THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
CATARACTS OF THE KERN
``One moment, on the rapid's top, our boat
Hung poised - and then the darting river of Life
(Such now, methought, it was), the river of Life
Loud thundering, bore us by; swift, swift it foamed ...."
From "A Dream" by Matthew Arnold.
They called it the "Gusto Run" and described it as 13 miles of exhilerating Class III-IV whitewater on the infamous Lower Kern in the southern Sierra Nevada. I would come to remember it as a special experience.
The Kern is, perhaps, the most famous and the most notorious river in California. Born high in the Sierra Nevada where a group of icy lakes above the tree line feed their meltwater into a rugged canyon, it gathers depth as it flows south past the western shadow of Mount Whitney. Most of the runoff from the Sierra Nevada flows east or west, the directions of obvious descent. In contrast the stubborn Kern cuts north-south down the spine of the Sierra Nevada before it slides out of the southwestern end of that great mountain range. In the process it falls from over 11000ft through a series of gorges down to the 500ft elevation of the San Joaquin Valley. Near the end of this epic 170 mile journey, man has interrupted the flow by building the dam that forms Lake Isabella. The river downstream of the dam is known as the Lower Kern and passes through a steep and dramatic gorge on its way to the Valley bottom. This part of the river, though very rugged, is quite accessible because of the highway that runs the whole length of the gorge from Lake Isabella to Bakersfield. Here is where the river gains its notoriety. Due to its ease of accessibility, many people are drowned each year when they unwisely venture into the Lower Kern. As a measure of how rugged the whitewater is, there is one section of Class VII rapids; Class VII is certain death, unrunnable in any boat. Because of all the great whitewater both above and below the reservoir, Lake Isabella is a mecca for whitewater adventures of all kinds. Many commercial companies based in the towns on the shores of Lake Isabella, offer whitewater adventures of all levels in kayaks and rafts. Because its flow is regulated by the dam and because of its violent rapids, the Lower Kern is particularly suited for the more radical commercial trips. Thus most of the companies offer a two day adventure on the Lower Kern, the second day being the more violent and challenging. A company called Kern River Tours called this its "Gusto Run".
For many years I had harbored an unfocussed desire to try whitewater rafting and in the summer of 1995, when a store in Kernville by the name of Sierra South mailed me one of its brochures, I decided to fulfil this ambition. Somehow I persuaded myself to bypass all the easier trips and aim for one of the more vigorous adventures offered by Kern River Tours, an outing called the "Gusto Run". On impulse one day that summer I called and reserved a place on the Gusto Run and, in return, was given directions to the headquarters of Kern River Tours.
And so it was that in July 1995, having spent the preceding night in a campground ominously named Hospital Flat, I arrived at the hangar-like shed near Lake Isabella Dam that served as headquarters for Kern River Tours. As always I was early and the mood seemed remarkably casual as the employees readied for another hum-drum day of adventure. I guess one becomes immune to adrenalin. However, it was not long before the action heated up and equipment began to be sorted and loaded onto trailers.
Finally, all the clients seemed to have shown up and we were each issued with lifejackets and paddles. Once equipped we loaded ourselves and our gear into the Kern River Tours bus and set off down highway 178, headed for the gorge of the Lower Kern. Soon we were descending a steep dirt road to the sandy beach that served as the put-in point for Kern River Tours. There we were divided up into teams of six, each of which would occupy one of the six rafts. Then we were give basic instructions. These focussed first on the mechanics of paddling and then on what to do in the event of a variety of mishaps. Finally each team of six was assigned to a guide. Virtually all of the guides were wizened "river rats" whose nonchalance conveyed an aura of confidence. One, however, was a young blonde high-school girl. My team was assigned to her guidance.
We set sail from the put-in beach in eager anticipation of a dramatic and exciting day. After Remington Hot Springs, the first of a series of riverside hot springs that we were to pass, we came to the first couple of whitewater rapids, White Maidens Walkway and Sundown Falls. They were vigorous but readily negotiated. The Silver Staircase followed and, after running the rapid, each raft in turn manoevered itself so as to surf in one of the large waves below the cataract. It looked like a straightforward manoever to me and so I was not particularly alert to the possible mishaps that might occur. Consequently, I think that my feet were not wedged firmly enough into the rubber pockets sewn into the floor of the raft; it should be noted that these footholds constituted the primary means of securing one's position in the raft. And as we slid sideways toward the surfing wave, I very suddenly found myself airborne and then underwater. I surfaced beside the raft and was quickly pulled aboard by the others. It was a salutory lesson in how quickly things can go wrong. However, I had spent only a brief time in the water and emerged from the incident with some composure remaining.
