River Rafting on the Truckee River. It’s a part of the North Tahoe experience. Has anybody been in a Tahoe house without a picture on the wall of people rafting down the Truckee? For many it’s the perfect way to spend a hot Tahoe summer day. For others, river rafting means entertaining people-watching from the bike trail on the 4th of July. For me, river rafting brings me back to my senior year in high school.

At North Tahoe High School in the mid 1970s my senior class ditch day was a rafting trip down the Truckee River. The trip was made possible by Jennifer Bell. She had just arrived at NTHS a few years earlier, and her parents had recently started a commercial rafting company that would become Mountain Air Sports. The ‘70s drought had left the water level so low that they had to transport rafts to Goose Meadow and the senior class floated to West River Street before disembarking. It was a blast! To those of us who had spent our lives at North Tahoe Jennifer was a newcomer, but she gained a ton of coolness points by getting all of us out on the river.

Mountain Air Sports is still around and is still family-owned. Jennifer Bell Courcier, her brother Ryan Bell, and stepmother Judy Bell now own the operation. Jennifer’s husband Richard and their children plus Ryan’s children all chip in during those few crazy summer months. While it now does a brisk business as one of the two commercial rafting companies in Tahoe City, it didn’t start out so big.

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Jennifer and Ryan remember being introduced to river rafting as pre-teens. Their parents, who owned a summer cabin at Tahoe, would drop them off at Fanny Bridge with inner tubes. They were given instructions that they would be picked up several hours later at River Ranch (a nice technique of getting kids out of your hair for a few hours. Call it 1970s babysitting. Ah, man it was a good time to be a parent). Before the commercial rafting operations came in, the bottom of the river was littered with rusted metal and downed bridges, which the kids were careful to avoid.

Two rafting companies had just opened for business when Bob Bell and his kids moved to Tahoe City full time and decided they were going to make their fortune in bike rentals. Ryan remembers they went to every garage sale they could find, and put together a fleet of beater bikes that they fixed up, painted and then rented out as High Wheeler Bikes (‘High’ was a popular word in the 70s). Even though there was no bike trail along the Truckee yet, they somehow got by. Bob Bell found a good deal on some inner tubes, so the next logical step was to begin renting out tubes to float down the river. This was soon followed by offering a service to pick up the floaters at the River Ranch.

‘People would jump in the back of the El Camino or an old van and we would bring them back to town,’ Ryan says. ‘I was only 16 driving all these people and their inner tubes back all day long,’ chimed in Jennifer. They discovered that inner tubes were a better business than bikes, but in order to make ends meet, they would rent out them out in the winter to sledders. They set up shop at the old quarry, just across from the lumberyard on the outskirts of Tahoe City. ‘We couldn’t rent out saucers, because they would be too fast and could make it to the highway,’ Jennifer remembers.

By the late 1970s both the rafting companies and the county decided it would be a good idea to regulate the activity. Placer County placed a limit of 200 inflatables that could be rented on the river at one time. Mountain Air Sports understood that if you only could rent out a certain number of inflatables, it was better to have rafts that could hold lots of people, so they got rid of the inner tubes and purchased all the inventory of a rafting company that decided to get out of the business. Judy Bell says it was about that time that the rafting companies ‘cleaned out the river. It was too dangerous to raft it.’

Today, to the unaware, it looks as though one rafting company occupies the space along the Truckee River; but it is actually two companies, which can be differentiated by their yellow and orange paddles. Truckee River Raft Company (orange paddles) operates between the Front Street Station Pizza and the Raft and Gas building. Mountain Air Sports (yellow) starts just to the north of the gas station, and includes the land along the river past the River Grill to Fanny Bridge.

While there have been several attempts over the years for the two companies to get along, for much of the last 30 years they have had a contentious relationship similar to the Hatfields and the McCoys. The rivalry is inflamed by the intense level of competition for rafting business. The companies have tried everything from bikini-clad girls  luring  customers, to coupons for discounted tickets. The good news is there seems to be enough business for both companies. The bad news is the rafting season is very short and there is always the danger of a drought resulting in  a year or two of lost income. In fact between 1991 and 1996 the rafting companies were out of business for five consecutive seasons because of a lack of water. In other words, you’d better make hay while the sun shines.

Mountain Air Sports has discovered that just when everything is running along smoothly, all hell breaks loose. Like a rare, but powerful thunderstorm. Rich Courcier, remembers one day: ‘We had this thunderstorm right over the river. It dropped 30 degrees in just a few minutes and then poured down thick hail and lightning. It was so cold that everybody was leaving the rafts where they were, running up to the highway and hitchhiking back to town. When they made it here we’d ask them where the boat was and they said things like, ‘It’s by a tree and a big bush.’’ Some people even left them on the other side of the river, swam across and walked away.’

Jennifer chimes in, ‘It was insane.’

Once the hail stopped, the Mountain Air crew spent the rest of the day trying to find all of their missing rafts. ‘It was warmer in the water, so we swam down the river and picked up the rafts as we went,’ Rich adds.

Mountain Air Sports is your classic Tahoe business story. It’s seasonal, dependent upon the weather and the economy and it features a beautiful location. It was started by one generation carried forward by another, with a third generation now in training.

~ Tim Hauserman wrote ‘Tahoe Rim Trail: The official guide’ as well as ‘Cross-Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada.’ Although he was in the same class at North Tahoe High School as Jennifer Courcier, she says she is much younger.

Author

  • Tim Hauserman

    Tim Hauserman latest book is “Going it Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the trail” published in 2022. He also wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published in 2020. His other books include “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." Tim has lived in Tahoe City since he was a little tyke and continues to be amazed with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. His former English teachers, on the other hand, are probably amazed that he became a writer. Contact Tim at writeonrex@yahoo.com

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