The Kern River is not your typical inner-tube joy ride. It is a full-on, life-jacket-and-helmet-wearing adventure that is best left to professional guides. The sober warning always gets your attention as you make your final drive to the rafting put-in: “294 Lives Lost Since 1968.”
The wild and scenic river near the California city of Bakersfield is only four hours from our Los Angeles home. While we had rafted the Kern before, it was our Father’s Day trip 10 years ago that became a day to remember. My brother Joe and I had been guiding California river trips a few times a year as a hobby — mostly with our adult friends. With my son Zack now home on summer break from college, it was time to venture back to the Kern.
These rafting trips have always had a special hold on me. There are the quiet patches where the river settles down and you can relax as the raft becomes a rubbery, protective cocoon. The sensation of floating releases you from the anxieties of a contemporary life. Then there is the excitement and adrenalin of the Kern white water, with fast roiling water, huge drops, and plenty of technical challenges created by the randomly exposed boulders. The Kern tests both nerve and skills.
I always seem to return from one of these weekend raft trips feeling reenergized and renewed. My secret agenda was for my son, Zack, to have a similar experience, but in hindsight, I had deprived him of these special “danger boy” experiences as he got lost in the year-round training demands of being a tournament tennis player. I loved the idea that I could make up for these lost opportunities in a magical father-son adventure on Father’s Day.
We arrived at the river put-in early on that Sunday morning. We spent a good hour preparing the boat for the whitewater challenges that lay ahead. The first half of the trip featured lower class rapids that allowed us to practice our commands and paddling techniques. All went well, but we knew that the real fun would begin in the afternoon with a succession of white-knuckle rapids. Soon we arrived at the biggest rapid on the river — where it’s mandatory to get out and scout it.
What made this rapid challenging was that there was a big “hole” sitting in the middle of it. Not only was the hole hard to avoid, the high flows that day made it exceedingly dangerous. (Holes are created when water flows over a rock creating a void that produces powerful circulating hydraulics that can flip a boat or hold a rafter in its grasp. Many of the deaths on the Kern could be directly attributed to these powerful holes.)
While scouting the rapid, we also discussed the possibility of “portaging” our raft (carrying the boat to safer waters downstream). However, it became clear that it would take at least an hour to carry our raft over the boulders that were between us and safer waters. Plus, I was conflicted. I wondered if carrying the raft would take away from our great father-son adventure – depriving us of our ultimate victory over the mighty Kern.
My small inner voice wouldn’t let it go. Privately, it kept raising concerns. The river flow is too high. Room for error is marginal. Is it worth the risk? As a team, we continued to discuss the options. A plan emerged that we thought would work. But deep down, I knew they were looking to me to affirm that this was a good decision. We walked through it a few times from the shore and I gave it my blessing: Let’s do it!
Even as we got into the boat, my inner voice was still not satisfied and warned me: This is too risky! I silenced it with the rationalization that it was just my nerves talking.
We were lined up perfectly as we entered the rapid. Our plan quickly fell apart as the hole pulled our boat towards its powerful churning forces. It was soon clear that we would be sucked into the hole. Our only chance would be to try to power through it by hitting it head-on. I yelled out: Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!
What happened next was a blur. We went sideways into the hole (the worst possible scenario), flipping the raft and making us all swimmers trapped in a monstrous hole. With the ambient temperature in the 90s and water temperature in the 50s, the ensuing shock to our bodies forced our mouths to open — with the unfortunate outcome of swallowing huge amounts of river water. The sensation of drowning follows as the powerful hydraulics pulled us down deep into the water. Whatever resistance I gave was quickly overpowered.
I felt like I was drowning. No, I was drowning. This must be what it feels like to die. My next thoughts focused on my son. My son, my son, God please save my son. I’m guessing that it is 30 seconds later that my head breaks the water’s surface, gasping for air while being sucked downstream into another rapid. I catch a glimpse of both my son Zack and brother Joe crawling onto the shore. They are safe. Thank you, God.
After surviving the next rapid, I find my way to the shore. I am now separated from Joe and Zack (we are on opposite sides of the shore and almost a mile apart). It would take four hours of hiking to find each other. At that point we had lost the raft and all of our possessions (wallets, water, car keys, etc.) — and would have to get word to my wife to come and rescue us.
But for the moment, we are alive and together. We’re a little numb from an experience that could have taken any or all of us. We sit on a rock and plan our hike back to the highway.
It was probably a year later, over a beer, I get to reveal a deeper truth to Zack about our Father’s Day adventure. It had nothing to do with the technical aspects of running a challenging rapid. It was more about learning to trust that small voice within.