Rocky Contos ( )
The South Fork Kern, like the popularly boated North Fork Kern, is unlike many other Sierra rivers in that it flows in a north-south direction rather than an east-west direction. It lies to the east of the NF Kern and meets it at Lake Isabella. Its headwaters tumble from elevations up to almost 11,000 ft. However, the smaller drainage area and its more eastern location in the Sierra give it a much smaller watershed than the NF Kern. The season in which the river is boatable lasts from the first rains (usually from December to February) to the time the snow melts away (usually May- late June). Most of the river that has been boated lies at high elevation (4000-8000 ft). The flow can be estimated by subtracting "flow at Kernville" from "inflow to Lake Isabella". In the early-mid spring, it seems to hold about 1/8 the flow at Kernville. This small river has much to offer the adventurous whitewater paddler. There are about 60 miles of river from Monache Meadows to Lake Isabella.
The first generally acknowledged put-in lies at an elevation of ~8000 ft at Monache Meadow. There is a 4WD road into the meadow, though the pass is blocked by snow until late spring. Last year it was open sometime in June and this year is expected to be open early June. The gradient on this 17 mile run is (in feet per mile):
|Monache Meadow to Kennedy Meadow (miles 69-52)|
This stretch apparently is best done in two days. The rapids are class V in the gorge and consist of stircase-type drops. All drops supposedly are runnable or easily portaged. At Kennedy Meadow there are a number of houses/ranches and a small store (including gas). It is possible to drive a passenger car into Kennedy Meadow most of the year, though the graded dirt (good quality) road goes over a 7200 ft pass that could be blocked by snow at some times. In Kennedy Meadow there are two bridges crossing the river. The gradient of the river below here:
|Kennedy Meadow to Long Valley (miles 52-30)|
There is a small class III-IV gorge below Kennedy Meadow (miles 5-8 on this run) before the river runs through the pleasant class I Rockhouse Basin (15 fpm section). Past Rockhouse Basin the White Dome towers over river right as the water flows through narrow chasms with hugh granite boulder chunks creating class V/VI rapids. This area is called the Domeland Wilderness. The Long Valley trail (at the end of this run) follows a small creek on river left up about 2 miles to a BLM campground. Total elevation gain is about 600 ft. The campground has outhouses and water spigots, though they had no running water when we were there. There is a good dirt road into the Long Valley campground (turnoff from the fire/ranger station). It takes about 1.5 hr to drive one way from here to Kennedy Meadow.
Below Long Valley the SF Kern makes its final spectacular class V-VI plunge through the "Lower Gorge" before it turns to an east-west direction and slowly reaches Lake Isabella.
|Long Valley to Lake Isabella (miles 30-10):|
This gorge has never been boated. Though one of the miles is 380 fpm, the 40 ft contours are fairly evenly spread through this mile. The 340 fpm above it, however, consists of about 1/3 mile where the river is almost flat, then plunges down 260 ft in less than half a mile. This extremely steep section also lies at the bottom of an equally impressive gorge with walls towering up on either side, making portaging perhaps very difficult. Once the river reaches the flat valley, takeouts are possibe at numerous locations, as highway 178 is not far from the river. A public bridge crosses the river at Onyx, about 5 miles upstream of the bridge just before Lake Isabella.
The first descent of the SF Kern (Royal Robbins, Reg Lake et. al.) occurred in March 1986. Apparently this group started at Monache Meadows using a helicopter put-in, and took out at Kennedy Meadows. The second descent of this stretch was by Tom Moore (local Kernville boater and owner of Sierra South) and Rick Haines, while a third descent occurred last year (1995) by Ed Gordon, Brandon Prince, and Gary Gunder. Phil Martin et. al. report running the Kennedy Meadow to Rockhouse Basin stretch several years earlier. In late March (1996) Keith Dinger, Charles Foster, and Rick Norman planned on boating from Kennedy Meadow to Long Valley in two days, but upon reaching the class V/VI "White Dome Gorge" their second day, decided to hike across the horseshoe bend of the river to the Long Valley Trail (6 miles). This ended up taking an extra half day to get out (almost three days total).
