I reach for the sunscreen, even though the canyon is still in the early throes of sunrise, and smooth it onto my freckled shoulders. The fragrance mixes with the blanched grass and the green undercurrent of murky high water; it is the smell of my 20s and 30s, when I spent summers guiding rafts down the Class III, IV and V rapids on the Kern. For me, this scent holds the feeling of crackling adrenaline tinged with self-discovery and reflection. It is not a smell that encompasses baby wipes, breast milk or spit up – yet.
Dada and I clutch cups of coffee after another all-nighter and survey the frothing rapid in front of camp. I remember afternoons swimming the hole, paddling inflatable kayaks into the meat of it to surf the pour over. It was this very hole, in fact, that pushed my eighteen year-old self into a lifelong pursuit of chasing waterfalls.
“How many river guides have been born here?” I wonder out loud.
“Huh?” Dada turns half an ear my way, coffee not yet kicked in.
I wander closer to Little Mama, who’s throwing sticks and rocks into the eddy for Doggie. Is she metamorphosing into a baby river guide right now? As she delights over cactus blooms and swirling current, is a tiny river-loving seed embedding itself into her spirit?
Baby Licious wakes with a howl – the signal that my musing moment is over – it’s time to work. Like commercial guiding, the work of parenthood is grueling. Guiding has proven to be the ideal training ground for a job that never ends and requires every bit of sweat and endurance I’ve got. Days and weeks go by as I labor at my new job, while thinking wistfully ahead to the days when five month-old Baby Licious will be able to feed herself and sleep longer than a couple of hours at a time.
Licious joins us at the edge of the camp hole, her screeching quells into a gentle coo as the Kern sings a steady lullaby. Dada frequently muses about the peaks and valleys of traveling outdoors with the kids. “The peaks are fleeting, but they’re there. We have to grab them and notice them. They don’t last.” This moment beside the shimmering river is a clear pinnacle; I fill my lungs with it and open my eyes wider so I can see it better.
Being early season, we’ve got the camp of the whitewater company I worked for to ourselves. Behind me, I spy the gear trailer used to transport river clients’ overnight duffels and tents into camp. I longingly remember handing lanterns, guitars, air mattresses and coolers out the back to countless river-goers over the years. Back then, I spit wind-blown hair tendrils out of my mouth and reflected – somewhat resentfully – how since as early as 1,000 b.c., when the Tubatulabal Indians inhabited the valley, people had been toiling without pause to survive under the relentless high-desert sun.Weren’t there deep circular grooves worn into riverside rocks from Tubatulabal women gnashing pine nuts to serve as evidence of the daily grind? From the back of that sizzling trailer, I pictured a day when the tiresome, everyday slog of guiding (that is – all the parts aside from the thrill of running rapids) would be behind me, and I would somehow be THERE, enjoying a new life free of drudgery. It didn’t occur to me that one day, I would return from THERE, stand next to the empty trailer, and realize that the routine chores done while working as a guide actually was the experience.
I survey the day ahead of us: cleaning breakfast dishes, packing up camp chairs and dirty, earth-covered baby clothes, and it hits me that I am deep in the experience of life. As Dada so wisely noted, this season won’t last. I wink at the Kern, and thank her for reminding me that mamas, like river guides, are born every day. For today at least, I will appreciate and revel in the toiling that comes with this remarkable job.
Kern River Valley, California
Where to Stay:
For the less adventuresome, there’s the historic River View Lodge in the center of Kernville (760-376-6019). A central courtyard, continental breakfast and pet-friendly policy give the lodge a down-home charm. Across the way, tucked off the main road near the park is the Kern River Inn Bed and Breakfast (800-986-4382). With a welcoming atmosphere, the B&B has a family feel and group breakfasts are included. Most of the private rooms have a fireplace or whirlpool tub, the upstairs rooms have river views.
