River Conditions

WhiteWater Voyages Media Articles

June 29, 2010
The Washington Times

White water: A weekend on the Kern River

By Matt Payne

KERNVILLE, CALIFORNIA- Rivers have always been used as metaphors for inspiration and purification.

Kern River Rafting TripBruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Garth Brooks, the Doobie Brothers, and the Grateful Dead have immortalized rivers in an array of uplifting, easy-rolling songs covering every genre from rock 'n’ roll to gospel.  In India, devotees of Buddhism and Hinduism make pilgrimages to Varanasi to purify themselves in the Ganges River and it was in the Jordan River that John the Baptist walked Jesus into the shallow rolling water, baptizing him just moments before God himself boisterously declared Jesus his son, and with whom he was pleased.

With such serene images musically and spiritually embedded into my consciousness, a weekend of camping and a day of rafting on Southern California’s Kern River in the Sequoia Mountains with the online adventure club extremethings.com seemed like a peaceful way to physical and mental restoration.  

The snow-melt-fed Kern River, located two hours north of Los Angeles centered on the small mountain town of Kernville, is a wide and strongly opinionated river at its highest in the early summer.  Divided into two parts, the Upper and Lower Kern, the river itself is host to several rafting outfitters.  Our outfitter, Whitewater Voyages, hosts an array of river trips ranging from short and easy half-day adventures with Class II rapids to longer overnight trips taking rafters into more technically advanced and explosive Class V’s.  

Ernie, our Arkansas-born, full- bearded, well-tanned river guide, met us at the office of Whitewater Voyages just after 9 a.m.  Nothing about his demeanor spoke to danger except that in addition to a well-worn plaid shirt and swim trunks, he wore a helmet whose scarring and indentations rivaled that of a nuclear blast.

Kern River Rafting TripWith river-wise eyes, he looked me up and down, gaze settling on my feet, casually adorned in flip flops.  

“Duct tape,” he said resolutely after a moment of consideration, and with that diagnosis, Charmer, a recent college graduate and river guide with sun-bleached hair and a mischievous smile, removed my flops and within seconds had transformed my easy-going beach skips into river shoes complete with a muted gray, improvised-but-efficient heel straps.  

“It won’t keep you warm from the 60-degree water, but if you fall in, it’ll keep your feet safe,” she said and made her way to the safety briefing.  “Hopefully.”

“This river doesn’t come with an on-and-off switch,” warned Ernie as our group gathered around him under the branches of a lanky tree. “This means that if you fall out, you will have to swim and it’s not like swimming in a pool. You’ll be swimming for your life.”  

He paused to emphasize his point. “It is better to take the scrapes and bruises you’ll get from smashing into rocks and tree branches than to get stuck in a hole as the weight of the whole river holds you underwater, making it impossible to breathe.”

At this point in his lecture on safety, my mind wandered to a young girl I had seen at a natural hot springs near our campsite the night before.  We had hiked almost a mile down a steep hillside past a strange, naked old man sunbathing near his RV and on to a natural hot spring just off the river, complete with rope swing.  

A group of rafters relaxed in the sulfur-scented water.  We introduced ourselves, making eye contact with all but one down-spirited girl. When she finally looked up, we could see a knot the size of an ostrich egg protruding from her forehead.  She had fallen from her raft, we learned, and after getting pulled back in, was forced to spend the next nine hours in the raft anticipating a trip to the hospital.

Kern River Rafting TripShuddering at the memory, my attention returned to Ernie's talk as he haphazardly assembled the two-word combination of “snapped femur,” which sounded about as appetizing as a donkey steak marinated in radiator fluid and cigarette ash.  I wondered if John the Baptist had discussed snapped femurs with Jesus before dipping him in the Jordan, but given Jesus’ propensity for healing, I doubted it.  Where was he when I needed him?

“Grab a helmet on your way to the bus,” Ernie directed. “And have fun.”

Reluctantly, I selected a battered blue helmet and boarded an old bus whose name, ironically, was  “Bliss.”  

Only a couple of hours earlier, I had been certain I knew the difference between right and left, forward and backward, and had watched enough "Sesame Street" to count to 10. Upon grabbing the innocent-looking blue-and-yellow paddle and taking my seat in the middle section of the heavy raft, my mastery of such menial knowledge became subject to both debate and ridicule.

The appropriately named Charmer, who had captured my heart turning my ordinary flip flop into a ruggedly efficient river shoe earlier in the day, was posted in the back of the raft to serve as the boat’s captain as well as rudder.  Six rafters, myself included, lined up three on either side, side-saddled along the boat’s edge.  As we floated forward, Charmer called out commands, which we had to follow or else potentially wind up “swimming.”

