KERNVILLE, Calif. — We should have recognized the first sign when the tire on Jayne's car blew out en route to Kernville.
And so our adventure began at 65 m.p.h. in a Chevy Blazer in the fast lane of Interstate 5 just south of California 99. We were looking for a hair-raising weekend, and it was clear we were going to get it. "We" is me and four friends--Jayne, Ginny, Elena and Kristi. At one time or another we've all worked together at newspapers. But our real bond comes from group adventures such as the one we were embarking on--a white-water rafting trip on the Kern River--bodyboarding in Mexico, skiing in Big Bear. We're not particularly accomplished at any of these things, but we figure if you buy the right gear at Eddie Bauer you can look like you know what you're doing and have a good time.
As we snaked up Route 178, we followed the river into the narrow gorge that would lead us to Kernville. It was at a vantage point hundreds of feet above the river that we first caught a glimpse of the river's enormous power as it crashes and thrashes its way downstream. Then we came upon the second sign that this would be a weekend to remember: The tally board that tells you how many people have lost their lives in the Kern since 1968. That day it stood at 178. When we had taken our first rafting trip two summers ago, the number of dead was 161 when we arrived. When we left two days later it was 163. We came back anyway.
We claimed our reservations at the Lazy River Lodge about 5 p.m. The complex of cabins is on the roaring Upper Kern, north of Lake Isabella. The rooms--many of them within view of the river--are not fancy, but they have the essentials for a rafting weekend: beds to sleep five adults (or four adults and two children), clean bathrooms with showers, full kitchens with refrigerators, brick barbecues, picnic tables, and the most important thing for a July trip--air conditioning.
The front desk clerk said the Kern was at its highest level in 12 years, powered by a wet winter and a seemingly bottomless snowpack in the Sierra. Guides later told us that they'd be rafting this year until October, instead of closing up shop in August as usual. That night we grilled out under the stars, sat around the picnic table eating burgers, corn on the cob and chips and plied ourselves with a variety of sparkling waters, beer, wine and sodas. The river's roar was background music in the balmy evening air as we sat around talking and laughing beneath an endless sky.
Saturday morning the five of us were up by 6:30, too excited to sleep in. After a breakfast of bagels, juice and coffee, we packed up, checked out by 8 a.m. and drove to the town of Lake Isabella, the warehouse headquarters of Kern River Tours, one of six companies licensed to run the river with groups.
A senior guide delivered a lecture on safety. We all signed a waiver that, in effect, said we could not hold Kern River Tours responsible if we were injured or killed on the river; children had to be at least 12 to take the trip. Bob, also known as the guy who drives the bus and hands out the life jackets, shuttled us along a winding road to the site on the Lower Kern where we would put in the rafts and hook up with other rafters who were on the second day of a two-day journey.
The beginning of the trip was uneventful enough as we paddled through some Class III rapids, following in unison the commands of Ian, our guide. River waters are rated on a scale from I to VI, with I being a nice, gentle flow and VI being impassable. Class III provides waves of about three feet. The temperature was well into the triple digits but the cool river water that splashed us as we slid through some of the small rapids kept us from getting overheated. We enjoyed the golden hills, the blue sky, the grazing cattle, the sound of the river.
We tackled the first Class IV rapid, "White Maiden's Walkway," with hoots and hollers and high sticks (high fives with our paddles). We were soaked but giddy with excitement after facing down the first big drop of the day. This is what we had paid $135 each for!
We heard the next Class IV before we saw it. By now we were all wearing perma-smiles, the worries of work and home lost somewhere amid the gurgling of the river. We attacked "Sundown Falls" and then "Dead Man's Curve," water spraying, Ian shouting commands, the raft listing to the left as we dug our paddles deep into the four-foot waves. This was fun.
It happened later that afternoon. As we approached the booming noise of "Hari Kari," a smiling Ginny leaned over to Elena as we hurtled downstream, and spoke the dreaded words: "So far, none of this compares to the blowout." We were doomed.