Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Adventures on the South Fork of the Kern

Better late than never...
Living in the Kern River Valley, the South Fork of the Kern River has long been on my "to-do list". Finicky water levels, lack of willing partners and a similar driving time to the Kaweah kept it from actually getting done. Finally some friends talked Rebecca and me into hiking in for an exploratory mission; after seeing the impressive White Dome gorge first-hand, a trip was cobbled together within the week.

Topo overview of the run (click to enlarge)

Legend has it that only three other groups have done the 22 mile stretch of river from Kennedy Meadows to Long Valley (please correct me if this is wrong) with Royal Robins, Reg Lake et al. getting the first Descent in 1986 (a very late first descent for a river this size in the Sierra). Reportedly, the second descent crew of Keith Dinger, Charles Foster and Rick Norman portaged the White Dome gorge entirely. The best account of the run I found was from the last group consisting of Rocky Contos and Chip Childers who made it through the entire run with various tales of adventure.

From Rocky's trip report (click to read - recommended reading!)

"Defeated, I came back, seeing that Chip had gotten his boat to the side. No paddle. Would he hand paddle for a ways? Could we get another paddle at Sierra South that evening? He portaged the next couple class Vs as I went up to portage my boat down with him. During my portage along one of the 50 degree slabs, I lost footing and fell down, hanging on a tree. My boat went down to the river and started floating downstream. I yelled to Chip and scrambled down to him as fast as I could. A wonderful stroke of luck hit us, as Chip had found his paddle in the eddy right there, and incidentally, my boat floated into that at exact same eddy! I guess I had lost track of the paddle at that spot and continued searching downstream. The swim Chip had was his worst ever, and he was quite dazed from it - "hallucinating" he said."

After putting out a few feelers, Kevin Smith and Geno Hacker decided to join in the fun (how could you not be enticed by stories like that from Rocky?). Rebecca (still with an injured shoulder) and Allison Diller decided to meet us at camp and do their own exploratory hiking in the area of Manter Creek - the trip was on!

Through the magic of Delorme...

Before we get on to the account of the run, there are a few things to get out of the way first. Considering that only 3 of the 22 miles approach the magic 200 ft per mile gradient, don't be fooled. This is a two-day trip. It is conceivable that it could be done in a day by a group that knows the run, gets an early start, and is willing to hike some portion of the three miles out long valley in the dark; other than that, plan two FULL days. In addition, this is not a Sierra Classic in terms of whitewater; there are plenty of good drops, but there are also plenty of portages, both tree and sieve induced. Perhaps the Manter fire of 2000 hurt the quality of this run, but it is hard to say since nobody has done this run more than once.

With that out of the way, this run is a true adventure; spectacular granite gorges, beautiful side hikes, a serene float through Rockhouse Basin, bears, snakes and a very real sense remoteness await. We had between 300-350 cfs on the South Fork gauge - since there are no major tributaries below this section, I would estimate that we had very close to that amount in the river. I felt this was a low/medium flow for the run; more water would cover up some of the sieves and make a few drops more palatable with the trade-off of making some of the woody stretches come at you a bit quickly. Lower water would probably make some of the drops easier, but might induce a few more portages. A few days earlier when we hiked in the level was 450 - this appeared to be a medium/high level and would probably be my target if I went back in (which I might someday, once the memories of the portages fade away).

The SF Kern Gauge for May 25th and 26th


Put-in at Kennedy Meadows

The put-in for the run is at the road bridge over the meandering South Fork near Kennedy Meadows. To the North you look up the PCT towards Olancha Mountain and Monache Meadow, to the South you look into the Domeland Wilderness Area. From here you have a pleasant 13 mile paddle through scenic class I-III. The main concern here are the cattle fences - we encountered three of them - two we were able to paddle through and one we had to walk around.

NOTE: the first fence is about 20 yards downstream from the bridge in a braided section of river. Don't let it catch you off guard since getting stuck in barbed-wire would not be a fun start to the trip...

