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THE GREAT OUTDOORS / A Guide to Valley / Ventura County
Recreation | Beyond The City

Class IV in Session

Rafting Raging Kern River an Adventure

June 11, 1998|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Our instructions were to paddle out hard and stay to the left, and we had been darn good about following directions.

Mandy, our guide, had reason to be proud of her crew of neophyte rafters--five accountants, a sports editor and his wife.

Slaloming through an opening set of intermediate and advanced rapids on our maiden Whitewater voyage over the lower Kern River, we had stayed upright and were relatively dry.

Then came the challenge of relaunching our raft from a tie-in just below a particularly nasty stretch of water and boulders that had been declared unrunnable, even for experts.

The river, extra deep and running at twice the speed that rafters consider comfortable, battered us just as soon as we back-paddled away from the tie-in.

We got our raft turned down river, but we never made it to the calmer waters of the left bank.

No sooner had we straightened out than the front of the float raised up, nearly depositing Mandy and me--the paddlers at the stern--backward into the frothing current.

With our feet wedged securely under the seat in front of us, we both somehow managed to stay in the raft. It wasn't until we were able to steady ourselves again that we discovered three of our paddlers--everyone on the right side except for Mandy--were in the river.

Whistles blew, signaling to paddlers in four other rafts that we had "swimmers" in the river.

Two of the paddlers were spotted immediately, their heads and the tops of their orange life jackets bobbing above the raging current. They were quickly scooped up to safety.

But the third was caught underneath our float, disoriented and out of breath. Finally able to break free, she emerged only to be tossed about in the churning white water, gasping for air.

My poor wife.

By the time Ronnie was pulled back into our raft, she was scared, pale and completely exhausted.

Later, at a stop for lunch, a guide from another raft recalled other paddlers who had suffered a similar fate.

"I'd counted to eight before, but this time I got to nine," he said, smiling. "A new record."

Nothing like a little gallows humor on the river.

*

Born from the snowy western slopes of mighty Mt. Whitney, the Kern River plunges through some of the most ruggedly beautiful terrain in central California.

Normally baked brown by this time of year, the surrounding Greenhorn Mountains are lush and sprinkled by wildflowers thanks to the rain, snow and cold from an unusually wet winter.

The river is generally described in three parts: the upper elevation Forks, which is surrounded by untamed wilderness; the Upper Kern, which runs parallel to Highway 178 below the Johnsondale Bridge and Fairview Dam; and the Lower Kern, which picks up below Lake Isabella.

All three stages are raging.

Chuck Richards, who runs one of the four commercial rafting operations on the Kern licensed by the U.S. Forest Service, says a water speed of between 1,500 and 2,000 cubic feet per second typically makes for a challenging yet enjoyable ride.

On our trip down the Lower Kern late in May, the speed was 3,802 cubic feet per second, a clip Richards, who has been running the river since 1975, compared to "riding a fire hose through the forest."

The depth of the water, too, has changed hazard conditions all along the 55-mile river run. The 20-mile Lower Kern trip typically includes six class-IV (very difficult) rapids. On our voyage, there were nine.

Boulders that were easily maneuvered around during most years loom now as obstacles capable of stirring up teeth-jarring turbulence. And more water is on the way.

Rafting season on the Lower Kern normally runs from June through August; May into September during wet years.

This one started in March and is likely to last well into October. The snow pack in the mountains is 215% of normal. The water content is 280% of normal.

In 1983, a legendary year for white-water enthusiasts, the water content was about 250% of normal and the speed on the Lower Kern reached 7,000 cubic feet per second.

"If it gets hot and stays hot, we're going to have the biggest water we've ever run," Richards said. "It's like the entire southern third of the Sierra Nevada is sitting up there in white, waiting to melt."

Richards doesn't down play the danger of rafting trips. Where children 8 and up usually are allowed on the Lower Kern trip, he has taken to discouraging kids up to twice that age "unless they are surfers or are otherwise used to getting pounded by big water."

Then again, anyone who has been half awake on the way up highway 178 on the way to Richards' office near the shore of Lake Isabella already knows something about the legendary "Killer Kern."

Sobering signs are positioned at several locations:

"Danger. Stay out (no swimming). Stay alive. 195 lives lost in the Kern River since 1968."

The "195" is on a changeable square, like the old scoreboard at Wrigley Field.

Richards despises those signs.

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