Rafting for Research


Earlier this year, our staff had the privilege of going back in time, leaving most technology and motorized vehicles behind on an adventure down the Upper Tuolumne River to survey fish habitat.  Transporting five people and five days’ worth of food and sampling gear down the river was no easy task, but it certainly made for a trip of a lifetime. To embark on our journey, three FISHBIO staff loaded up our gear, and met with Sierra Mac River Trips near the river’s edge at Lumsden Campgrounds. Sierra Mac provided two outstanding river guides for the trip and enough food to last all week. Our first challenge required strategically playing a game of Tetris with life-sized objects, as we tried perfectly placing our gear into Sierra Mac’s rafts without sinking them. We finally got the gear boat loaded up, with just enough room for one person, and with the rest of the crew in another raft, we were on our way.

Preparing for our five-day camping trip may seem like a straightforward task, but had an added twist: since we were living out of two rafts, we had to make every object virtually waterproof. Our personal gear, from toothpaste to sleeping bags, was easy enough to stow in Ziploc bags or dry bags, but our scientific collecting gear was more of a challenge. The big and heavy pieces such as drift nets, rebar, and dozens of bottles of sterilizing alcohol, were packed into multiple plastic tubs, then strapped down with lids to make them almost water tight. With half the boat full of gear, finding space for food was another challenge, but a definite must for five hungry men about to work tiring, fourteen-hour days.


Although packing and repacking our gear each day was miserable, the trip was filled with moments that were unforgettable. Stopping each night at new camp sites where few people could visit, filled with sights and smells only discovered in the wild, was hard to beat, or even call “work.” Throughout the week, we would experience some extreme white-water rafting, amazing trout fishing, and delicious food under the moon-lit sky.  For environmental enthusiasts such as ourselves, being in a setting such as the Upper Tuolumne River, with nothing but rushing white water and the breathtaking sunrises, provided memories that will last a lifetime.


Floating down the river provided minor to serious scares as we navigated the rapids. The terrain around us was starting to take life, as summer was approaching fall. After the tragic Rim Fire took place in 2013, wiping nearly all life from the mountain tops, Mother Nature was set on recovery.  The sun rose at 6 a.m. each morning, with beautiful songs from the chirping native birds. As FISHBIO staff rubbed our bleary eyes and stretched our limbs, little creatures were doing the same. The cool, misty air kept dew on the ground, and the smell of fresh coffee would fill the air, as a delicious breakfast was prepared each day by Sierra Mac guides.


While the adventure tempted us with fun, “work” still had to be done. Our crew focused on catching and releasing rainbow trout, and deploying drift nets to capture bugs living in the river. The bugs were caught to see what the fish and other species were eating throughout the year. Although catching rainbow trout was hard to beat, once caught, data had to be collected from each fish. We took scale and tissue samples, along with measurements and photos for identification.  In doing so, FISHBIO biologists were able to see the condition of these fish, and their remarkable display of colors, which are cable of adapting to constant changes in temperature and habitat. Throughout the week-long trip, we also documented every eventful scene with cameras attached to our rafts and helmets, from taking on class-five rapids, to our delicious meals and activities around camp during the day. Watch our highlights to witness the memories we made along the Sierra Mac crew!