no dams in the mountains to hold back water upstream from the section that we conduct trips. Water flows are dependent on snow melt so for most of the year the North Fork is just a trickle with water flows ranging from 200-400 cfs but during the months of April to June the Sierra snows melt and the river swells to 1000-3000 cfs which is ideal for rafting. Conditions on the North Fork vary from year to year based on the amount of winter snows we receive. In years of below normal snowfall we may have a limited season or no season at all on the North Fork.

On the other hand, the South and Middle Fork American both have upstream dams and reservoirs that store the melted snow runoff to later release it for hydroelectric production. On the Middle Fork the water agencies respect the needs of whitewater rafters and kayakers and release water for 4-5 hours daily all summer with normal water flows ranging from 900-1200 cfs.

The water agency that controls water storage and releases on the South Fork American recently signed a new 50 year agreement that guarantees excellent water releases all summer. In past years we had to deal with uncertain water releases but now we can promise you excellent water flows for your trip on the South Fork American, even in years with below normal rain and snowfall.

Click the links below to see current hour to hour releases on the Forks of the American River.

 Hourly Water Flows 





International Scale of River Difficulty

South Fork American Class III
Middle Fork American Class IV
North Fork American Class IV+

This is the American version of a rating system used to compare river difficulty throughout the world. This system is not exact; rivers do not always fit easily into one category, and regional or individual interpretations may cause misunderstandings. It is no substitute for a guidebook or accurate first-hand descriptions of a run.

Paddlers attempting difficult runs in an unfamiliar area should act cautiously until they get a feel for the way the scale is interpreted locally. River difficulty may change each year due to fluctuations in water level, downed trees, recent floods, geological disturbances, or bad weather. Stay alert for unexpected problems!

As river difficulty increases, the danger to swimming paddlers becomes more severe. As rapids become longer and more continuous, the challenge increases. There is a difference between running an occasional class-IV rapid and dealing with an entire river of this category. Allow an extra margin of safety between skills and river ratings when the water is cold or if the river itself is remote and inaccessible.

Class I: Easy. Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight, self-rescue is easy.

Class II: Novice. Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.

Class III: Intermediate. Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required; large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims.

Class IV: Advanced. Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require "must" moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting is necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills.

Class V: Expert. Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to above average endangerment. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is mandatory but often difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is difficult even for experts.

Class VI: Extreme. One grade more difficult than Class V. These runs often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. This class does not represent drops thought to be unrunnable, but may include rapids which are only occasionally run.


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