The non-planned Cali adventure

First off, the Los Alamos Mountaineers have asked me to give a talk on multi-day expedition kayaking. For those of you in New Mexico these will be on:

Santa Fe @ REI Wednesday Oct 14 @ 6PM

Los Alamos @ Fuller Lodge Thursday Oct 21 @ 8PM

Taos: TBD

We are planning to show photos from California runs including Cherry Creek, Devils Postpile of the San Joaquin, and Middle Fork of the Kings. Will also talk about food, gear, and logistics of multi-day expedition whitewater kayaking.


I was fortunate enough to go out to California twice last season to paddle. Once was a fairly well planned out, several week trip. And the second, well it seemed like a good idea at the time and ended up being one of my favorite memories of the year.

Summary of the phone call late one Tuesday night between Rolf Kelly (the real R. Kelly) and myself:

-Looking at the past 10 days weather and the next ten days forecast when matrixed against current flows and cross referenced against the Stanley/Holbek guide book = we still are just rolling the dice and golf would be easier....but less fun

-Analysis of how accurate Google Maps driving time estimation to California might be and were we can "make up" time

-Stories of past trips (for me, my only previous Cali run was Middle Fork of the Kings....not a recommended first California run)

-Surly we could drive all night out to Cali and then drive all night back home over a quick 4-day weekend .....right? Its only 12 hours and we have 4 guys, so that's only 3-hours each, so we can do that easy!

The decision was made to "Go for it" and leave after work on Wednesday, drive all night, be in Kernville Thursday AM for 4 days of great kayaking. Then the brilliance of the plan kicks in. We drive all night back in time for work on Monday a 8 am.

Getting into Kernville around 10 am after doing rotating shifts for the 12 hour drive we drove up the Kern drainage for what was supposed to be awesome runs of Brush and Dry Meadow creeks. While we could have broken a boat and made it down on 20 cfs, this was not what we just drove 12 hours for. Looking for close alternatives that we could do that day, we notice the Tule was still showing decent flows so what's a few more hours driving right?

Finally, onto some fun whitewater!
Everyone sleep better that night already knowing we didn't drive all that way for nothing.

Next day driving back down out of the mountains to check gauges and look at what other options we got discouraged immediately. Everything we drove out for did not rise as much as we were hoping, and all other options such as Dinky and the Kaweah were double the recommended max levels. We didn't have a lot of options but to drive north. Having only one vehicle, we were hoping maybe the Chawankee Gorge might be flowing, but the dam operators would not tell us the current release levels and so we put on the Horseshoe Bend section of the San Joaquin which was around 7,000-10,000 cfs. While not an amazing run, it was still good to be in our boats and ended up being fun, but still cold day.

Driving back to Oakhurst and realizing we were making our return trip home longer and longer as we moved north, we went in to look at flows, made phone calls, and tried to figure out what was next on our 4-day weekend. Eating dinner in Oakhurst, we notice how cold it was today and supposed to get colder tonight and actually snow up high. Hmm, this should bring the flows down, what might come in? Looking we saw that maybe, just maybe the South Fork of the Merced might drop into range. I've wanted to do this run for years and never had a chance. Having a new gauge it was hard to say what we were looking for, but we made a group decision to drive up and camp there, then see if the flows dropped.

Getting to the put in at around midnight, using our highly accurate night vision camping headlamps looking at the river we estimated 1200 cfs at the put in for the South Fork of the Merced. Way above the flow we were looking for since every side creek would be pumping, and most likely doubling the flow. Waking up several times that night freezing my butt off, we knew flows would drop. Having all our drytrop frozen so stiff, they could not be put on, we knew the temps were way down in the teens or low 20's. Hmm. The flows did look lower, so we ran the truck heaters on all our gear for 30 minutes to make it pliable enough to put our paddling gear on.

Amos, Cameron, and Tim post truck-paddling gear de-frosting

Amos on a random, but great drop

Rolf just above camp

Cameron and Tim...."pretty sure it flushes"


Lack of a stove = meatloaf pie tins and Instant Potatoes and Oatmeal in the AM

Drying out gear and probably creating a few holes in the process

More great rapids

In the end, I have to agree with the late, great, Lars Holbek when he said:

"The South Merced is one of the best multi-day, super high quality and difficult runnable class V runs in the world...
It's like doing Cherry Creek back to back four times in a row without having seen it before only every time it's different and harder.
- Lars Holbek

Getting off around 6pm we now how a 15+ hour drive before work the next day, but what a great trip with some really amazing buddies!

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