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White-Water Baptism : At the Church of the Serious Rapids, a New Sect of Adrenaline Junkies Whoops It Up--Helmet-First

August 12, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. — The road to the river sports a big red sign: Danger, Lives Lost in the Kern Since 1968--171.

The neophyte river boarder can't help but think of that as he listens to the hungry growl of the first serious rapid.

High-riding rafters can see what's coming. Kayakers sit low, but still catch an early glimpse of their fate.

Body boarders, on the other hand, view a river from the perspective of a soggy driftwood log. The rapid appears as an abrupt change on the liquid horizon, an edge-of-the-world line.

So the first-timer kicks hard with wide swim fins and flails with webbed neoprene gloves, feeling as confident and in control as an unwanted duckling in a toilet that's about to be . . .

Krooooooooshh.

The current latches on. Granite boulders loom. The board rockets downstream.

From somewhere upriver, the boarder can almost hear the godfather and guru laughing and yelping the peculiar river whoop heard on their less-than-Imax-quality promotional video: Yaaa ca ca ca-caccca caaa!

Godfather Bob Carlson, who pretty much invented this thing called river boarding, and Jim Cassady, something of a legend in California white-water circles, are on a mission. Each has managed to carve a sanctuary from modern life in the realm of wild rivers. Now they have a plan to support that life in style, selling salvation to others in the form of a new water sect.

They believe rafts, canoes and kayaks diminish the effects of a river's ritual purification--or, at least, they're not as much fun.

In their ongoing effort to change the way people worship white-water, they invited a group of river guides, journalists and friends to try their supposedly blossoming sport on the lower Kern.

On the morning of the trip, Carlson steps from his yuck-yellow 1972 International Travelall into a dirt parking lot outside the headquarters of Whitewater Voyages.

About 30 guides live here, just off the main drag in the sunbaked town of Lake Isabella. Some sleep on the ground amid a herd of dusty cars and vans sporting license plates from Idaho, Colorado and Oregon, and bumper stickers such as "Commit random acts of kindness and reckless acts of beauty."

Others inhabit a couple of dumpster-sized aluminum trailers or live in a dilapidated bunkhouse.

Carlson and Cassady had both hung out here in the early '80s; Cassady managed Whitewater Voyages and Carlson peddled and serviced the raft pumps he'd invented by piecing together PVC pipe and plumbing hardware.

Gradually, they came to exemplify what happens when the lust for fast-moving water edges from passion to obsession to raison d'etre.

White-water aficionados talk about Cassady the way the beatnik literati used to speak of wild man Dharma bum Neal Cassady.

In a voice fusing sarcasm and reverence, Melissa Toben, a tan woman with the casual confidence of a sun-blissed, water-addled, no-worries, rapid addict, but who happens to earn her living as a Superior Court judge, explains.

"He's a river guru," she says as the group scrambles about preparing for the trip.

Cassady had done social work in Compton and taught school in Long Beach before he saw the movie "Deliverance" and bought his first canoe in the early '70s.

He moved on to kayaks and was paddling the Stanislaus one afternoon when a rubberized raft brimming with paying passengers roller-coastered by.

He and the guide talked. "He said he got paid to do it," Cassady recalls. "He said he got free food."

Cassady took up guiding, working for several outfitters that were luring frustrated city folk onto wild rivers.

That life sucked him in, leading him to rivers across North America and in far-flung locales from Costa Rica to the Soviet Union. He branched out, selling rafting gear from his Pacific River Supply store in El Sobrante, and co-writing, with Fryar Calhoun, a classic guidebook: "California Whitewater."

*

Rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI. VI means, roughly, "Don't do it, stupid." V means, "Go ahead if you're an expert, but you may wish you hadn't"; a drunk in an inner tube just might survive a Class I.

White Maiden's Walkway is a Class IV in Cassady's book, "a long foaming ride," with a big rock at the bottom.

Kenny Bushling, a 25-year-old Lake Isabella native and guide for Kern River Tours, takes the "probe" position, leading this tour of the Kern. He took up boarding after spotting Cassady and Carlson frolicking in a rapid that gives traditional paddlers the willies.

The expedition sets off with eight boarders trailing behind an oar boat brimming with photographers, an inflatable "banana boat," an inflatable "splash yak" and a videographer's hard-shelled kayak.

Grasping the board's handles, Bushling kicks into the current's tongue. The river latches on. He rockets downstream, pulls himself forward on the board, kicks hard, and pushes into the current's tongue.

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