Why I Fell in Love with the Kern River

April 2, 2020

heart icon Sierra South Mountain Sports Kern River California

Getting to know a river is remarkably similar to getting to know another person. The pull of someone’s charisma, a witty sense of humor, or a physical attraction can draw you in. After experiencing that initial surface level intrigue and attraction, a likely question will arise; “Is this person worth getting to know?” The first time I saw the Kern River felt pretty similar. I saw the splashy, fun rapids flowing over smooth Sierra granite boulders, bisecting lush riparian vegetation. The immediate desire to drop into this exciting new world was palpable. My first experience on the Class IV Gusto section on the Lower Kern was thrilling. Not only was this my first time guiding a raft on the Kern, but my Dad who was visiting got to join the experience. Within half an hour I knew this river was worth the time I was investing to live and work on Kern. In the coming weeks I dove deeper into the expansive one day sections of the Upper Kern. My life took on a dreamlike pattern; rafting Class IV-V during the day, kayaking class V in the evenings. I did this every day for weeks and as my joy on the Kern deepened, so did my desire to understand its origins. Similar to people, each river has its own characteristics, shaped by a lifetime of experiences. For rivers, these characteristics are largely dependent on the forces placed on the water as it flows from the mountains to the ocean. Every person has a story to tell, every river has a story to tell. It became abundantly clear I wanted to hear the story of the Kern. What forces have shaped the river that I see each day? What other unique geology, rapids, boulders, and gorges has the water I am floating on experienced before it touches my boat?

Venturing to the Forks of the Kern was my opportunity to experience that deeper level of understanding. Our plan was for three of us to take two days to kayak the 18 mile Class IV-V wilderness section of the Kern River, which lies just above the day sections of the Upper Kern. The drive to the Forks of the Kern would have a been a worthwhile way to spend the day. Yosemite style polished granite faces and domes with massive Sequoia trees sprinkled onto the landscape made me grateful I wasn’t driving so I could soak up every new view the twisting road provided. A mild two mile hike brought us to the put-in and the start of our descent into the Forks. Take the best aspects of the Upper Kern; great rapids, smooth boulders, impressive mountains, and multiply that by ten and you have the Forks of the Kern. The 100+ rapids blended together as we moved with Kern through the epic landscape. The kayakers I was with emphasized slowing down on occasion to take in the towering walls of granite that surrounded us. It is hard to imagine that a wilderness run of this quality can be accessed by a two hour drive and a two mile hike. By the time we reached our cars in the afternoon of day two, my connection with this river had reached another level. I couldn’t wait to get back to this section in either a kayak or a raft. I have kayaked and rafted on five different continents and this is easily one of my favorite sections of whitewater. I was able to paddle the Forks of the Kern two more times that season, and simply knowing it existed upstream gave me a greater appreciation of the river I choose to work on. The truth is that I am still getting to know the Kern River, and there is still another 40 miles upstream of the Forks of the Kern that I have yet to experience. I hope I have the opportunity to see more of the Kern, but even if I don’t, this is a river that is worth knowing. It is worth that surface level of intrigue and fun you might find on a single a day, or the deeper connection you might find exploring the Forks of the Kern and beyond.

– Steve Merrow