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A River Roars Through it

Can’t take the stress and sheer velocity of the California freeway system? What better cure for big-city blues and road rage than a return to the ‘serenity’ of nature. But contemplators of the navel and those concerned with the correct shade of mauve might wish to visit another ‘natural ashram’: the aptly nicknamed ‘Killer Kern’, one of the most awesome whitewater rivers in America.

When the runoff from winter snows begins in spring, part of the Kern becomes a surging monster of a river – charging through steep gorges in the Sequoia National Forest – with some of the fastest and fiercest rapids anywhere. At other times of the year, and on other sections, the passage can be enjoyed by nearly everyone. The Kern has the distinct advantage of being only 150 miles north of Los Angeles, a mere three-hour drive away, yet in the middle of some the most spectacular wilderness California has to offer. The river will provide you with memories, photos, bragging rights good in perpetuity and even a damn T-shirt reading, “I Survived the Killer Kern”. And it’s no idle boast.

Having been a guide on rivers of the Pacific Northwest myself in what seems like an earlier incarnation, I was ready to hit the water again on a tour of the Lower Kern with Whitewater Voyages, an outfitter with a permanent base on the river. Between April and September, this company runs one- to three-day trips on various stretches of the Kern – mild to menacing.

‘Wet and wild’ was definitely the norm on the Lower Kern (class III and IV) two-day run I chose. It began rather placidly on day one with a lovely and unchallenging float through beautiful forests and past bizarrely carved granite boulders that – when the water’s high – can create enormous waves and treacherous hydraulic holes. We camped on a sublime bend in the river, where – after a gourmet dinner of steak, chicken, salads and Dutch oven brownies – we slept like babes while the Kern murmured sweetly to us.

The following day, our group of four was joined by 23 other adventurers and our armada of rafts headed into the class III and IV sections downriver. This was wild and weird and distinctly had my attention. I got to relive my former river-rat life by pulling three ‘swimmers’ – launched from other rafts like radishes being spit out of a Salad Shooter – to sputtering safety. One of our rafts wrapped around a boulder for half an hour and another ruptured on a razor sharp boulder, gimping home after a hasty patch job. There were bruises, cuts and abrasions to be sure, but the river did its work: The macho were meek, the reclusive were raucous, and the timid were tigers. The camaraderie was priceless. By the end of the trip we had composed something like thirty two verses of a wacky ballad that we entitled “Screamin’ Head Blues”.

Whitewater Voyages also operates half-day and one-day trips on the Upper Kern (class III to IV) and the distinctly class V ‘Thunder Run’ where you had best get a double-handed grip on your oar, your fate and your ass. Those who hunger for even more extreme edgemanship should try the ‘Forks of the Kern’ run. The river drops 60 feet per mile through solid granite walls in an unending series of furious class IV and class V rapids that will all but erase your id, ego and every taint of civilization. But be warned: You have to be tough, experienced and comfortable running on the edge to go here. People do die – though most of them are unprepared and/or are drunken yahoos. Just keep your wits and your rosary about you.

The two-day Lower Kern tour ranges from $299 midweek to $349 on Saturday; one-day tours cost from $129-169. Full day trips on the Class III and IV Upper Kern cost about $150. The ‘Forks of the Kern’ costs $598 for two days and $799 for three days. Rates include all meals and most equipment.

Call or email WHITEWATER VOYAGES (tel 800-488-7238, fax 510-758-7238, ( and they’ll send you a full-color catalog detailing all of the big rivers they run throughout California.

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