Location: Kern River, Kernville, KR-3 put-in to Cemetery take-out.
Date: Saturday, May 27
Flows: 5000-5500 cfs (with a usual flow around 2000, this is flood-stage. The water is in the trees). People: Me (Marie Blatnik) in a LL Trigger, Scott in a Jackson Zen, and Liz in a LL Lil' Joe. We ALMOST had two River Gods (Brett and other Liz) paddle with us, but Scott told them to go on without us because we were still getting ready after they ran the Class IV "Cables" section and met us at KR-3.
Scott was in the lead to show us the "lines," or routes through the rapids for you non-kayakers. Liz was our weakest paddler, so she went in between Scott and me, and so I ended up being sweep boat. I was very nervous getting on the water, because I'd never been on the upper Kern before AND flood-stage rivers have a MUCH greater risk of, uh, "problems" if you don't respect the river properly. For example, the water is in the trees -- these are called "strainers," because a tree will "strain" the water for swimmers and pin them under the water such that they can't move. There are very few side-of-the-river eddies as a result, and most of the rocks are buried deep under the frothy river such that there are few -- if any -- mid-river eddies. This is good if you're upside down in your boat -- you don't have to worry about hitting any rocks. But outside of your boat, you're in trouble because you can't self-rescue (swim to the side of the river).
So, river respect is easy in this case -- just don't swim! :D We had two swims, and one odd rescue. Read on.
I took the most conservative lines and pretty much followed Scott's lines all the way down the first lap. The river was mostly wave-trains at this level, and so there was a lot of joyriding to be had. We stayed away from some nasty holes on river-left at the first two real rapids (named Big Daddy and Ewings), and one on river right at the third rapid (Riverside Park). Oh, for the non-kayakers: a "hole" is a hydraulic feature where the river drops over a rock and spins back upon itself, which can flip and/or hold your boat if you go into it. I think they're called holes because the water level inside of a hole is lower than the surrounding water.
After Riverside Park, there was a red inflatable kayak in an eddy, with its paddler yelling at us something about a roll. It was a skinny lake kayak, with a skeg, and didn't really have any business in the whitewater. I paddled over to her, and she said that her paddles and paddling partner were downstream somewhere -- they flipped on Big Daddy, and swam all of this way... And asked us to keep an eye out. She didn't know enough to be afraid that he drowned.
As we paddled another quarter mile, we heard yelling. I immediately started scanning the strainers, fearing the worst, but he turned out to be on the river bank and managed to rescue both paddles. We motioned for the red kayak to come down, and Scott tried to grab it and tow her to her partner, but couldn't latch on. I grabbed one of the paddles from her partner, ran it to her in the middle of the river, and got her into an eddy further downstream. Scott then towed the partner to her on his stern, and the red kayak was thus ready to finish the river and get out of there.
After that, there was a lovely set of "everywhere wave-trains" that we happily rode until, OUT OF NOWHERE came a hole to eat us. Scott must've gone around it, but both Liz and I found it and flipped. I was held by the hole for about 2 seconds, where I was able to reach my paddle into the deep water below the hole for the river to pull me out of it. After leaving the hole, I rolled back up to find that Liz had bailed from her boat. She was swimming, next to her boat, in the position one would be in if they were intending to self rescue: hanging on to her paddle and boat.
I got to her and she held on to my stern -- this is the rescue-a-swimmer position. If a swimmer is not on your stern, they are in danger of "flush drowning." Even with a life jacket, the hydraulics on a river will push a swimmer down into the froth, and back up, and beat them up until they can't fight it anymore and start breathing water... Scott attached his towing pigtail to her boat, and we both fought to find an eddy. Let me tell you -- boat control is VERY difficult with a swimmer on your stern, and I had one hell of a time even being in position to catch an eddy. About a mile downstream, we were finally able to catch one, adjacent to a property with a yappy pitbull.
The rapid where we flipped -- which isn't a rapid at low water and thus didn't have a name -- is now dubbed "Surprise Hole." Tell your friends.
The rest of the run was uneventful, and we met up with the inflatable we rescued at the take out, so everyone made it through ok.
The second run was MUCH cleaner. I was feeling more confident, so I even started to play. Scott and I surfed on a particularly long and flat, sticky hole. I tried to surf other things, too, but the river was too fast for me to catch them. There were no swims. I took a few more aggressive lines, and punched the hole at Riverside Park.
We then had lunch before deciding to run the river one last time. We were all feeling tired, but the last run was so clean, and the runs were fast because the river was so fast...
But this last run started out with a bad swim... Right after Big Daddy, Liz swam again -- claimed to have flipped on some swirly eddy line water. Both Scott and I were downstream of her and so had a very difficult time getting to her (in addition to being annoyed that she didn't even try to roll). She must've swam a good quarter-of-a-mile before Scott was able to get her onto his stern. I grabbed the paddle, and had a very difficult time paddling with two paddles in my hand. Her paddle was bent-shaft and feathered, while mine was straight and unfeathered, so my tiny hands couldn't grab both shafts. After finishing Ewings, Scott was able to pull her into an eddy, and it became clear that I had to choose between catching that eddy or keeping her paddle and going further downstream, and I chose the eddy.
Liz collapsed onto bank, exhausted from her swim. Even if I had managed to get her paddle, Scott and I knew immediately that she was done for the day. It wasn't safe for her to press on.
Scott and I then set off to find her boat, which never came downstream -- it was pinned somewhere. We found it pinned in some trees, and amazingly grabbable from shore. We then left Liz and her boat on a road near the river, where we'd pick her up after we finished the run (and grabbed the car from the take-out). We ran it quickly and without incident; we didn't play or pull over because we wanted to get to the car and back to Liz as quickly as possible.
This day -- memorial day -- had a LOT of "carnage" on the river. Not only did we lose a paddle with two swims, but because it was memorial day weekend, there were a lot of river-newb vacationers doing commercial raft trips. We saw two pinned rafts -- one in the trees on an island in the middle of the river, and one wrapped around the pillar of the bridge above Riverside Park. The Riverside Park wrap actually LOST some of their swimmers -- someone at riverside park was able to get a throw rope to one of them, but the rest were swept downstream. The last I heard, the helicopter that was scouring the river was on a search-n-rescue mission to find them.
The moral of the story is, of course, DO NOT SWIM ON FLOOD STAGE RIVERS!!! Have a decent river roll. :)