The Crew getting ready for their SF adventure!

This section is extremely pleasant; right up there with the scenic flatwater on Upper Cherry, the Kern Headwaters and Fordyce Creek. I could easily see turning just this section into an overnighter for Class III-IV boaters (requiring a two mile hike out the old road above the White Dome gorge); great camping, views of the Domelands and presumably numerous Golden Trout to catch.

Looking North

There is about a two mile stretch starting somewhere near mile 5-6 where the whitewater picks up a little bit; no scouting was necessary, but picking appropriate routes through brushy, braided sections required a little attention. Overall, this section went much better than anticipated and it only took us about three hours to eat up the miles between the put-in and the entrance to White Dome gorge.

Some Rocky Sections

White Dome Gorge

Approaching White Dome Gorge

As you approach the White Dome Gorge, the twists and turns in the river begin to take on some purpose and the granite starts to pinch in on the banks. Make sure you take the time to enjoy the scenery - it really is a spectacular place.

White Dome
It is pretty clear when the goods start; a boat scoutable class IV with a good sized eddy on the right is followed by a long class V dubbed South Fork Flush by Rocky and Chip. Scout this on river left and you'll be able to see the whole drop; this is one that would benefit from more water since the exit drop pinches down to about three feet wide with a good deal of water splitting off into a sieve (with another one just upstream of that for good measure). The rapid itself didn't look that difficult, but it also didn't look fun enough to push the risk-reward needle into the green for anyone, so we moved on.

After this is a sequence of fun drops; probably the whitewater highlight of the trip. We ran every drop in here except one, which also would have been much more enticing with more water since a slam into the left wall seemed inevitable at this flow. Every drop in this gorge was portagable at river level, but for about a quarter mile or so you feel locked in there with sloping granite walls; at this point there is no way out but forward. The second class V drop (pictured below) was fun and was follwed by the drop described by Rocky where Chip pulled his self proclaimed "Mark Spitz" in a ledge hole against the left wall.

Kevin in the Second Drop

The Mark Spitz Rapid (Smiling Slab)
At this point you begin to get the feeling of the character of the run; steep granite walls break off in huge chunks, tumble into the river in a pile and make rapid. Since the flows in here never really exceed a couple of thousand CFS, the river doesn't naturally to clean itself up by blowing channels between these large boulders. The result is a weird hybrid of Colorado whitewater in a California setting.

One of the best drops on the trip is near the end of the tight upper part of the gorge; a sweet double drop with rock-smear-boof on the entry and a largish hole on the exit - I like to call it peanut-butter-jelly-time.

The author smearing the entry

Kevin dropping into the second hole

and smearing the exit

At this point, the character of the river changes; the gorge opens up a bit to the left, the river begins to split into different channels and trees become a significant factor. The gradient here lessens, but it is still steep enough that you don't really want to go charging around a corner into a giant wood pile. There were still some fun drops, but the number of portages around strainers began to get frustrating, especially as it began to become evident that a late arrival at camp was inevitable.

Rebecca and Allison had planned to hike in at long valley and cut over a saddle to Manter Creek where they would set up camp. We were unsure of whether we would make it to that point by nightfall, so we were self-contained, but I much preferred a dinner of mashed potatoes and bratwurst followed by a night of sleep in a tent to a half pound of nuts and dried fruit followed by a night under a tarp with two other dudes and a forecast for rain.

It was somewhere in this section that our plan of attack became disjointed. Boat scouting would often lead me to a tiny eddy above a strainer where I would signal back that it was no good. Often we would end up portaging on opposite sides of the river with varying strategies and little communication. I suppose a time-out to regroup would have been in order, but we were basically in survival mode. The result was basically three independent paddlers making their way down the river instead of one coherent group.

