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Chris Erskine THE GUY CHRONICLES

Like So Much Flotsam and Jetsam

July 10, 2002|Chris Erskine

Second of two parts

KERNVILLE--When we last met, the Kern River was threatening to swallow us like hors d'oeuvres, and a couple of the dads were talking about the cultural significance of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and making plans to have a well-chilled beer at the end of the raft trip.

"Jethro Bodine is the primary comic character," my friend Rocky is saying. "Because what does Jethro want to be? A double-aught spy. But he betrays himself as the yeoman farmer."

"And Granny is still fighting the Civil War," my friend Bill adds.

"Exactly."

You meet a lot of crazies out here in the woods. Often, they're your friends.

Then there's this British guy, one of the guides, who leads us coolly through stretches of rock and water like someone shooting 18 holes. Churchill is his name. Dave Churchill. Wears a helmet decorated with the British flag, because most folks assume he's Australian.

"Nice work, mates!" Churchill says after we pinball through a stretch of whitewater.

"What'd he say?"

"We did OK, mate," says the boy.

For three days, we have been working our way down the Forks of the Kern, one of America's finest rafting rivers. We've eaten strawberries and jerky for lunch. Steak for dinner.

Yes, when we last met, we were having a heck of a time, crazies and all. An adventurous trip--bruising but not brutal.

Now along comes Carson Falls.

"This is the big daddy," a guide warns.

"I thought I was the big daddy," my friend Howard says.

"Not anymore," someone says.

Lewis and Clark had the rugged Bitterroot Mountains to contend with. We have Carson Falls.

Our little armada of fathers and sons is itching to try Carson Falls, the final and most difficult hurdle on our 20-mile raft trip. There's three lawyers, a minister, the car guy. If anyone is frightened, he's not talking.

"I can't wait for Carson," the boy keeps saying.

"Me either," I lie.

Not since our honeymoons have the dads faced anything quite this strenuous. We are mostly in our mid-40s. Our foreheads are like camper shells. Our shoulders wide yet soft. We drive decent cars and live in nice homes. When something bad happens in our lives, we call someone to fix it. The roof. The furnace. An aging tooth.

But there's no fixing Carson Falls.

It is crafted of granite, permanently fractured, edges like an ax.

Through it runs the Kern. On the surface, pretty as a petticoat. A swirling caldron below.

"Sure you want to do this?" I ask the boy.

"Sure," he says.

Oh sure, nothing to fear here. If you survive the 10-foot waterfall, there's a suck hole 20 yards beyond. Hit that wrong, and your wife is out dating again.

Hit it wrong, and the yard won't be mowed for months. The new kitchen will never be painted. At Christmas, your wife puts up the tree herself, cursing you the entire time. How's that for a legacy?

"Mates, the way to run this," Churchill says, "is to stay close to that giant boulder."

We have parked our rafts and are standing on the shore studying Carson Falls. As we watch, thousands of gallons of snowmelt crash against the rocks. In its spit, rainbows form.

"It's not so bad," the boy finally says, and three grown men laugh.

I look at the boy. He won't look at me now.

"When we hit the falls, I want everyone to get down into the raft and just hold on," Churchill says.

"Stay in the boat," says Rocky. "Like in 'Apocalypse Now.' "

"Nice reference," I mumble. On my right, I have Churchill. On my left, Francis Ford Coppola.

So we pile back in our raft, me and Rocky, our two sons, Churchill.

"I think I'm staying with the boat," I tell the boy.

"Me too," he says.

And for the first 10 seconds of our voyage, things go incredibly well. Then, even before we reach the waterfall, we bump this little lip of rock that sends Rocky flying out of the raft.

"Get him in the boat!" Churchill yells as we approach the waterfall. "Get him in the boat!"

Big guy, Rocky. Two-hundred-plus pounds of Ivy League lawyer, bobbing like a champagne cork in the churning Kern. When he goes in, the river rises about 3 inches.

"Get him in the boat!" the guide yells.

I know this is serious because Churchill has lost his British accent. For two days, he has sounded like a young midfielder for Manchester United. Now he's talking American.

"Get him in the #%*&x!# boat!"

Seconds before the waterfall, Rocky's son Nick and I manage to pull Rocky back in the boat. He gasps as if harpooned.

"You OK?"

"Who?"

"Get down!" Churchill yells.

In slow motion, here's what happens next:

We all hit the floor as the raft belly-flops over the falls, which causes my knees to push up into my chin, which causes my central nervous system to completely collapse.

So far, so good.

The raft slams into the water, jiggles like a starlet, then bounces wickedly across the rapids.

"Hold on!" Churchill screams.

Hold on? To what? To Rocky? There's no telling when he'll go flying back in the river. To my son? Yeah, right. There's 30 years of therapy.

"Hold on!" I scream as we tumble down Carson Falls, a pleasant ride if you have the loins for it, but not without an occasional risk.

"Whew!" someone yells when we clear the last rapids.

"Yes!" says the boy.

"Yes!" says Nick.

"Everyone OK?" Churchill asks.

I have a bruise the size of Cincinnati. Rocky looks like he just wrestled Moby-Dick. Sure, we're fine.

And onward down the mighty Kern we go.

Chris Erskine's column is published Wednesdays. He can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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