Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rafting the Kern

This weekend was Nathan and I's trip to raft on the Lower Kern River with a bunch of other fathers/sons. Most of the group went up on Friday, but we left Saturday morning and drove to rafting area northeast of Bakersfield near a town called Kernville. The drive was not remarkable beyond the fact that Nathan sat in the front seat with me, which is something of a milestone.

We reached our campground about 1pm, but then we continued further up the river looking for the rest of the group. After a pretty lengthy drive up into the mountains, we eventually came to the Trail of 100 Giants, a short trail through a grove of sequoia trees. I'd seen sequoia before in Sequoia National Park, but they're always impressive. Nathan was a bit drowsy from the long drive and anxious to meet up with the other kids, so his enthusiasm for wandering around among the trees was not high.

We started down the mountain, figuring that we'd just head back to the campground and hope they'd made their way back by now. On the way down, we got very lucky and managed to see one of the other fathers who, because he is 6'8" tall, is very recognizable even from a distance. The group was parked beside the river, and had managed to find an unoccupied spot to do some swimming and fishing. It felt great to be in the water after a day in a hot car.

We played in the river and eventually Nathan got his guitar from the truck and started to play some bits and pieces of songs he knows. Nathan plays a left-handed guitar, but by a strange coincidence, so did 3 other kids on the trip. Most notable was a friend of Nathan's named Chase, who is a very accomplished musician for a 7th grader. The two of them traded back and forth, and occasionally Chase would play a ukulele-sized guitar upside down because it was strung for a right-handed player.

After a couple of hours at the river, most of the group relocated to the campground while a few stayed behind to fish. The campground was next to Lake Isabelle, a man-made lake formed by damming off the Kern. It was a bit open and windy, but very spacious and it had some nice views of the surrounding mountains. Nathan and Chase started playing guitar again, various groups broke out to play catch or drink beer, etc.

After dinner we started a campfire and began to play a game called "mafia", which i won't explain here. About half-way through the second game, somebody noticed an orange glow on a hill across the lake, which being southern Californians we all recognized as a brush fire. It looked perilously close and grew quickly, but it turned out to be harmless. In the light of the next day, we could tell that it was further away than we thought, and it was apparently contained without any damage.

We slept under the stars that night, basically on the ground plus a tarp and a Thermarest. I slept amazingly well considering. I still woke up at dawn, but it wasn't one of those nights where i'm checking the moon every 15 minutes to see if it has moved.

We headed out to the rafting company (Kern River Outfitters) at about 9 and after getting flotation vests and transferring our gear to their trailer, we took a bus ride to the launch point. We got a long safety lecture from our trip leader Kris about what to do if you fall out of the boat, and why you should avoid trees, and how to "high side", which is basically when everybody moves to the high side of the boat to keep it from climbing up a rock.

Nathan and Chase chose a guide named Mike because of his awesomely cool aviator sunglasses. As luck would have it, he turned out to be one of the best and most experienced guides, with 10 years on the river even though he was only 25. A side effect of this decision was that we got to be the first boat through most of the rapids. That wasn't a big deal for the initial Class II and Class III rapids, but i have to admit being a bit nervous on the first Class IV. There are numerous factors that make a rapid a higher class, but most obvious among them is that the drops tend to be larger. In turn, that means that when you hit the bottom the impact is larger and the chance of being tossed out of the boat is larger. Fortunately, this never happened but i imagined that it would be like being thrown into a large washing machine full of rocks.

The guides do all of the steering of the boats, and use the other paddlers primarily for locomotion in a particular direction. They call out commands (forward 2, backpaddle 3). A typical rapid has the guide calling out forward commands so that the boat picks up a bit of momentum heading into the rapid. The guide of course chooses the line through the rapid, but he or she can use the paddlers to move the boat away from rocks and other obstacles. As a paddler, you're basically focused on keeping your feet secured to the footholds in the boat, and responding to the guides commands. You pick up speed rapidly, you drop, and usually the nose of the boat will create a big splash that covers everybody in the boat. On some rapids, this is repeated a few times. Often at the bottom, the guide steers the boat into a particular orientation and then tells the paddlers to go forward or backward to keep the boat's momentum from bumping into a rock. This doesn't always work, and we got to see some boat-rock collisions while watching the other boats. Unlike a ride at a theme park, each rapid is a unique experience. Some are just fast, others are bumpy, some have elaborate patterns of obstacles, some are just wet.

On the first day, we stopped for lunch then ran several more rapids, and by mid afternoon we were at the overnight camp. As camps go, this was pretty nice. They had raised platforms to sleep on and air mattresses, and port-a-johns, and shaded tables, etc. It was easy to pass time simply by sitting on a rock and watching the river.

Dinner that night was prepared by the guides. It was very good, and made better by that unique phenomenon of outdoor activity where everything tastes better when you've been moving all day and you don't have a ready supply of snacks. After dinner, a large poker game broke out, but i declined in favor of sitting by the fire reading a book i found in the camp's game cupboard (Shooting the Boh, by Tracy Johnston). After a while the poker players who'd lost their chips, the fishermen who'd stopped getting bites, and the guides who'd finished their labor for the day gathered around the fire and the guitars came out again. By 10:30 i was tired and headed off to my sleeping bag.

The sky was beautiful that night-- clear as a bell and dark so that you could see deeply into the stars. I slept well again, though i had to get up at one point and navigate my way to the port-a-johns in the dark. I woke up a bit after dawn and managed to get to the coffee first. Breakfast was even better than dinner. The group finished breakfast, cleared the camp, and got back on the river by 9:30.

We were on the river much longer the second day, and there were more class IV rapids with colorful names like "Taco Stand" and "Pinball". Several times on the smooth stretches, i jumped out of the boat and floated along with the current. We saw numerous turtles, some great blue Heron, and a few interesting song birds. The view of the river, from the river, is so much more interesting than the view from the shore.

Not long after our stop for lunch, we came to a spot where we tied up the boats so that we could jump off a high rock into the river. The rock was only about 20 feet above the water, but standing on it and looking down, it seemed much higher. Again, our boat was the first through the previous rapid, and so we were first to the rock, and i got to be the first person to jump off. I must admit that it was the most scared i had been in the two days. The height was a bit scary, but not knowing what was under the water surface was perhaps worse. Amazingly, none of the 30 people in our group declined to jump, and by the end people were doing flips and twists.

There were a few more rapids to run, but we were done before 3pm. We'd experienced no serious injuries or involuntary swimming episodes (or, "out of boat experiences" as our guides called them). There was only one rapid we portaged, the Class VI rapid called "Royal Flush". The trip was excellent in every respect, and i look forward to repeating it with my younger son in a couple of years.

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