Face-first Down the Rapids: What if We Turned Our Idea of Watercraft on its Head?

29 Sep Face-first Down the Rapids: What if We Turned Our Idea of Watercraft on its Head?

Riverboarder Zach Byars on the Merced River. Photo: Julie Munger.

Riverboarder Zach Byars on the Merced River. Photo by Julie Munger.

Frankly, hurtling down whitewater on a piece of foam sounds insane.

But here I am, gripping the handles of my riverboard—a chunky style of bodyboard one rides belly down and face first—as the South Fork of the American River sucks me toward a section known as the “Meatgrinder” rapids. The water surges up and down as waves start to peak around me, the rapids below crashing with the sound of breaking glass. I get the sense that I’m about to have an out-of-body experience.

“Isn’t it fun? I think it’s great for kids!” Julie Munger says when I tell her I’ve been riverboarding. Munger is a swift-water rescue instructor, and she’s one of the most vocal advocates of the sport. “It’s so misunderstood,” she says, “and it’s an amazing way to understand how a river works.”

Here’s how a river works: Its water follows the path of least resistance. As I make my way down the class III rapids of Meatgrinder, I’m sucked and swung through boulders and chutes, goggles speckled with mist, following where the water wants to flow. I’m not getting an out-of-body experience at all. Instead, I’m getting drenched in exhilaration.

We couldn’t have picked a better day to ride the river from Chili Bar to the Folsom Reservoir. It’s sunny and golden, the perfect setting for the rush of cool water and hot adrenaline. I love the central California landscape—especially here where the forest colors the hills emerald green, and the river carves canyons full of silvery boulders.

Speaking of boulders: Thank goodness for my wetsuit, knee and elbow pads, and helmet! I get a few knocks on Meatgrinder, and my fear sticks with me. Getting this intimate with a force as strong as the American River is unnerving, and I can see how riverboarding has gained a sensationalist, daredevil reputation. It takes bravery to face whitewater in a wetsuit and a glorified kickboard. I’m here because a friend of mine manufactures river boards. But who’s going to convince others that this experience is worth it?


Swift-water Rescue Instructor Julie Munger. Courtesy of Sierra Rescue. Photo by Abigail Polsby.

Outfitted in dry suits and flippers, Julie Munger, Kelley Kalafatich, and Theresa Yates were preparing for nearly 300 miles of river. Their goal: to be the first in history to traverse the length of the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River on river boards. But at the origin of their journey, rather than casting off into adventure, they stood on the riverbank, trying to avoid arrest.

It’s illegal to swim the Colorado River, and in 1999, when a park ranger stopped Munger and her friends, the river board wasn’t recognized as a legitimate watercraft. So before they could spend weeks attempting to make history, these women would spend years fighting for the right to try.

“We prepared a 100-page document to contest their decision,” Munger says. “The coast guard’s definition of watercraft is anything that carries people on water. The riverboard does that!”

After two years of waiting, Munger received a phone call.

“This is one of my first decisions as a river ranger,” said the voice on the other end. “I’m granting your petition—don’t screw it up.”

So finally, in the winter of 2001, Munger, Kalafatich, and Rebecca Rusch (Yates wasn’t able to return that year) set out on the Colorado. The venture was self-supported, meaning the women carried their equipment in waterproof daypacks and towed their sleeping gear on secondary river boards, which they would sometimes float through the waves to connect with a boarder on the other side of a rapid.

The team boarded through gorges dusted in snow, secluded from the crowds of the summer. “It was just the three of us,” Munger says.

Munger took the lead in scouting each rapid, planning a careful course. Even still, there were times when the river would overcome the boarders: Munger was pummeled hardest at Lava Falls, tumbling under the water. But as long as each rider held on to her board—and its 165 pounds of flotation—she would pop right back up.

Nineteen days and 295 miles later, the women reached the end of their journey at Lake Mead.

“When we ended that trip,” Kalafatich said in 2013 on a TEDx stage in Bend, Oregon, “looking back at all the challenges, and the beauty and the essence of the river, we were so elated, and so happy… so fully alive.”


The Grand Canyon's Colorado River at Eye Level. Photo by Julie Munger.

The Grand Canyon’s Colorado River at Eye Level. Photo by Julie Munger.

In adventure sports, there’s a layer of thrill, but then there’s potential for something deeper.

As I riverboard my way through the American River’s other colorfully named rapids—Troublemaker, Satan’s Cesspool, and Dead Man’s Drop being a few—I get more than the sense of how a river works. I get a sense of how it feels. It feels cool and powerful and flexible; it feels, with the rapids at eye level, immense and all encompassing.

How many chances do we have to unite ourselves with an energy as powerful as a river’s? Frankly, we’d be insane not to.


Another Grand Canyon first: OARS was the first oar-powered outfitter to run the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Get the feel of a river through these OARS expeditions:

OARS Grand Canyon

OARS South Fork of the American River

OARS Middle Fork of the American River

OARS American River Outpost

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Sabine Bergmann
Sabine Bergmann is the Adventure Collection’s Managing Editor. As a professional writer, traveler and conservation activist, she writes for a dozen publications, including Wired, Sierra, Ethical Traveler and The Best Travel Writing series from Travelers' Tales. She’s done some pretty crazy stuff, like mountain biking from the Andes to the Amazon, spear fishing in shipwrecks and serving in the US Peace Corps. She's based in a little yellow house in Berkeley. Read more about Sabine at www.sabinekbergmann.com.
Sabine Bergmann

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