In the middle of the chaos, there was one drop in particular that looked really good; a long lead in with a big airplane turn to the left followed by a riverwide hole. When we got to this drop we were on opposite sides of the river - I was on river left and Kevin and Geno were on river right. The entry to this drop pinched on the right side and required a squirrely boof with an overhanging rock before the airplane turn around a huge midstream boulder. Not being able to see well from my side I signaled Kevin to see what he thought. His reply was uncertain, so I signaled that I would begin the portage and asked if he wanted me to set safety. His reply was that he was walking too. After a 10 minute jaunt up and around the boulders, I was quite surprised when I got down to river level; Kevin and Geno were standing on river right, and Kevin's boat was floating in an eddy on river left? Confused, I gave the "are you OK" signal. Kevin replied that he was, but looked to be unable to get to his boat. My first thought was that he slipped on the exposed portage, dropping his boat into the river. In actuality, he got to the top and changed his mind on the drop, deciding to run it with the end result being a swim in the riverwide hole at the bottom.

It appeared the boat might make its way out of the eddy and float down directly towards me. If it stayed left we were in business, if it floated into the right channel we were in trouble. I scaled out on a strainer that was blocking the entire left channel and did my best Johnny Bench as his fully loaded Habitat floated directly into the tree I was standing on. Unable to get the boat out in time before the boat got lodged, I jumped in the water and pulled the boat downward, fortunately the weight of the boat and the strength of the current then pushed the boat underneath the strainer and I was able to swim it to shore.

At this point I was pretty sure that darkness would overtake us before camp. To the best of my estimate, we still had about 1/2 mile to go, at the rate we were going, we wouldn't make it. Thoughts of stashing the boats and hiking down to camp seemed realistic, but from our hike earlier in the week I thought the gradient would ease up, perhaps making the river travel easier. Continuing on until dark seemed like the obvious choice.

Luckily the river did mellow out and open up a bit, but the trees did get thicker. For the most part the river was boatable, but at one point we had to make a little duck between a tree and a rock to sneak through. I ducked under the branch and turned around to make sure the next boat got through. Geno was next and got pushed offline a bit, catching the tree sqaure across the chest. After a few seconds, it became apparent he was not going to be able to work free; furthermore he dropped his paddle to hang on to the tree and maintain his upright position. Debating between the paddle and Geno didn't take too long and I paddled to an eddy just below to help get him out. Between Kevin and myself, we were able to stabilize him and lift the log for safe passage. After Geno was safe on shore I started heading downstream looking for the missing paddle. The canopy of the trees and the setting sun made for poor lighting and I was unable to find the paddle; the good news was that the going was really quick with only one log portage before I saw the fire glow of camp around the corner. I gave out a little "whoop" which was quickly returned by Rebecca and I rolled into camp about 10 minutes before sunset.

Next into camp was Kevin, pretty much in the last of the daylight. Geno had elected to hike out the next day leaving his boat near the saddle that Rebecca and Alison had passed over to get to camp. He would be making his way down to camp from there by foot. We started dinner, drank some tequila, and hung out for a bit, waiting for a headlamp in the distance. Eventually we saw one making its way down the bank - unfortunately on the wrong side of the river. After a quick survey of a possible night swim across the river, we elected to ferry Geno across by boat. After some discussion of a reasonable spot for such a foolhardy endeavor, we got Geno and his overnight gear safe and sound to the other side.

Much food and spirit ensued (since that is what you do on single night trips) and in the morning we awoke to one of the more scenic camps I've experienced in the Sierra - which means it was totally sweet...

Home sweet home

After a hearty breakfast, it was the group consensus that a hike was definitely in order. There was absolutely no way we could paddle through this area and not explore; the obvious choice was to head up Manter creek as far as was reasonable (the obvious gorge shown below).

Camp with Manter Creek Gorge in the Background

After poking around for a little over an hour, I started to get restless thinking about the whitewater the lay ahead - Kevin was clearly thinking the same thing. We said our goodbye's to our pals (who would continue exploring this basin) and headed back to our crafts to finish off the short (at least we assumed it would be) three mile to the take-out/hike-out.