Next came Buffalo Run, negotiated without incident. Despite my dunking, our team in the last of the rafts, was beginning to feel some degree of confidence that we might actually make it through the day without further incident. But we also knew that we were approaching one of the most insidious of the cataracts on the Lower Kern, a long stretch of whitewater known as Dead Man's Curve. What we did not know was that there was a notorious whitewater hole right at the top of Dead Man's Curve. With years of experience, Kern River Tours knew well where to station a photographer for the day's most dramatic shots. So the next sequence of events were graphically recorded on film. Ahead of us, the rafts guided by the wizened and experienced river rats, seemed to negotiate Dead Man's Curve with little difficulty. And so the first of the three photographs shows the last raft with a composed crew (especially the gent at the left rear of the boat in the blue baseball cap) being vigorously instructed by the young, blonde guide in the rear of the boat. Moments later, and just a few yards downstream, the second photograph clearly demonstrates that the situation is rapidly deteriorating as the raft encounters the "hole" at the top of Dead Man's Curve. The guide seems to have completely disappeared and paddles are flying. Note that the gent in the left rear has maintained his composure and his paddling stance. In the next instant the raft loops the loop and everyone ends up in the whitewater. The photographer continues to record the disaster and his third photograph captures an empty airborne raft. It also happens to capture, at the lower right, the gent from the left rear, now capless and composureless.
Note gent at left rear of the raft Problems Disaster
To me the surprise was that it all happenned so suddenly. One moment I was focussed on my paddling duty; the next I was swirling madly through churning whitewater trying to find some air to breath. At the orientation session we had been instructed to try to float down the rapids feet first. I had no control whatsoever over either my trajectory or my orientation. I was simply tumbled down the remaining hundred yards of Dead Man's Curve while struggling desperately to find a moment in which to gulp in air. Within just a few moments I was unceremoniously delivered to a quiet pool below the cascade where I limply swam ashore. Most of the rest of the team found themselves at the same beach. This included our guide who was desperately trying to locate the remaining members of the team. Within moments she had done so and we began to try to retrieve whatever belongings were still floating by. My cap and glasses were long gone.
The adrenalin was still coursing through my bloodstream as we reassembled the crew and boarded the boat for further challenges. The next cataract, False Flush, was successfully negotiated and we then disembarked in order to portage around the unrunnable Class VII rapid, Royal Flush. Needless to say we took time to inspect this maelstrom from the safety of the overlooking cliffs. One could readily see how any boat or person would get lethally trapped in its whitewater vortex.
Just downstream of Royal Flush we stopped for lunch at a comfortable and shady beach. An overturned raft served as a fine table upon which was spread a royal feast. In the quiet cool of the shade, with a fine meal in my belly, I began to recover some sense of equilibrium. Several of the young people enjoyed jumping into the river from a high rock nearby; I opted to maximize my equilibrium in preparation for the afternoon's adventures. But we had already experienced the toughest part of the Gusto Run. And with the discipline derived from the morning's mistakes we adroitly negotiated the afternoon's cascades. Fish Trap Rapid, Bottoms Up, Surprise, Hari Kari, Horseshoe Falls, Patch Corner, and Pinball all passed without incident, indeed with some display of coordination and competence. And this brought a substantial sense of pleasure and accomplishment, strengthened by an intimate knowledge of what can go wrong.
We had been on the river for nearly five hours and exhaustion brought about not only by physical exertion but also by the drain of nervous energy, began to take its toll. Fortunately the river had come to a gentle stretch of meanders where we could relax, swim alongside and unwind from the day's earlier exertions. So we drifted down to Democrat beach, the takeout point. The bus was waiting for us and it did not take long to load all of the equipment and people for the drive back to Lake Isabella and the headquarters of Kern River Tours.
It had been a truly awesome experience and one whose thrill I would always remember. But for one dreadful moment I thought I had breathed my last and that moment inevitably colored my recollections for ever after. For the raw beauty of the river I would do it again. But not without a fear of that powerless moment when my fate was entirely beyond my control.
Last updated 8/20/02.
Christopher E. Brennen