Chip Childers and myself planned on doing the Kennedy Meadow down run on the weekend of May 4-5. My grand scheme was to start very early Saturday morning and make it to Long Valley that evening, where we would hike out and car-camp. The next day we would do the more difficult Lower Gorge, taking out at Onyx. Fortunately, we had a shuttle driver (Ruth, who just wanted to get away alone somewhere to study all day). Unfortunately, we didn't arrive at the put-in until 10 am. With the video camera deciding not to work that day, I bought an $18 waterproof disposable camera at the Kennedy Meadow store. We put in at 10:15 am by the lower bridge in the meadow. Just above was a small class II drop. Just below was a barbed wire fence. As a rough flow comparison, we could boat around the first barbed wire on the left. There was about 500 cfs in the river that day. A little below the put in is another barbed wire fence (this I carefully boated through), and then after another mile, a third (which had to be walked over). The first few miles were easy class I-II, with several fun play waves. Before hitting the first small gorge with the 60/90/60 gradient, there were a couple calss III brush-choked rapids as well as a couple 2-3 ft drops over beaver dams. All of these could be boat scouted, though one might want to take a gander at the brushy class IIIs where one has to go by instinct initially to get through.
We knew we were in the first gorge because the hills come close to the river and the rapids come close together. I think we stopped to scout one rapid in this stretch, which turned out to be only class IV. (PICT) In general, this is a very fun class III-IV 4 mile stretch of river I highly recommend. The river soon opens up into the wide, flat Rockhouse Basin. Here one peacefully floats through about 7 miles of mostly class I. In the distance one can see the beautiful White Dome on the right. Apprehension grew as we drew closer to this chasm that Dinger et. al. completely portaged. We were at the end of Rockhouse Basin by about 1:30 pm. The canyon walls soon came next to the river. We could see the giant slabs sloping up on either side. After running several easy boat-scoutable class II-III rapids, we knew we were in the depths of the WHITE DOME when we came to the particularly narrow region with the first class V. We dubbed this first (second?) class V "South Fork Flush" due to its similar feel to Royal Flush on the Lower Kern. Scouting initially on the right, I couldn't see the entire rapid. Scouting on the left, which would have been an easy portage route, gave a complete view.
We both ran it without incident, but just below and for the next mile was class V after class V (about 8-10 total, short pools between them). The granite slabs often came directly down to the river at 40-80 degrees. The second major class V we dubbed "Peacock" due to a horribly beautiful downstream rooster tail 2/3 down the rapid on the right. Just above this was a small death channel to the left behind a huge granite boulder. As I went down first, attempting to stay well away from the peacock, I was slammed into the left channel. Though trivial to prevent my boat from going further into it (it was rather flat there), I found it impossible to turn my boat around and peel out into the current or move (backward) upstream into the eddy further. I ended up peeling out backward, going over the next 3-4 ft drop almost flipping. Chip apparently hit the same eddy and problem, though flipped immediately, rolling up unscathed below the peacock.