Taylor Gorge:

I'm not exactly sure of the time we left camp, but 11:00 am would be a reasonable guesstimate - for future groups, that is pretty much about as late as you would want to leave and still figure on getting finished that same day. With just the two of us, things went pretty quick; meaning we scouted anything that was class V, did one cool side hike - other than that (and an hour portage to go about 400 yards down river) we kept moving.

Right out of camp was a chunky class V - not very enticing - portage. Then we had a cool drop with a log all he way across the bottom - runnable with a funky exit. Then it got heavy. The next 1/4 mile to Taylor Creek had some seriously manky stuff; stuff I might run with a camera crew and safety, but two dudes and an unknown section of river still to go made the easy portage on the left an easy decision.

Yep, portaging high and left was clean...

Soon we hit Taylor Creek; I had heard there was a nice hike up here, so we parked the boats and scrambled up as far as we could. This was no disappointment. The waterfall just up from the river was just a teaser for the beautiful box canyon just upstream. I could have spent all day there, but after a bit of lunch, some lounging and a few picture, we new it was time to keep heading down.

A pleasant falls just below...

An Amazing Box Canyon

After lunch we started working our way down; to make a long paddle short, the river character changed quite a bit to more congested (i.e. treed) rapids - almost all of which were runnable. The problem arose in the scouting of said rapids. Thrashing through the now heavy undergrowth was arduous, and often portages were more difficult than running whatever manky rapid was the obstacle. Still, I would not say the run was without some fun drops.

Kevin on a boof somewhere

At on point, the river clearly starts to drop off and the banks do not facilitate any sort of scout. I ferried to the right side and walked down to the granite cliff and could only see a 10 foot slide into about a 20 foot fall (no landing visible) followed by a runout into boulders that appeared to just end in rock. River left provided no additional info, and since there was a serious portage alluded to in the previous trip report, we assumed we had met our match and had to do an up and over.

In retrospect, I think there is a good chance that drop was runnable. Certainly, it would be worth ditching the boats and scouting on the left at river level long enough to get a good look at it - I think the full scout might take 30 minutes - our portage took about an hour and a half.

Committing to the portage, I followed Kevin - who clearly has no fear of heights - some 200 feet above river level. At one point I had to run across an extremely exposed section of granite; if I was 10 feet above the ground I think I could have handled it. I wasn't, I was 200 feet above the stinkin' riverbed. As I breathed deeply and made myself scramble across the exposed dome, my feet began to slide downhill on the flaking, decomposed slab; knowing that I had no choice, I simply kept my feet moving forward, eventually catching solid granite again only to skid to a stop right next to Kevin. "I hate that Shit!" I exclaimed (or something to that effect). Kevin, being used to these sorts of things, simply replied "yeah, that was dicey" (or something to that effect).

After finally making our way down to the riverbed and catching glimpses of what seemed like potentially the best rapid on the run that we were portaging, we finished off the portage at river level past two chunky drops that might be runnable at higher water. Knowing there was not much more before we got to the end of the run, my ESP convinced me to jump out at a rather non-descript turn to the right only to scout what is certainly a mystery rapid. I swear, 300 cfs were rounding a corner at in a class II rapid, and only 100 cfs was passing through about 3 hotel sized sieved out boulders. BE WARE of this - I have no idea what would happen if you decided to go ahead and paddle into the class II entry.

This drop/nightmare signifies the end of the run. There might have been another 10 minutes of paddling class II, but the trail up Long Valley creek soon appeared on our left. The only bummer was the total lack of beer and babes at the take-out; we had to unceremoniously load our boats and hike the 3 (or was it 5) miles out.

The end - or is it...

Of all the things I remember about the difficulty of this trip, the one thing that stands out is that this is the only time I have ever seen Kevin tired. Don't get me wrong, it is not like I was a spring chicken, but those who know me know that I am old and being tired is a normal condition. But, the fact that, no matter how early in the season it was, this run wore out the indomitable Kevin Smith tells me that it is not for the faint of heart. With that said, if you have the will and the skills to hit up the South Fork of the Kern, an adventure surely awaits...