Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Upper Kings flowing again, and so is Kings River Expeditions

El Niño jump starts season for Kings River Expeditions

Rafting guides paddle on the upper Kings River during training exercises as Kings River Expeditions owner Justin Butchert talks about how an El Niño snow pack and a recent Facebook plea to bring back business have helped jump start the business' s
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Rafting guides paddle on the upper Kings River during training exercises as Kings River Expeditions owner Justin Butchert talks about how an El Niño snow pack and a recent Facebook plea to bring back business have helped jump start the business' s

The river runs through him, even when there’s no flow. Especially when there’s no flow.

Justin Butchert’s worst days have passed. He no longer wakes up with “the 3 a.m. sweats over how we’re going to feed the kids.” They’ve passed because near-normal flows have returned to the upper Kings River following four years of drought. They’ve passed because Kings River Expeditions, the commercial rafting company he has owned and managed since 1981, can once again offer four months of happy, thrilling whitewater to its loyal clients.

Butchert, his wife, Julie, and the entire KRE community found out how loyal last month after Butchert posted a heartfelt message on the company’s Facebook page that let everyone in on how dire things were.

“Pride goes away when you’re trying to figure out how to provide for your family,” he says now.

On Facebook, Butchert wrote about how KRE averaged 1,500 customers during the past four years (down to 700 a year ago), well below the 4,000 needed to break even. He wrote about how he and Julie hadn’t taken a nickel from the business in three years and how both found other jobs to help make ends meet. He wrote about the cutbacks and belt-tightening and the second mortgage they took out to pay for operating expenses.

I was scared as hell we weren’t going to open camp this year.

Phil Reiser, veteran KRE guide

“All of that is fine,” Butchert wrote. “Many other individuals and local businesses have had it much worse. We did what we had to do and, fortunately, we are down but not out.

“But now we need you …”

Butchert informed KRE’s 4,200 Facebook friends about this year’s promising conditions, the best since 2011, and asked them to remember the Kings’ beauty and power. He reminded them of the friendly guides, good food, clear nights under the stars and falling asleep to the soothing sounds of the river.

“We want and need you to come back and raft with us and tell all your friends,” Butchert wrote.

Justin and Julie weren’t sure what to expect by making their predicament so public. They surely didn’t expect 700 sign-ups in the two weeks following the Feb. 2 Facebook post.

Justin and Julie weren’t sure what to expect by making their predicament so public. They surely didn’t expect 700 sign-ups in the two weeks following the Feb. 2 Facebook post. Nor did they, after starting 2016 with zero trips booked, expect to have 3,000 before Easter and more calling every day. Nor did they anticipate the outpouring of support from so many customers and former guides.

“The response was incredibly affirming,” Julie Butchert says. “It brought so many people out of the woodwork that we hadn’t seen in so long.”

“We were blown out, completely blown out,” Justin Butchert says, voice cracking and tears welling in his pale blue eyes. “It was so heart-warming I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. Just because the community of people that surrounds KRE goes so far back and is so widespread. It’s so ingrained in people’s lives and made such a positive impression, and none of that has changed.”

Four years of drought impacted us all, no question. Still, even for those whose livelihoods depend on rain and snow, there are degrees. A farmer can usually pump water. A ski resort operator can make powder. But a whitewater rafting operator situated on California’s largest free-flowing river (i.e., not dam-controlled) is helpless without flow.

We ran it down to levels we’d ran before. It was just miserable, the worst conditions ever.

KRE owner/manager Justin Butcher, on last year’s drought-decimated river

Water levels have been so reduced that KRE’s competitors, Zephyr Whitewater and Whitewater Voyages, haven’t bothered running trips on the Kings since 2012. It didn’t make financial sense. It didn’t make financial sense for Butchert, either, but unlike those two companies KRE only operates on the Kings.

Besides, the 56-year-old knows no other way of life.

“This company has defined me as an adult,” Butchert says. “KRE has been the center of my adult world. It’s how I got the job (as a part-time lecturer) at Fresno State. It’s how I met Julie. It’s how we raised our three daughters. Everything that’s important in my life is somehow connected to the river.”

73 This year’s Southern Sierra snowpack, as a percent of average

Like anyone dependent on Mother Nature, Butchert is accustomed to the variability. There will be big-water years, years where the Kings will peak at a whopping 20,000 cubic feet per second, and years where the river is but a trickle.

But at no time in recent memory, certainly not since 1978 (Butchert’s first season as a KRE guide), have there been four consecutive dry years with the fourth (2015) being the driest of all. In a normal year, peak flows on the Kings often don’t occur until early June. Last year, KRE halted its season before Memorial Day.

“Instead of 10 miles of rapids, we were bumping down 5 miles of rocks,” veteran guide John Stead says.

Water levels were so low (peaking at 1,500 cfs and bottoming out around 400) that KRE started calling their trips “a river experience” instead of whitewater rafting. Customers were warned in advance of the conditions and offered full refunds. Many opted to take them, and those who didn’t were asked to lower their expectations.

“It’ll definitely test your friendships, your business friendships,” Butchert says. “I had some longtime customers tell me, facetiously, ‘Boy that was some camping trip.’ 

We had to stop walking around in disbelief, praying for it to start raining, stressing out when it doesn’t and figure something else out.

Justin Butchert

The situation became even more desperate in September when the Rough Fire, which burned 151,000 acres of the Sierra and Sequoia national forests, came within a half-mile of torching KRE’s base camp.

A fifth straight low-water year and no base camp likely would have meant curtains.

“I was scared as hell we weren’t going to open camp this year,” veteran guide Phil Reisen says.

Fortunately, the flames stopped and snow returned to the High Sierra, perhaps not at El Niño-anticipated levels (snowpack in the Southern Sierra is 73 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources) but enough for a rafting season expected to last through mid- to late July.

KRE held its annual guide school this weekend and welcomes its first customers Monday. (Go to kingsriver.com for details. One-day trips are available for $99 on Thursday, Friday and Sunday through fresno.dealsaver.com.)

The Butcherts have a ton going on these days. Besides taking on more KRE duties than ever and teaching recreation courses at Fresno State, where he recruits rookie guides, Justin now works construction. Julie, besides keeping KRE’s books and raising the couple’s three daughters (Annie, 16; Kiley, 12; and Maci, 9), works part time as a counselor for disabled students at Reedley College.

“We are in a better place for all that’s happened,” Julie Butchert says. “We really are.”

Life, just like the river, keeps flowing.

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