Floating Down the St. John’s
May 26, 2018 11:00AM
● By Jordan Venema
Rolling Down the River
By Jordan Venema
THERE ARE SOME THINGS that are as American as apple pie, and others that are as Visalia as floating down the St. John’s River. Floating might be the summer pastime in any warm region with a river, but for those who grew up in the valley, floating isn’t just synonymous with the summer, not just intrinsic to the river, but essentially a coming-of-age passage, a rite out of local folklore, with its origins in the river itself.
Visalia resident and local teacher Elliott Cavale has been floating down the St. John’s River for more than half his life.
“Ever since we’ve had our licenses,” says Cavale, “and even younger when my older brothers would go with their friends. I’d just tag along.”
As valley natives know, the summers here are hot, and besides climbing the nearest mountain peak or swimming for the nearest body of water, the river is one of the heat’s great escapes.
But floating along St. John’s comes with its own snags, because while the river itself is public, the land surrounding the river isn’t necessarily. Cavale knows this, and encourages people to take safety precautions while practicing neighborly habits.
“It’s important that you leave no trace,” Cavale says. “You’re enjoying nature, and make sure that wherever you’re parking isn’t private property.”
Not only is it a neighborly faux pas, but Cavale also warns, “some people will just target cars out there. The road is just a road where you park, and people will break into them knowing that people won’t be there for a number of hours.”
To deal with both issues, Cavale and friends often bring trash bags to pick up others’ waste they find along the river, and they try to park on the properties of friends or acquaintances – with permission.
The float itself is the easy part. Cavale suggests leaving one car at the starting point and one at the ending point.
As for the raft or innertube, Cavale says the floating device “just depends on how much you want to be in the water.” There are some rocky spots along the river bottom, he adds, “so watch out for exposed limbs,” he says.
“We also always bring one raft just for clothes and an ice chest and then we tie it to the other raft,” Cavale continues. They sometimes float separately, but “we’ll also tie all our rafts together and have one big caravan.”
Beside the rafts, bring snacks and sunscreen, but don’t forget to keep your waste, and personal flotation devices are always recommended.
As for sunscreen, Cavale offers a pro-tip: “apply it even higher up than the edge of the shorts,” he says. “One time I went, and I put sunscreen all the way to the edge of my board shorts, but as soon as I sat down in the raft my shorts went up two inches, so I had this two-inch dark red burn on the tops of my thighs after four hours of direct sunlight in the summertime.”
“Also wear water socks,” he adds, or at least not flip flops, because you’ll lose them.
“A hat is nice, big wide-brimmed, and I always bring my sunglasses,” though Cavale also suggests securing them with a strap.
Last, Cavale recommends a gallon zip-top bag to put in a backpack to protect valuables from getting wet.
For those closer to Fresno, Cavale recommends floating the Kings River, suggesting parking near Hobb’s Grove, which he says has regulated the river, providing options for renting devices and also paying for shuttle services between ingress and egress points along the river.
But wherever you float, the biggest tip is just to enjoy it.
“On the St. John’s there are points along the way where you can get out and there’s a rope swing, and you can get out and jump in, and if you get too hot, just roll out of the tube and into the water.”
So relax and enjoy, but remember the window is short, with the best time to float, according to Cavale, around July and August.
“The St. John’s fills up when the snow melts, but the water is freezing cold. So we usually go to the middle and end of summertime. It’s still super hot, the sun warms up the water a bit, the water level is still good, because eventually it dies down once we use it for agriculture.”
Whatever you do, be sure to be safe and leave no trace, and always be courteous. Those habits aren’t just as American as apple pie, they’re also as Visalia as floating the St. John’s. •