“Left, two!” she chirped, and as she did, I would paddle erroneously three to the right as confused as if she had asked me to explain String Theory.  “Forward two!”  she would say and I’d paddle once, three or five times, and so on until, using carefully selected and encouraging words, she suggested that I’d best serve the boat closer to the back.  Annoyed at my inability to count but grateful for the removal of responsibility, I relocated as Charmer began to list off the various rapids we would encounter.  

“Limestone, Brush Creek, Joe’s Diner… ” She continued her list as I looked around at the majestic country around me.  Birds innocently replenished themselves along the river’s edge.  I watched, envious of the fact that in the world of birds, right and left didn’t matter.  Nor did they ever need to count efficiently under pressure.  

“… and the last rapid will be Tombstone,” declared Charmer as though she had just called it “Marshmallow.”  “And then if we have more time we’ll keep on going.”  

“Sweet,” I said, returning my attention to the birds with growing envy.   

Ahead of us, two boats crept forward toward the edge of the white water, and as they did, abruptly and terrifyingly dropped from sight.  Of course, all that I could assume happened was that they had actually fallen from the edge of the universe.  As the water we were in grew louder and we accelerated, I was sure that each snap I heard was the femur of one of the boat's occupants.  In a flash, our boat turned into a rollercoaster, and in a slash of freezing white, my stomach dropped, and as quickly as it began, it was over.  Once again, I could hear the birds as the sun immediately began to dry the water from my face.

“Paddle high five!”  cried Charmer and with that seven paddles went up over the air forming a triumphant teepee where underneath my boat mates cried out like Wild Things from the world of Maurice Sendak.

“I did good right?” I asked, baiting a compliment.  

“Next time, you have to remember to paddle,” said Charmer.  

“Did I not paddle?”  

“No,” she answered. “And you screamed like a girl.” We floated onward.

As the rapids grew more intense, moving water with deliberate, backbreaking fury, my confidence grew but the same could not be said for my paddling skills.  

Towards the end of the day, we got off the bus, enjoyed a lunch provided by our guides and made our way to the Upper Kern where awaiting us, was a long stretch of water called “Limestone.”  

Kern River Rafting TripLimestone, it was explained, was like a rollercoaster where you are personally responsible for keeping the cart on track.  If you fall out, you will freeze and get smashed into rocks and tree branches, and instead of being a minute long, it goes on for a solid half hour.  So much for the river Joni Mitchell sang about.  “Typically these rapids are ‘Big IV’s’ but because of the massive snow melt, it is closer to a ‘V,’ said Charmer.  “It’s gonna be awesome.” Amazingly, having conquered several rapids now, I agreed.  It would be awesome.  I began to paddle... incorrectly.  

“You’re getting better!”  lied Charmer, increasing my confidence as the deep static buzz of the river began to amplify and we accelerated.  

“There is a massive hole in this rapid that could flip the boat and if it does, you’re gonna have to swim at least two rapids depending upon how long it takes me to get back on the boat,” she warned, carrying on into a dirty joke about river guides.

The boat's passengers eagerly followed their paddling instructions through the rapids and as they grew in their misty rage, uneasiness returned and I began to make amends with myself, preparing for what I hoped would be a quick fall into a river-fed abyss followed by an ascension into heaven.  “Who would feed my cat?” I thought until interrupted by the call “Four right!” With that, we tumbled over the edge into infinity.  

Like a wadded up receipt in a washing machine, I bounced around the boat coming apart, my flip-flop turned river shoes wedged into a crevice of the raft, praying it would keep me from falling into the water. Desperate to help, I stuck my oar into the water but found no water resistance, as the back of the boat was tipped so high that I was airborne.  
Within a second, the boat had turned around and we were now going backwards, into what I presumed was another hole.  Charmer, eyes on the water, barked more commands.  The river gave way for only a second before it picked up again, paddling in time with on the right side with each command.  As the world spun around me, I paddled as if on instinct, weaving at backbreaking speed around rock after rock and tree after tree until finally, an eternity later, we stopped and all was still.  

My heart racing, I looked around the boat at the smiles of the faces of my boat mates, my eyes open as wide as knots in an oak tree, my breath rapid and my emotions as torrent as the water we had just floated.  My terrified “oh my gods” began to change in tone to “oh my gods” of endorphine-fed triumph.  We had completed the longest rapid run and another loomed just around the corner.  

Eager this time, and less afraid, we rounded the bend.  Shivering, I absorbed at the beautiful countryside around me, almost expecting to see the ghost of Jerry Garcia or Springsteen finger-picking a song to the rhythm of the water.  After a breath, wedged my improvised river shoe into the boat’s crevice and as the river began to roar, like the voice of God rooting us on, my mind now still, we paddled, femurs intact and songs of the river in our spirits into the next rapid.

To learn more about Extreme Things Adventure Club, please go to extremethings.com.

To learn more about Whitewater Voyages, check out their website at whitewatervoyages.com

© 2010 The Washington Times


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11252 Kernville Road, Kernville, CA 93238
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