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WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Death threat is not sole allure

On this stretch of the Kings River, the current and adrenaline flow slowly for a chillin' crew.

June 22, 2004|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Sierra National Forest, Calif. — The water was white, and our whiskers were headed in the same direction.

There we stood, four old friends embedded among spouses, children and strangers in the Sierra foothills, seven miles of dirt road behind us. And now came the fastening of life vests, the grabbing of paddles, the river guide briefing, the grim defiance of death by water.

Over the next several hours, our resolve would be tested more than once. The splash-fighting. The post-float volleyball game. The jostling for caramel sauce in the dessert line....

But first there was the water to be ridden, always the water, the water that fought you and found your unguarded inner places and left you moist and pained, like a muffed marlin landing or certain sentences by bullfight-loving novelists.

We were running the Kings River. Game faces in place, we nosed out into the current, steeled our nerves and slipped toward the roar of those fearsome Class III rapids, a stretch so perilous that our outfitter insisted that his patrons be at least 8 years of age. Waters so deceptive that, although this outfitter reported no drownings in the last 30 years, some people have caught nasty colds, suffered sunburn, scraped knees. Possibly also elbows. And let's not forget the soreness after.

OK, so I'm not selling adrenaline in this space today. Today we celebrate the river mild, its waters more tinkling than thunderous, its gifts more pacific than pulse-quickening. And this, of course, makes us suspect. Because much of the river-rafting biz runs on adrenaline, and who wants to brag about running a river that beckons beginners?

This is a challenge for outfitters who make their living on rivers like the Kings, the Lower Klamath, the Lower Kern or the south and lower middle forks of the American, California's leading venues for novice and intermediate rafters. But as June winds down and mountain runoff slows in most of the three dozen whitewater rivers in California, Oregon and Arizona, just about everybody in the rafting game faces the challenge of peddling tamer water.

To them, and to you, I say this: Dive in. In the same way that a bad day fishing beats a good day's work, a modest dose of river beats none. If the thrill of serious risk is the only reason you get in the water, then you are doing something truly unhealthful. The natural world needs to be in your thinking somewhere.

Anyway, says Tom Hale, adventure "is all in the eyes of the beholder." Hale, president of the Berkeley-based tour company Backroads, spends his days tweaking his company's walking, cycling and kayaking trips in search of that sweet spot between excitement and exhaustion.

"The bar continually raises in terms of how much people can do in all these crazy adrenaline events -- double centuries and so on," he says. "But the majority of people aren't doing that."

Even at O.A.R.S., an Angels Camp-based whitewater outfitter that offers trips on 35 rivers worldwide and likes to cultivate hard-core adventurers, media specialist Steve Markle estimates that 40% of customers are first-timers.

Back here on the Kings, by the way, I should say there are spring days when the water is higher and faster -- there's no dam upstream -- and this bit of river is serious business. On those days, Banzai, the III-plus rapid less than a mile beneath the Garnet Dike put-in, demands every river rat's full attention and the waters tumble at more than 10,000 cubic feet per second.

And farther upstream, beyond the reach of commercial outfitters, there are miles of truly perilous, hard-to-reach, experts-only water, including rapids rated class VI.

But on this mid-June afternoon, the sky was clear, the breeze warm, the flow somewhere south of 3,000 cfs.

"I always recommend that Tuolumne as the next step up from the Kings. That's a Class IV. But you need a few Class III runs under your belt," said Justin Butchert, who runs Kings River Expeditions. "You can come back [to the Kings] on the same date five years running, and you're going to get a different trip every time."

From the put-in to the take-out at Kirch Flat, just above the Pine Flat Reservoir, we covered 9.5 miles, gazing up at oak-studded foothills of the southern Sierra and the occasional granite chunk.

We sat under the sun between canyon walls, got wet, got reacquainted, perked up for the rough patches.

Mule Rock, check. Fang Tooth, check. Sidewinder and Rooster Tail, check and check. Then on to dining, desserting and the road home. A good day for the guys with the graying whiskers.

Ah, but danger-meisters will be eager to hear about the road home at sunset.

That writhing foothill highway, bereft of guardrails, mile upon mile. Round a corner and you're blinded by the low orange sun, always the low orange sun, masking traffic in glare, forcing squints and winces like a long Saharan camel ride or certain passages by big game-hunting novelists. With effort, we survived it.

Isn't that a comfort on a lazy summer day, knowing your next adrenal flush may be only as far off as the nearest highway?

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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