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How to make class V a little hairier

I had an opportunity this summer to work on the Kern – not as a guide though – but as some sort of “manager”, thus ensuring that I would never get on the water. The Kern is broken into three sections: the Lower is below Lake Isabella, the Upper is above, and the Forks is pretty much the “Upper-Upper”.

Chris and Chandra pop out of the hole in Big Bean:

For day-trippers, the Kern is perfect because there are lots of access points and different runs, with everything from flat water to class V. The Forks is the only trip with difficult access and, for rafts, requires packing in with mules about two miles. It has great whitewater, is in a wilderness area (the Golden Trout), and is often considered one of the crown jewels of wilderness class V. As an outfitter, we don’t run very many trips on the Forks – it doesn’t fit well with the L.A. crowd scene.

At the end of April we decided to run a private Forks training trip. The date was set for May 12th. The cost of getting equipment (we use Avon Expeditions and Avon Adventures for our oar boats) down to the river is expensive so I wasn’t expecting my own boat. The numbers continued to go up though and at some point we discovered that, yes, we would need another oar boat and, yes, I would be taking it.

That was great news – for me (at the time), the only thing scarier than running big water was being someone’s passenger. Then, it turned out that my girlfriend wanted to go. Then, it turned out that my mother wanted to go. So I was left wondering exactly what the hell I had gotten myself into. They would be my paddle-assist and I now realized that the only thing scarier than being someone’s passenger is rowing your mother down class V.

Seven years ago my younger brother Matt and I ditched three days of high school, caught an Amtrak train to Bakersfield and a ride to Kernville to paddle-assist on the Forks. Looking back on the two days we had spent on the water all I could remember was a mango-salsa we had made at camp (must have been good) and Carson Falls, the very last rapid on the Forks. Not helpful.

Back to the present: After a day of packing-in (our Clavey oars and personal dry bags have to be hiked in), a night of sleep on the island (where the Little Kern meets the Kern, hence the “Forks”), and a jittery breakfast we pushed off and thus began the most nervous three days of boating I’ve ever had.

Ceremonial drinking of the Little Kern water:

The Forks is something incredibly special. When you’re not focused on the whitewater (rarely) you have a chance to catch a glimpse of a very dramatic and beautiful river canyon. The whitewater is, of course, one of the main draws to this section of river but it’s not what I would call “stupid-big”. The thing that is most impressive about the whitewater is how continuous it is.

A side-hike up Peppermint Creek led to this impressive waterfall:

From a statistics book, one probably wouldn’t predict the Forks to be as great as it is. The gradient is only 65 feet per mile and the run is only 18 miles. There are lots of rivers and creeks that match up and exceed both of these numbers. This is a great thing about rivers and creeks – they aren’t machines, you can’t just look at numbers, they’re dynamic and sometimes you just have to be there to see what they’re like. We like to look at rapids and say “this one’s class III, this one over here is class IV-, and so on…” and I could do that for every rapid I’ve seen, but what I would prefer and what is more meaningful to me is to just say that it is “big” water and – when your mother is in the boat – it is “bigger” water.

Continuous whitewater on the Forks of the Kern:

I have never boated the same river twice- unless you look at it geographically or by name- and I’m certain I will never boat the Forks the same way I did back in May – with my mother and girlfriend in the front sharing and living through the same whitewater and river canyon that I was. Sharing the moment when we watched, as the number two boat, the lead boat get surfed wildly at Vortex (one of the “big ones”) and lose the two bow paddlers just above The Gauntlet (another “big one”) and me screaming at them to get down and huddle in the front rather than paddle (I was terrified of accidentally knocking one of them out of the boat and was fairly certain I could keep the boat upright).

The peak of the trip for me was reaching the lead-in to Carson Falls, pulling over, and walking down the scout trail. The drop led into a huge lateral hole, which, if you hit it correctly, you would punch. Otherwise, you would end up going into “The Thing” – a large nasty pour-over covering the right side of the river. I picked out a marker and knew we could hit it. We did, but we did not have enough left-angle and the monster hole zipped us straight to the lip of The Thing.

Will, Dana, and Mary dropping into the hole in Big Bean:

A friend had hiked up from the road to take photos of the boats dropping Carson. He snapped a photo of our boat on the brink of The Thing. There is a look of horror on my face as I try to straighten the boat out, Dana looks shocked that we ended up where we did, and my mom… she’s giggling. I guess she knew we would end up just fine.

About to drop into The Thing:

3 Comments

  1. One of the greatest moments of my life was running "The Forks" at 4750 CFS in a paddle boat in one day. Scary, scary, scary! No one surfed, no one flipped, no incidents whatsoever. Our paddle crew was a machine that day. Luther Stevens was the head guide. If he assembled a group to run the River Styx through Hell, I'd go!

  2. Will, My compliments on a gripping, engaging narrative sprinkled with the magic of the Forks. When us fallible folks wend our way through such a place, especially with dear ones aboard, adventure and heightened awareness are pretty much guaranteed. And you evoke this and more!–Bill McGinnis

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