River Conditions

WhiteWater Voyages Media Articles

July 1, 2005
Ventura County Life & Style

River Women

Excursions: Whitewater Rafting the Kern

By Bridget Crocker

Kern River, California -- river “What line are you taking, Bridget?” Brett asks me as our group of five river guides scouts Pinball rapid from shore on the Lower Kern River near Bakersfield. Due to the torrential rainy season last winter, the water is raging at nearly 3,000 c.f.s. (cubic feet per second), the highest the Lower Kern has run in nearly a decade. Having fifteen seasons of guiding behind me, I’ve got the distinction of being the only guide on our crew who has seen the water this high before today.

“Left looks good,” I assess, pausing to absorb the water’s pulsing movement. “Or right. It really depends where you get spit out after the top entrance drop. I’m just going to go with it and see what happens,” I shrug.

“That’s your plan? ‘Go with it’? asks Tammy Patterson, a guest on our two-day expedition who’s paddling in my boat. Patterson is one of thirty women from Ventura who have chartered a commercial whitewater rafting trip with California river outfitter, Whitewater Voyages.

With water this high, there’s Plan A, then there’s what happens. It’s hard for some guests to get over the idea that we’re not on rails, that this is not Disneyland, and that ultimately the river decides our fate.

I walk over to the raft I’m captaining and dip my hands into the water. “My hands are your hands,” I whisper to the Kern.

Putting on my best guide face, I climb into the stern of the raft, the place from which I steer and command the boat. My guide face is a cultivated look of determination mixed with confidence that masks the terror I’m feeling at the thought of dumping my friends in Pinball, a technical, brutally long Class IV rapid. Usually I’m responsible for guests I’ve never met before the put-in, but for the first time in my guiding career, today I’ve got my two best friends paddling in my boat along with four other friends from Ventura. Unlike most of my clients, I will have to see these people again and be forever reminded of any “carnage” that occurs while I’m at the helm.

“Local and load, ladies,” I say, reminding my crew to secure their feet in the foot cups welded to the inflated floor and to grip their paddles in preparation for my commands.

“Forward,” I shout while scanning the horizon line for feeder currents. Six women paddle together in unison, quickly moving the bow of the boat into position to hit the drop smoothly.

In my peripheral vision, I see a Great Blue Heron take flight headed downstream; it’s awkward, pterodactyl-like wings slice through shimmering high desert heat rising off limestone. It’s been following our boat for two days now, and impossible omen to ignore.

To many native tribes, the Great Blue Heron symbolizes self-reflection, relationships and lessons of kinship. From as early as 1,000 B.C., indigenous people have inhabited the Kern River Valley. The Tubatulabal Indians made the valley their primary base for centuries before westward European expansion eventually disintegrated the small Shoshonean band. Today, only pictographs and grinding rocks along the shoreline bear testimony to former lives lived beside the Kern. The Tubatulabal’s stories of the water of its vitality and essence remain a mystery to those who live with the water now.

Whatever happens today in Pinball or any other rapid will become part of our story, it will shape how we speak of the Kern and remember her. Will she let us pass without consequence, or will she instill in us a sense of humility and transience? Countless times I have seen her grab the paddler who’s popping of at the mouth, cocky and posturing, and hold them under good and long until they emerge wide-eyed and sputtering with an awakened sense of reverence. From the Kern I have learned how to be a powerful woman by accepting my powerlessness.

Many of the women on this trip ran the river together last year; the newcomers signed on to the annual adventure after hearing stories from the women who had gone before them.

Sisi Pflaumer, sole proprietor of Ventura’s Selah Café, came back after last year’s trip because she heard that there was more water. “I wanted to experience the higher water and I had a really, really good time last year,” she had told me the night before in camp.

First-timer Benee Bingham mentioned that, “All the other women [who came last year] inspired me to do something I’ve never done before. I was anxious when I got here, but when I got in the actual river, it was fabulous. I knew I could do it.”

From the middle of Pinball rapid, I quickly glance over my shoulder, making sure Ellen’s boat is right on my tail. Twenty-nine-year-old Ellen Wahle is our trip leader, a reality that fills me with an older-sister-like pride since I mentored her during her first season of guiding. During our group pow-wow the night before, Ellen share with the group that it meant a lot to her to travel the river with women. “Usually, I don’t get to paddle with other women, and quite often I am the only woman on the trip,” she lamented.

Venturan Mariah Ingram, a first-time rafter in Ellen’s boat, commented that “It’s nice to have women guides out there, rather than all men, just to see women going out there and doing it.” Indeed, here we are, making our way through the maze of rocks and hydraulics in Pinball with California-girl flair. “Right turn,” I call out to my focused crew as we pass by a nasty ledge hole on river right. Our bow takes a piece of the slack water feeding back upstream into the hole while our stern carries on downstream in the main current. The result is a head-spinning turnaround that sets us up perfectly for the next move traversing across to river left.

“Disco move,” I shout out gleefully, “perfect set up, forward now.” Pflaumer, my lead bow paddler, is charging forward with gusto, laughing obscenely loud, her hair slicked back like Annie Lennox after a water-balloon fight. Previously, she had told me that she was attracted to rafting because “it looked daring, really exciting and kind of challenging.” As we reached the bottom of Pinball, she looks insanely wild, like an eight-year-old girl jacked-up on sugar at a slumber party.

“Well done,” I congratulate my crew at the bottom of the rapid. “We’ve survived the ‘Killer Kern’.” My first guiding mentor once told me to anoint the back of my neck if I wanted to appease the spirit of the water, and it’s a story I pass on to those I share the river with today.

With the roar of Pinball fading behind us, we seven women simultaneously dip our hands into the water and sprinkle it on the backs of our necks as if we’re mountain lion cubs offering up our vulnerability to the river, together giving thanks for safe passage.

river women

White Water rafting for women

© Bridget Crocker/VC Life & Style

 

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