Rafting on the River

An excellent article in the Sacramento News & Review about the Rafting Gone Wild event and the alcohol ban’s results.

Our organization does not support the alcohol ban, considering it overkill, instead calling for better policing strategy, a point suggested in the article.

An excerpt.

Sammy Diaz can fly.

At least that’s how it looks to Rafting Gone Wild revelers on a recent Saturday afternoon as they watch the event’s organizer spring from the Sunrise Avenue footbridge out over the American River.

Wiry and tan, the 23-year-old spreads his arms and does a half-turn in the air. He faces the Sacramento County park rangers on the bridge who, moments before, tried to stop him on suspicion of putting on this gathering of some 3,000 rafters without a permit.

Diaz has been here before, of course. He remembers last year’s Rafting Gone Wild all too well, a day that culminated in rangers booking him and his father in the county jail. Rangers claimed they were intoxicated in public, but the arrests didn’t lead to any charges. Just nine hours of their lives lost, freezing and wet, in a cement cell.

That’s not going to happen today. Not if Diaz can help it. Now, his descent toward the American River accelerates. The rangers watch—dumbfounded, impotent—as the audacious young outlaw soars beyond their reach. Diaz disappears into the river’s depths, resurfacing with an arm to the sky. He floats away from the humiliated park rangers to the hoots and cheers of his people, the rafters and troublemakers and joy-seekers at the river’s launch site.

Diaz is facing three charges by this point in the day: Organizing an unpermitted event, running from the rangers and jumping off the bridge. A rangers’ motorboat is making its way upstream to nab Diaz, so he’ll have to swim to shore soon and hide. But that doesn’t matter. He’s in his element on this river.

“It just felt like freedom,” Diaz says after reuniting with his rafting crew an hour later. “That’s all.”

Attracting thousands of partygoers annually, the Rafting Gone Wild bash has been a stressor on the Sacramento County Parks Department for years, forcing rangers to beef up staffing in anticipation for increased rescues, fights, public intoxication and litter. Each year, rangers declare emergency alcohol bans on the river to quiet the festivities. But they are fast learning that rafters will not back down without a fight for their right to party.

“They call this a ’nanny state,’” says Diaz. “We don’t need someone to tell us how to be safe.”

Diaz isn’t the event’s founder—those details are murky—but he took on admin responsibilities on the Rafting Gone Wild Facebook group last year and is now considered its de facto organizer.

Now, with Diaz’s daring escape and the rafters planning their second of three river celebrations this summer, one wonders if things between rangers and ragers will get worse before they get better.

River’s edge

At first glance, they may look a bit ragtag and rough, with their neck tattoos, dreadlocks, Hawaiian shirts, leis, flat-brimmed baseball caps and gauged piercings. But Diaz’s rafting party of 16 is at once welcoming and gregarious.

A TV station interviews Diaz in a parking lot before the June 25 Rafting Gone Wild expedition. His friends flit around in the background, all smiles, punctuating his responses with affirmations: “Amen!” “Just having fun and enjoying life!”

“I’m not worried about the alcohol ban,” Diaz tells the reporter. “A majority of us have been to jail,” he quips.

It’s funny because it’s true.

As the crew collects its rafts and prepares for the march down to the river’s launch, a young man with neatly combed hair and black-rimmed prescription glasses turns to Diaz’s mom, Robin Romero.

“Hey, tell me if any cops come by here,” he says.

“Why?” asks Romero, 50.

“Warrants.”

“Oh.”

This band of Rancho Cordova natives looks forward to the celebration each year as one of the few times they get to leave behind their daily responsibilities—bills, kids, jobs at Wal-Mart and Burger King—and create another round of memories on the river that served as their backyard in childhood.

“We grew up there,” says rafter and longtime friend Eric Ward. Diaz’s family took him in when the two were just boys. They’ve been jumping off the footbridge since they were 14.

To this group, Rafting Gone Wild is as much about bringing people together as it is a celebration of the Rancho Cordova river culture. But as the celebration rises in popularity, staffers at Sacramento County Parks feel the pressure.

“I wish people would recognize that our intent is public safety and nothing more,” says head park ranger Michael Doane.

Sacramento’s rivers are no joke. Thirteen people drowned in them in 2015, according to officials, including one woman at another party-friendly event, Rage on the River.

To Doane and his colleagues, the swell of partiers and their hankering for booze is a recipe for disaster.

“Because of the participants and their focus on alcohol, it’s not an event I look forward to,” he says.

This year’s celebration drew higher crowds than the June 2015 launch. If Doane had to estimate, he’d say it was well into the 2,000-to-3,000 range. Maybe more.

Rafting Gone Wild 2016 resulted in six arrests, including one outstanding warrant, three public intoxication violations and one drunken driving incident in which the person drove over barriers and onto a bike path near the rafters’ landing point. Last year, there were just four arrests—two over a stolen golf cart.

On top of that, the parks rangers’ boat picked up maybe a dozen stranded rafters this year, and medical aid calls were up from 2015. There were also two calls for unconscious people in the park needing to go to the hospital, Doane says, as well as two rafters going in for head injuries suffered during a fight.

But neither this year nor last held a candle to 2012’s Rafting Gone Wild, which resulted in 23 arrests and more than 100 rescue assists. That marked the end of alcohol on the river for large-scale unpermitted events. And the beginning of the rift between rangers and revelers.

“We’ve already got 60 beers on the river,” Diaz says at the Sunrise Avenue raft launch just 10 minutes before his daring escape from park rangers. The night before, someone had planted two black backpacks full of beer along the bank downstream for the group to retrieve away from county officials’ prying eyes.

Rafting Gone Wild was founded as a drinking celebration in 2011 in response to the county’s decision to ban alcohol in parks on the summer’s three major holiday weekends—Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. That all came to a head when the RGW celebration got a little too wild in 2012.

County supervisors upped the ante by passing a law allowing single-day emergency alcohol bans on the river. Parks have enacted them for every Rafting Gone Wild since.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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