KERNVILLE, CALIF. — It was a hot afternoon before fire erupted near the community market, raced up the ridge and began devouring pine trees.
Now it's blazing.
Smoke billows. Sirens wail. Firefighters scramble up the hillside. Helicopters whirl.
Yet, beneath the chaos and burning slope, coursing silently through town, is an idyllic, tree-lined river fed by snowmelt from faraway peaks.
A slice of blue-green heaven amid the flaming hell.
I crave entry, but my date with Kern River Outfitters is not till morning.
Only then, as my raft tumbles and splashes through the more turbulent upper river, beyond the fire and the smoke and ash, will I truly feel cleansed and rejuvenated.
'An organic experience'
A whitewater rafting adventure has that effect, regardless of what the day is like.
"It just puts you in touch with the earth and yourself," says Nancy Ivey, a yoga instructor from nearby Bodfish. "It pays to love the planet, but you have to be out there, integrating yourself and becoming one with it."
For many, on the other hand, a jaunt down a swift river -- at three hours by car, the Kern is the closest whitewater destination to Los Angeles -- is just plain fun.
Unfortunately, with this new season comes the sad reality that the fun will be short-lived. An unusually light Sierra snowpack means abbreviated rafting windows on all of California's free-flowing rivers.
It's certainly true on much of the Kern, which has three main sections. A breakdown:
* Forks of the Kern: Originates near Mt. Whitney, for experienced paddlers. Three days, 22 miles and mostly Class IV and V rapids (Class VI rapids are deemed unpassable). Window: mid-May through mid-June.
* Upper Kern: One of the state's premiere one-day venues. A swirling journey past unusual rock formations and alder-lined shores. Several runable sections. Will peak at about 1,500 cubic feet per second in two weeks, and become a mere trickle three weeks later.
* Lower Kern: Below Lake Isabella in a steep canyon. Family friendly. Two days, Class III and IV rapids. Season begins at the end of May and, because Lake Isabella has ample storage, it will last into September.
Only five outfitters are licensed to run guided trips on the Kern, which allows for spacious travel compared with more popular rivers, which can experience gridlock.
"You just don't have that zoo of people around you like you do on other rivers," said Chris Brown, 29, a 12-year Kern River guide. "It's a lot more of an organic experience."
A guilty pleasure
It's a bright and balmy Monday morning, though low-lying smoke rolls like fog over the scorched ridge. Ash-laden firefighters stroll wearily toward the town cafe.
Rafting today will be a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless, as fast-melting snow in the Mt. Whitney drainage has raised the river to more than 850 cubic feet per second.
The Upper Kern's Limestone Run, which recently became navigable, will be rollicking.
Luther Stephens, lead guide-general manager for Kern River Outfitters, has assigned company publicist Sue Cawdrey, Ivey and Sarah Teed, an artist from Lake Isabella, to our raft.
Another will be piloted by Brown and new guides feeling out the river. With less snowmelt come lower flows, but also more exposed rocks, requiring technical maneuvering.
We put in beneath Johnsondale Bridge and could probably have run the 2.4-mile stretch on positive energy alone.
Ivey, who once survived a 370-foot plunge in her car from the icy highway above the Lower Kern, tackles each day as though it could be her last.
Teed is similarly disposed, appreciative, confident and alert.
Plus, she says, in reference to the wily Stephens, "At least I don't have to worry about the competence of my guide."
Trepidation creeps forth soon enough, though, as we sweep through the churning Brush Creek section, and again as we plunge bow-first into the Class IV Limestone rapid.
Swallowed briefly and regurgitated fiercely, we emerge fully soaked but still on our seats, and marvel at how quickly chaos turns to calm.
Blackbirds dart across the water. Colorful butterflies flutter amid the green leaves of alders.
A steep limestone wall rises immediately to our left, and Stephens cups his hands to gather and sip water percolating through its porous fiber.
He then barks, "Forward two!" and we stroke twice to position ourselves for Joe's Diner, which tugs at our bow and jerks us this way and that.
We jostle through a minefield of rocks and gentler rapids at Betty's Bakery and afterward float long and leisurely to a pebbly beach that serves as the take-out.
Well primed, we ride back up and run the river once more before returning to town, where we discover that the wildfire has reignited and the firefighters are also making another run.
When they finally gain the upper hand, I cannot help but think, they ought to bypass the town cafe and go straight to Joe's Diner and Betty's Bakery.
The river might not satisfy their hunger, but it'll certainly quench their thirst.