|John Baker cooly paddling away from a nice drop in the heart of the canyon. This pic and all the rest are by Dan|
The moment had come; we’d hiked way into the Middle Fork of the Kings river with our boats, there was enough (too much?) water, the crew was psyched, and it was time to blow up our boats and get on the water.
Despite the thunder of the waterfall and the adjacent hard granite slab we were perched on that had a pretty decent slope towards the waterfall (watch your rollable gear as you pack up!) we all had slept well, and we hiked the remaining mile or so up towards the confluence of Dusy and Palisade creeks where the Middle Kings officially begins.
As we were geared up and ready to put on, Dan – being the Swiftwater Rescue instructor that he is – suggested we have a discussion about safety. Dan, Jeff, and John have paddled together a lot on challenging rivers and know each others’ strengths and characteristics well, but even though I’d paddled with Jeff this summer it was still a new dynamic, and I was happy to oblige. Of course, we’d had two full days of hiking to chitchat - and I do that a lot! – but trudging along a trail is a far cry from firing down a steepass river in the middle of nowhere, so it’s good to establish strong connections, communication, and expectations. And I won’t hedge here; I was nervous. It was pretty clear to me from our hike up that this was going to be the Real Deal trip; even though there was a nice trail along the river, this was a strong team that was capable of paddling a lot of it and was intent upon that, I hadn’t done a river of this magnitude in a long time (I had mentioned this to Dan and John a coupla times on the hike up, and they no doubt were wondering “well, what the hell are you doing here then?” which would have been a fair question!).
With that, we put on. As with every challenging river, we simply worked our way downward in the typical fashion: peering over horizon lines, getting out to scout, setting safety for the bigger ones, and firing down a lot of great rapids.
The drops were big, but were of the granite slide type that Jeff and I had done on our upper Cherry and upper Merced runs, so we had a better sense of what rapids would go and what the friction/speed would be like with our pack rafts. However, like those runs, there was enough water that the hydraulics at the bases of the slides were pretty meaty, and while the packrafts can be good at skimming over holes if you can keep the bow up, they also descend slides more slowly than hardshell boats and naturally buckle a little when they hit holes and this combo can buck the boat back into the hole, so we had to adjust our expectations of success accordingly, which generally worked out well.
|Me keeping my bow up!|
As I expected, Dan and John were very solid paddlers and Jeff - as the only non-hardsheller in the group – continues to ascend a steep curve of super strong pack raft paddling, and things generally went well, though we all took our own swims; we all have fairly solid pack raft rolls, but the occasional hole thumpings, head/shoulder rock bashing, or up-against-the-wall roll attempts brought us out of our boats, fortunately only briefly with no lost gear.
John was willing to give one of the biggest slides a go, and it was an impressive mount up:
We were all concerned about the hydraulic at the end, but there was a weakness in it that seemed bustable, and combined the speed of the concentrated flow at the bottom was impressive:
But indeed, the hydraulic was powerful, and it's tentacles pulled John back into the hole from 10 feet away despite his strong exit strokes
|a challenging rodeo ride.|
A notable section is Waterfall Gorge; a half-mile long section with 4+/5- drops that ends in a picturesque waterfall:
I was a little spooked by the holes in the upper drops (especially the last one above the falls) and the commitment level of the gorgette, and just below this falls was a gnarly little slot, so I portaged the whole thing. However, Dan and Jeff fired it up and it went well, tho I didn't think to bring either of their cameras and John - with a sweet camera - has been busy preparing for a big move and hasn't been able to deal with his pics yet, so you'll have to imagine Dan/Jeff firing over the lip of this beauty!
California is known for it's big, marquee pool drop rapids, but the Middle Kings is different in that there are innumerable STEEP and complex boulder gardens. The going was slow with long scouts:
Occasionally the gradient would taper off for some relaxation:
Eventually the mighty Tehipite Dome came back into view:
We camped at the base of the dome and I did a lot of pondering. What we had done so far was incredible in many ways: beauty, high quality of rapids, challenging but paddleable. The infamous "Bottom 9" (9 miles, actually more like 8, with a half-mile of that being the flat Little Tehipite Valley" lay downstream, and we had little information on it beyond "very steep and challenging with lots of complex rapids and portaging." I'd been having fun and paddling just fine, but realized that virtually all of the hardest rapids I'd paddled in a pack raft had been over the last couple of days, and I wasn't sure I was ready to take it another potentially big step. The trail that we had come in on was right there, and once beyond it there was no exit for that steeper section. I had taken a pretty big rock hit on my ass on a slide and slipped once while portaging and banged my quad hard, and the non-Vectran (ie less durable) boat had taken some damage on the sharp granite.
But mostly I was nervous; the increased gradient and Willie Kern's warning of potential sieves gnawed at me, and by the time I awoke I realized that I was out. It was difficult; as Ashley knows well, I get FOMO as much as anyone, and I like to think of myself as game, tough, and resilient, but I also have learned - mostly from backcountry skiing - that knowing when to back off engenders longevity, which is really the most important thing. I was super psyched to have made it down that far, and as the boys rigged up and I bid them adieu, I was ok with my decision.
Of course, trudging hard for 7 lonely hours up out of the steep Tehipite valley and rolling back through the boring woods gave me plenty of time to kick myself for being a weenie as well....
As it turns out, my pards of course made it through the bottom 9, and indeed they said that it was even more of the Real Deal than the sections above. Below that is the 14 mile Garlic Falls section - that I paddled a few eons ago - that is famously aesthetic:
Huge thanks again to Jeff, Dan, and John for letting me join their posse and being super solid partners for a challenging adventure, and thanks very much to Dan for all of this post's great pics.