After one or two more class V, we came to a particularly impressive one. A granite slab sloped down to the left side of the river at a 70-80 degree angle for over 100 yds. Out to scout on the right, we saw the rapid to consist of about 4 drops. The left slab near the end of the rapid had interesting carvings on it, including two curved lines making it look like the slab was "smiling". We dubbed this rapid "Smiling Slab". It is a class V similar to The Plank on the Cataracts of the Kern. The first move we decided was to boof off a boulder "plank-like" chunk in the middle of the river, missing a large hole on the right and who knows what on the left. After this was a couple more fast drops till the last one - ugly on the left, nicer on the right, but below the right 5 ft sliding plunge the current pushed you directly into some strainers. This I thought would be the toughest part. I grabbed the throwbag, and Chip went to run it first. To my dismay (and I'm sure his), Chip fell off the boof rock to the left (into the unknown - actually a very deep hole). I watched for him to appear below, but after 10 seconds I was really worried! Then I saw his paddle float out and I knew he was in deep shit!! I scrambled downstream a bit to set up a rescue and perhaps grab his paddle if I could. As he floated out and downstream, he apparently went under a rock sieve. I couldn't access him with the throw rope till the end of the rapid, where, fortunately, he made it to the side, OK. He could get his boat as it came down, so I decided to run down after his paddle, which came upon the next class IV, then V, then V. I lost site of it, but continued running down another 15 minutes, almost stepping on a rattlesnake in the process.
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 that spot we came upon the next several class IVs and Vs, probably portaging another two or so (all at river level).
According to Chip: "The boof move was not a hard one, but did require a bit of speed, and angle, as the plank did slant off to the undesirable (left) side, into a tricky boat size chute. A bit too lacadaisically (sp?), I slid off the left side, and under the plank rock, which on (much) closer examination, was actually more of a 4 foot waterfall. My left side was on the fall line, my right side on the plank rock, undercut enough to let my boat slide under. Not being able to roll, I pulled a Mark Spitz, coming up BEHIND the waterfall, holding on to the boat. A very soothing place to be, if I was in a swimming hole, but I was unfortunately at the top of a very long and tricky rapid. After some weaseling, I finally got out from behind the falls, still holding on the the Invader. When my boat started to go into a very nasty strainer-filled hole, I let it go, and proceeded to have a sans-kayak run of the following rapid, full of holes, undercut rocks and falls. My legs were battered by the time I reached the shore, and I was glad to see my boat float by a minute later."
Soon we came to the area where the gradient noticeable slackened (the 65 fpm), but the trees in the river made the rapids class IV-V still. Many occasions here the branches would whack us as we boated through the only channels possible, sometimes going over drops several feet. At this point it was getting a bit late (almost 6 pm), and we decided to hike out to Long Valley from here. On the topo, the river in the next 4 miles goes around a large horseshoe bend. We hiked over the ridge ( several hundred feet) and up to the Long Valley Trail, picking ticks off our legs now and then. The hike to the trail was about 2.0 miles (often through bushes and over boulders), and then up to the campground another 1.5 miles or so. All in all it took us 2.5 hrs, arriving at the pleasant site of the vehicle with Ruth at 8:30 pm (just after dark). The hike was stenuous ( ...strenous enough without any weight on our back, and would be horribly undesirable to attempt it with boats on our shoulders, as Dinger et al, did...).
We hiked back the next morning - getting on the water again at noon, and did the remaining 3-4 miles (gradients 135/190/100). It started out quite easy, with the most forested section of river we had encountered. This stretch really bush-whacked us. Soon the rapids became very challenging with class Vs up to Taylor Creek (where the 190 fpm starts). Pictures of several of these rapids are shown below. The first large one encountered we portaged, but ran several nice class Vs after it.
We portaged maybe one more of the rapids in this stretch. At Taylor Creek, we stopped to look at the waterfalls near the river. Beautiful 40 and 60 ft waterfalls lie on Taylor Creek shortly before it meets the SF Kern. It is possible to climb up above the 40 ft falls, but would require rock-climbing gear to get past the 60 ft falls (looked like the easiest route up the chasm would be about a 50 ft 5.9 climb). There were 10 inch fish IN BETWEEN the 2 waterfalls, which brings to mind questions of how they come home to visit Mom once they've gone downstream.. Taylor Creek was just an incredible place to be. I filled up my water bottle with the creek water.
