HANFORD – The long wait to legally cool off in the Kings River is over.

Kings County Emergency Services Director Joe Neves opened the river to recreation Tuesday, a move that kicks off what's expected to be a long and satisfying floating and boating season.

Neves opened the river because flows dropped below a certain level that has been deemed safe.

Neves said flood releases from Pine Flat Dam ended Sunday. All the water in the channel now is for irrigation purposes.

Because of a high and fast flows caused by a big snowpack, the river has been closed to recreation since March.

The river opens in Tulare County on Friday.

The Fresno County section remains closed. It wasn't immediately clear how much longer the closure in Fresno County will last.

Kings County officials expect that lots of people will be taking advantage of the water to get relief from triple-digit temperatures that show no signs of ending.

But since it's been so long since the river flowed this strongly, officials wonder if people might have forgotten key tips designed to ensure that everybody enjoys themselves safely.

Neves, who, like many locals, grew up doing the Highway 43-to-Laton Park float, recommends several things: a life jacket, good water-resistant sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.

Few boaters wear life jackets.

That can be dangerous when the river is running as deep as it is now. If people fall out of their rafts, they will have to be able to swim in the cold water.

People routinely get roasted a deep red during the several-hours-long float trip, either because they didn't put on a good sunscreen or because they washed it off by repeatedly sliding in and out of the water.

The burning effect is magnified by rays that reflect off the water and cook people from the underside as well as from above.

Neves also warned people to limit alcohol consumption and include plenty of bottles of water in their ice chest.

It's a well-known fact that people on the water often drink to excess, to their detriment and to the detriment of people around them.

Lemoore resident and longtime river rat Stacy Williams said she's "excited" about having a good float season for the first time in six years.

At the same time, Williams is taking a cautious approach.

She knows that flows right now are high and swift. She also knows that there's a lot of debris in the water, including branches and brush that can deflate rafts and push them under water.

The river is currently deep enough to be over your head in spots.

Williams said she'll probably wait another week and a half to make the run. By then, the water level may have dropped and the flows might be a little bit slower.

"It's exciting, but it's also kind of scary," she said. "I'm not going to be going [out] this first weekend."

Williams has a piece of advice for first-time floaters: Go with somebody who's done it before.

There's a spot on the 43-to-Laton stretch where you have to get out of the water and walk about 75 yards to get around a weir.

If you don't know where to look, you might miss it.

People have been injured and even killed going over weirs on the Kings River.

Williams has another good piece of advice: For drinks, bring only cans or plastic (no glass bottles) and never throw the empty containers in the river.

Every year, during times when the river isn't running, crews of volunteers drag tons of garbage and junk out of the channel.

Williams said she and her friends toss the empty aluminum cans back in the ice chest, which they have tied down inside a raft.

Williams has another tip for what to do with wallet, keys and other valuables during the float.

She bought a small waterproof box from Big 5 that floats. She ties it to one of the rafts in case it falls out.

Pretty much anything not tied down is likely to fall out and get lost.

Williams also recommends bringing a patch kit to repair rafts that get punctured along the way.

As for the amount of time to take, she recommends that, adding in relaxation time on beaches along the way, people should expect "to be out there from about noon to sunset."

Floaters will be sharing the water with power boaters and personal watercraft users.

Sheriff's deputies will also be patrolling the area, in their own boats and personal watercraft and in vehicles along the banks.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Rick Bradford said that alcohol and boating/floating "don't mix well together."

Bradford said deputies would be looking for drunk and disorderly conduct as well as potential DUIs for people operating power watercraft.

He said that if there are any accidents involving alcohol, they'll be handled just like a DUI with a car.

Bradford said deputies will be looking for violations such as juvenile possession alcohol and littering.

He reminded power boaters and personal watercraft users to watch out for floaters and to slow down when passing people.

"We're trying to avoid anybody hitting floaters," he said. "The river is not all that wide."

Bradford said another thing deputies will be looking for is people misbehaving on private property.

The river itself is public, but the shores are generally private property.

He advised people to behave themselves and be respectful if they get out to walk or rest on a beach.

"Just be courteous to other people," Bradford said.

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The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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