When to go: The high desert climate of the Kern River Valley vacillates between sweltering summer temperatures and typical blustery mountain weather in the wintertime. Surrounded on all sides by juniper and Gray Pine-covered limestone uplifts, Kernville sits at an elevation of 2,614 feet. The main attraction is the Kern River; exceptional whitewater rafting, kayaking and fishing draw thousands of visitors during the summer months. Winters are much quieter, with snowshoeing, fly fishing and cross-country skiing topping the list of things to do.
Things to see and do: Miracle Hot Springs situated on the Lower Kern River off Highway 178 is a must-see for hot springs fanatics. Several natural pools have been built along the river’s edge a short 1/8 mile hike west of Hobo Campground. To get there, take Borel Road off 178, west of Lake Isabella and turn right at the stop sign where Borel intersects Old Kern Canyon Road. Drive several miles along the river to signs marking Hobo campground and Miracle Hotsprings.
Located an 1 ½ hour drive north of Kernville is the Trail of A Hundred Giants hiking trail in Sequoia National Forest. With interpretive stations along the way, the trail traverses through some of the largest living organisms on Earth, the Giant Sequoia trees endemic to the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada range. The largest Sequoia along the trail has a diameter of 20 feet and is 220 feet tall! It takes the arms of many people to wrap around the massive tree trunks of the 500-1,500 year old giants. From Kernville, take Mtn. 99 north to Johnsondale. Continue west on Mtn. 50 to the Western Divide Highway. Turn right and go north on Western Divide for 2 ½ miles to Trail of A Hundred Giants parking area or the Redwood Meadow Campground. Contact Sequoia National Forest Hot Springs Ranger District (www.kernvalley.com/sequoia).
If you continue down the road past Redwood Meadow Campground, you’ll find Dome Rock and Needles, two popular climbing and hiking areas offering majestic views and high-altitude relief from summertime heat.
By far the most popular, and thrilling, activity near Kernville is taking on the rapids of the “killer” Kern River. From the Class V Forks of the Kern run beginning near Needles in the Golden Trout Wilderness, to the more manageable Class III “lickety split” run in town, the Kern River dishes up endless splashy fun for a gamut of ages and abilities.
Don’t be fooled by the river’s sometimes benign appearance, many have lost their lives in the powerful current due to inexperience and alcohol consumption. Unless you’re a whitewater professional, don’t attempt to go downstream on your own. There are several reputable rafting and kayaking outfitters in Kernville who can ensure your safety on the water and offer multiple and day trips to suit your needs. All have offices centrally located in Frandy Park; you’ll need to make reservations in advance, especially for weekend trips. Prices range from $20 for a half-day lickety split rafting run to $300 for two days of private kayak instruction. The best outfitter on the Kern River is Whitewater Voyages (800-400-7238).
If you’d like to check out some Class V from the safety of shore, hike up to Carson Falls,part of the Forks of the Kern run. Head north out of Kernville on Mtn. 99/Sierra Way to the Johnsondale Bridge parking area. Cross back over the bridge to the south side of the river and proceed down the steps to the riverside trail. Carson Falls is about 1 ½ to 2 miles upstream, a fork leads down to the rapid which you’ll hear long before you see it. The main trail continues up along the Forks run accessing fishing holes, primitive camping spots and more Class V rapids. Dry Meadow Creek comes in on the north side of the river several miles up from Carson Falls. This is a great spot to swim across the river and bathe in the deep pools carved out by the falls. Many experienced kayakers hit Dry Meadow creek itself during spring runoff, a serious adrenaline rush of steep drops and shallow landings.
The Isabella Lake Fishing Derby in May provides the chance to win $10,000 for the largest trout (www.kernrivervalley.com; registration $10).
Emergencies: California Highway Patrol-LAKE ISABELLA (760-549-2100). Care Ambulance Service (Kernville-760-376-2271
Lake Isabella- 760-376-2271) provides limited medical care in Kernville. The only hospital in the valley is a rural health clinic, Kern Valley Hospital, located on the east side of Lake Isabella in Mountain Mesa (760-379-1794, 6412 Laurel Ave, Lake Isabella, CA 93240; open 24 hours). Bakersfield hospitals are about an hour’s drive from the valley.