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Floating a Few Theories on the River Wild

July 03, 2002|Chris Erskine

KERNVILLE — "I think I'm going to law school."

"You are?"

And I might, at that. I explain that I know some bad lawyers but no poor ones. They all seem to have boats or mountain homes. I need a profession where you succeed even if you fail.

"You don't wanna go to law school," my friend Bob says.

"There's already too many lawyers," says my buddy Bill.

They might be right. There are three of them on this father-son rafting trip. You can tell them apart right away. When the lawyers fall in the river, the fish jump out.

There's also a dealership operations manager, a minister and me, a writer of no renown. When I fall in the river, the lawyers jump out.

Our sons are here, too. All told, a baker's dozen of outdoor enthusiasts, deep in the Sequoia National Forest, a mere four hours from L.A.'s hyper heartbeat.

Cell phones can't beep here. Pagers lose their buzz. The worst insects of modern life, all dead.

"You just head down that path till you reach the water," one of the guides says as we pile off the rafting company's bus.

"How far?"

"Three miles," the guide says.

Three miles that feel like six. We have backpacks, each loaded with 30 pounds of gear and clothing. One guy is wearing a Scooby-Doo Band-Aid on his big toe. We are nothing if not prepared.

"How'd you hurt your toe?" someone asks.

"Basketball," I say. "Kid pushed me into the flower bed."

"Sounds like a foul," the guy says.

"Definitely," I say.

We trudge down the path, hearing whitewater in the distance. We round a bend only to find another bend. Six dads more accustomed to leather office chairs and golf carts.

Our sons, meanwhile, glide easily down the trail. Like mimes, they walk funny on purpose. The last hundred yards, one of them actually runs.

"That's so disgusting," one of the dads says.

It's a three-day raft trip, and we've started it well, the fathers sweating off 5 pounds each while hiking to our launch point. At the river's edge, we mill around as if looking for a sofa.

"Can't wait for the rapids," one of them says, then plops down on a log.

And what rapids these are. The Forks of the Kern is considered one of the finer river runs anywhere, because the rapids line up one after another, white as your mother's wedding dress.

Beneath the whitewater? Granite boulders, large and larger. Wedge your foot beneath one of these monsters and the Kern River will slam you to its floor. You'll come up for air maybe never.

Conk your head. Fracture a collarbone. Burst an aorta. No 911 here. It's just you and God and a $4 plastic paddle.

"You're in the wilderness, a long way from help," a guide warns.

"Now they tell me," I mutter, looking at my Scooby-Doo Band-Aid.

"OK, let's get into the rafts," the guide says.

In our raft, there's the boy and me, plus a lawyer named Rocky and his son, Nick.

I am hoping for the minister, but instead I get a guy named Rocky, down a lethal stretch of whitewater. Irony: I wear it like a shroud.

"Did I mention I'm going to law school?" I ask.

"If you survive," Rocky says.

And off we go on our trip. Six boats, six guides and our tender platoon of fathers and sons.

The guides are the sort of men we thought we'd all grow up to be. Tough as two-by-fours. Good with knots and snake bites. Bar maids, too, probably.

In the summer, they guide raft trips. In the winter, they work the ski runs of Tahoe or Mammoth.

"I live like a millionaire," one of them says. "I just have no money."

For three days we all live like millionaires. The best whitewater rafting is as exhilarating as deep-sea fishing but far more dangerous--exhausting and refreshing all at once.

"Next up, Needlerock Falls," our guide says. "OK, boys, put your game faces on."

Class IV and V rapids, almost all. Basically, the rating system works like this: If it thrashes like a Maytag, it's a Class IV. If it thrashes like a Maytag that could kill you, it's a Class V. Simple, really.

"Once, an oar boat went off this one and folded in two," one of the guides explains about Vortex, a Class V rapid with a 10-foot plunge. "It never came up."

We paddle hard through even the most dangerous stretches, the torque of the oars holding us tight to the river.

It seems the most counterintuitive thing, reaching out of the raft with a paddle as the boat ricochets between rocks and hissing rapids. Takes a half-day just to get used to it.

"Keep paddling!" our guide orders over and over. "Dig!"

At night, we camp along the river. The dads slurp foamy beer and rub their tired arms while the boys fish for rainbow trout. The guides cook. A full moon peeks up over the granite canyon wall, watching.

Here's what the dads talk about: EBay. Interest rates. Bush's chances for a second term. America's corporate creeps.

As the river roars past, we talk about California's water wars. "Chinatown" and the great book "Cadillac Desert."

We talk about ski boats and Little League controversies and how parents ruin youth sports.

We talk about "Caddyshack" and "Animal House" and the demise of drive-in theaters. Classic television, too.

"The Golden Age of TV?" says Bill. "The Beverly Hillbillies?"

"I've got a theory on that," Rocky says.


"The Beverly Hillbillies represented America's transformation from an agrarian economy to an urban one," explains Rocky

"It did?"

"Jed Clampett was the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer," he says. "Elly May was Diana the Huntress."

"I caught a fish!" yells the boy.

"You did?"

The sounds of a bunch of guys out in the wilderness, 50 miles from the nearest freeway. The campfire sizzles. One dad belches. Another does something even less eloquent.

" 'Blazing Saddles,' now that was a great movie," someone notes.

Twenty guys, finally away from the false comforts of modern life.

Twenty guys out in the woods, living like millionaires.

Next week: How to run a waterfall.

Chris Erskine's column is published Wednesdays. He can be reached at

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