Sierra Mac River Trips was the first commercial outfitter to lead rafting trips on both the Main Tuolumne (1969) and Merced rivers. In 1973 owner Marty McDonnell pioneered rafting on the Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne section, upping the bar for class V rafting in California.
Rivers have always attracted adventurers, and the urge to paddle down the Tuolumne has drawn its share of the daring and curious including some colorful characters that went on to play other roles in California history. This article, excerpted from the 1981 book, A Guide to Three Rivers by John Cassidy tells the story of some spirited first timers in the 1920’s.
Boats on the Tuolumne
“For reasons that are not hard to imagine, the Tuolumne between Lumsden Bridge and Wards Ferry was not regarded as a navigable river during the early part of this century when access points were first being put into it. By 1920, it was possible to travel from Lumsden to the Clavey on the north side of the river, along a trail that the Bond brothers, and later the Forest Service improved; and from there, along the old flume bed to the powerhouse site. Thence across the river on the wagon bridge and downstream to Indian Creek. Below that point, trails were intermittent and it probably behooved a hunter to climb out to the ridge. Despite these difficulties, the alternative must have appeared substantially worse; trusting a wooden boat to the rock strewn rapids of the Tuolumne seems even now a marginal proposition.
But there will always be those attracted to the margins, and in 1927, two such character eschewed the Bond’s trail, lashed together a log raft near the South Fork confluence and set off for the Clavey. Their names were Harry Cobden and Melvin Belli. Both were attending Boalt Law School in Berkeley and both had grown up in Tuolumne County. Belli came from an established Sonora family, part of the original wave of Genoese immigrants that left Garibaldi’s Italy for the California Gold Rush. Cobden came from a pioneering Groveland area family with Parliamentary English roots.
Their late spring raft trip, whose ostensible purpose was to stake a placer claim down at the Clavey, was memorably disastrous. They ate “whitefish and pork”, and spent two days negotiating the 6 miles of river. Some rapids they dragged around, some they careened through; and some they just swam. They camped on a beach and burrowed into the sand to sleep. By the time they got to the Clavey, their log raft had taken a serious beating; as, apparently, had their enthusiasm for mining, enough so that they decided to hike out, leaving behind them the remnants of the Tuolumne’s first boat.
Melvin Belli went on to become one of San Francisco’s more illustrious attorneys, with a nation-wide reputation for courtroom flamboyance. Harry Cobden graduated from Boalt in 1933 a year after he had run Upton Sinclair’s nearly successful gubernatorial campaign. Subsequent to that, he became a close associate of Pat Brown’s and worked in the attorney general’s office under his administration. Although he has repeatedly tried to retire, Cobden still practices law, still stays in touch with politics (I’m Jerry Brown’s godfather, but he won’t listen to me”) and is a gold-mine of early Tuolumne County history.
After the Belli/Cobden trip, there were no records of any more attempts before 1962. It seems likely that various individuals made an effort – Alexander Klimas reports seeing a pair of men on a log raft in the 50’s abandon ship and walk out from Clavey – but no personal accounts exist before that of Helmut Donner. In Otober of 1962, Donner and two others, Henry Millard and Rod Kiel, took two rubber rafts the full length of the river, carrying around Clavey Falls. All three of the men were associated with the Sierra Club’s newly formed River Tiuring Section, out of which most of the early river-runners came. Three years later, in the spring of 1965, Noel DeBord made the first known descent of the river without carries. He used a fiberglass kayak and did the trip solo.
Bryce Whitmore, a pioneer member of the River Touring Section, and Don Segerstrom, a local river enthusiast, were the next to float the Tuolumne. They took it in August 1968, in a Whitmore-designed “Supersport” boat made out of modified rubber bridge pontoons (see: Guerillas of the Self-bailing Revolution).
That winter, Gerry Meral and Dick Sunderland made the second kayak run in November. The next yer, 1969, saw the first commercial river trip on the river, and in the years intervening thousands have made the trip, in kayaks, closed canoes, and most commonly inflated rafts.
Although the river is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, it has been boated a number of times at anything but. One of the quickest trips was undoubtedly recorded by Roxanne Maloney and Michael Sclax when they took it in kayaks in July of 1980. At the time, the water was flowing past Meral’s Pool a bit in excess of 10,000 cubic feet per second.“
This article was written in 1980, Melvin Belli died in 1996 after a career that saw him representing a string of well-known clients including Eroll Flynn, Jack Ruby and the Rolling Stones. He also did some acting, portraying an extraterrestrial creature on television’s “Star Trek,” and appearing in the 1968 cult classic “Wild in the Streets” in which he played a lawyer. He is buried in the old Odd Fellows Cemetery in Sonora. Harry Cobden died in 1999. During World War II he helped to design a quick-to-construct steel building that came to be known as the Quonset Hut.
But we’ll always remember them as the first recorded people to navigate the Tuolumne River – way back in 1927.