Below Taylor Cr were a few more class Vs which we ran, before coming to unrunnable class VI for several drops. The portage started at a drop after a pool in the river where there was a huge pile of wood floating into a boulder. I paddled right up onto this "floating wood mass" and got out for a scout. What I saw was not encouraging. Most water clearly poured over to the right chute, which was not clearly visible from my perspective (and wouldn't be from anywhere one could get out around there). Below were several sieves. To the left the water poured over 6-10 ft falls with trees in the middle. This was not possible either. What's more, there was no portage at river level. The walls of the gorge here went nearly straight up on the right side, while the left had a sloping 50-60 degree slab. Perhaps at lower water one could portage at river level on the left. We portaged up high on the left with ropes (several pitches - took an hour), and got back down to the river to paddle another short pool before coming to another sieve. This time we could portage on the left nearly at river level and through a cave of sorts. Just below here there was no easy access to the river. We were forced to seal launch down a 15 ft boulder that was nearly vertical at the edge, making a vertical/front-flip landing mandatory. I launched in, nosed in deep, flipped and rolled up. Chip, who launched in about 4 ft to the right of where I was, did the same thing, but hit a submerged rock, tweeking his ankles out (they were not permanently damaged, thank God!).
I went over the next small class II to a pool where the the river appeared to go through sieves on 4 chutes. One chute in the middle looked potentially doable. Attempting to get a better look at this possibly runnable shoot, I was sucked backward into a brush/log/boulder sieve just to the right of it. The boat was 1/2 underwater, nose pointing straight up. I was stable and had no problem climbing out. The chute I thought possible was clean. My boat was stuck. After 10-15 minutes of wiggling with it, it was only going further underwater. I signalled Chip through, handing me off the throwbag with his teeth as he went down the 2-3 ft wide chute. I pulled my boat from the other way (river right - requiring me to scramble up on an adjacent boulder), and it dislodged, going under the sieve (I didn't know there was a passage underneath that big!). I threw the rope in after the boat.
The boat bobbed up and down in the fast current below the drop, and I thought it would come out in a few seconds. Unfortunately, it just continued bobbing up and down! The rope had gotten stuck in the sieve! We had no knife to cut it and I couldn't unclip the biner with all that force pulling on it (not to mention the extreme difficulty of getting down to it). I thought it might come loose after a while, but it didn't after 30 minutes. I decided to hike out, leaving the boat. Chip would paddle the remainder - he took off. As I tried climbing up the walls on the left I was stalled for about 15 minutes. As I got around and looked back down, my boat had dislodged. The biner was still on the grab loop, so it seems the throwbag rope's knot had slipped. The Extreme was folded in half downstream a little. To my surprise, the disposable camera was sitting right next to the boat in the eddy (for your viewing pleasure!). I eventually got the boat off and paddled it the rest of the way, though still bent. This last stretch had lots of trees but was generally class II-IV (except for two sieves which were definitely unrunnable).
This last stretch Chip describes:
"My first portage was a class 5 rapid which I could not clearly survey enoughto comfortably run. What I could see actually looked fun, with a steep chute through some huge boulders. An easy portage on the left beckoned, however, combined with my solo status, got me walking. At one spot about a half mile from Long Valley, the river completely disappeared, forming a little pond backed up by boulders and logs. Not a normal sieve, I couldn't see any water flowing through at any point in this cul-de-sac. After a confused survey of the scene, I seal launched off a huge log, 8 feet down between two boulders. The last half mile was class 3 water. I carefully scanned the left bank for sight of the narrow Long Valley creek,the topos Rocky had shown me of the monsterous canyons giving me ample inspiration to not miss this turn off."
I hiked out the Long Valley trail, arriving at 8:30 pm. Chip had left his boat 1/4 up the trail. He got it the next morning (Monday am) and thus we were late getting back. My boat reformed to its original shape on the way home (it was my first time using it!). Overall, I think this stretch of the SF Kern is a wonderful expert run for those who like more wilderness-type adventures. I'm planning on running the Lower Gorge when I can find someone who would want to attempt it. It would probably require a lot of shoulderwork!! Let me know if you're interested.