Middle Kings One-Day

Middle Kings Description from Whitewater Classics, by Tyler Williams:
Running the Middle Fork of the Kings is the ultimate whitewater adventure in the Sierra Nevadas. A trip down the Middle Kings crosses the breadth of the mountain range, and finishes in the foothills 50 miles downstream. En route, the river drops nearly 8,000 feet in elevation. The journey requires one to two days of hiking to reach the put-in, followed by five to seven days of paddling. There are class V rapids every day of the trip, and a handful of class VI drops. One could hardly create a more perfect setting for cutting-edge wilderness whitewater than the Middle Fork of the Kings.”

The night falls fast, and morning comes quickly. It seems too early for the sunrise, but as we climb the steep six miles toward the top of Bishop Pass, morning light creeps over the ridge to the east. The trail, lit by our headlamps, weaves upward through alpine meadows, passing lakes and stands of Whitebark Pine. Small pockets of snow glow blue in the moonlight. Birds are beginning to sing. It’s getting late.

Ben and I began this 11-mile hike with the goal of completing the Middle Fork of the Kings River in one day. Our boats are light, packed for one instead of the usual 5 to 7 days usually taken to paddle this river. Hollow except for light snacks and the requisite safety rope, my kayak balances comfortably on my shoulder. I switch it from right to left and back again, soreness setting in near the top of the 11,972 foot pass, but the discomfort pushes me forward. The light is coming on fast, pillars of urgent morning sun growing over the horizon.
Sun coming up on the previous trip

After a little more than two hours on the trail, we reach the top, and I look back from where we came. A strange planet appears, and the coarse granite slopes slide down to lakes laid out in perfect calm, reflecting moonlit patches of snow. We rest briefly, then continue racing the sunlight down to the river. We barely beat it. The peaks and walls of Le Conte Canyon glow bright in the early light. I lay out on the pine-needle covered ground, breath and heartbeat still heavy from the hike, and the gravity of the task ahead dawns on me. We’ve got to go!

I consider briefly why I’m here again, putting on my gear, beat from hiking 11 miles, about to paddle 35 more of what many people consider the toughest run in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This day is a mystery, an adventure freed from the relative world. It’s an outside-the-box experience that can’t be replaced by ideas or abstractions, and direct, spontaneous experience of each moment is the beauty of the day.

Soon after entering the river and negotiating the first low-volume rapids, we are portaging. This is our second trip of the week and the details of the descent are fresh. We knew before starting exactly where to portage and re-enter. Now we count on memory and motivation to keep us moving.

Our first camp from the previous trip comes and goes before sun hits the river. I know we’re doing well, but have a long way to go. We hit the first major canyon that required 3 hours previously, and nod to each other that it’s a go. This time we barely slow, staying in the current the whole way. Every move sweeps into the next as we route down some of the biggest rapids on the river. In this pure action, this movement with the river, there is no time, no space, and I realize again why I’m doing this. This day is all the things I love about kayaking packed into one intense and unimaginable experience.

I briefly lose sight of Ben as he drops over one horizon after the next. I enter a big slide and see him rocket out the bottom, already paddling toward the next drop. Then we don’t stop until we reach the end of the canyon. It’s been 15 minutes.

Ben Stookesberry, day two of our previous trip.

We stop to make one of the major portages and sit on our boats for a minute. It feels great to lay in the sun, but I’m so fired up after running all that whitewater I can’t lay still. Then we’re on the move again, feeling better than ever about the day and back on the water in what seems like minutes.

We pass through miles of class III/IV and the towering scenery of Kings Canyon National Park. If any where on this river, now is the time for us to relax and regain strength for the second half of the day. Then for miles the rivers goes from steep class V boulder fields to beautiful meadow and back again. At 2 p.m. we reach a critical point, Tehipite Meadows, which marks the beginning of the “Bottom 9” miles of the Middle Kings. The “Bottom 9” are the most continuous, difficult miles of whitewater on the river, where it tilts on edge and barrels down to the confluence with the South Kings.

Ben near the middle of the Bottom 9

Again relying on memory, we stay in the current as much as possible and portage when necessary. The miles pass quickly, with the sun still high over head, and we reach the confluence at just after 5 p.m.. The day of communicating with little more than nods continues as we push through the final ten miles to the take-out at Garnet Dyke campground. We pull up onto the rocks at exactly 7 p.m., less than 17 hours after starting our hike that morning. 


3 in 4

Put-in at Upper Cherry Creek
Just before sunrise, dawn glowing over the ridge to the east, it is a perfect summer morning. I’m hiking up the Kibbie Ridge trail, 10 miles toward the put-in for Upper Cherry Creek, just outside Yosemite National Park. It’s crisp and cool and I’m trying to keep up with Ben Stookesberry, the brisk air losing out to his unrelenting pace by the time we reach the top of the ridge. I am going fast too though, and feeling good about this as the beginning of our push to paddle three high Sierra rivers in four days.
Upper Cherry Creek is a California Classic, and undoubtedly one of the best stretches of river in the world. This area is relatively well known, and sees quite a bit of traffic. The North Fork of the Kings and the North Fork of the San Joaquin, however, were both descended for the first time one and two years ago, respectively, so remain obscure to all but a few people. All require more than 10 miles of rigorous hiking to access. We knew it was bold to attempt all three in a blitz, but also inspired by the challenge and training it could afford.

Packed relatively light for our two day descent of Upper Cherry Creek, our boats still weigh about 65 pounds, loaded with most things you might take on an overnight backpacking trip. Teetering on one shoulder at a time, they slow our progress on the trail, begrudging us to push slowly up hills and bounce uncomfortably downhill. Morning light has turned into harsh afternoon heat on the shadeless trail descending to the river, and we rinse off streams of sweat once we reach the cool river.

The rapids are calm at first, sliding over slabs of bedrock and through meadows, allowing us to take in the impressive scenery. What an amazing place! The canyon is wide here and nearly treeless; a vast expanse of glacier carved granite. It is like paddling on the moon, grey rock painted with streaks of colorful lichen. Then there are the big rapids and falls, thefun and excitement that draws us here.

Rusty Sage, Cherry Bomb Gorge
One of the first and more intimidating series of rapids is Cherry Bomb Falls, where the river is blocked by rockfall and forced onto the smooth canyon wall. We portage the rockfall and slide back into our kayaks in a surging eddy. There is little time to take a couple precise and powerful strokes before entering the current and careening toward the falls. Then everything happens in an instant; sliding and bouncing off the rockout into space, flying toward the pool, then skipping across it toward the gorge wall.

Brief moments of excitement punctuate the long days of wilderness descents, and are especially appreciated on speed descents, like our next one-day trip on the North Fork of the Kings. After another grueling 10+ mile hike, we arrive at the river where the sun and snowmelt play on the the clean granite and entice us to enter after a brief rest. Soon we are scouting and running the difficult, remote rapids filling the river from top to bottom, challenging us to keep our speed downstream to finish before dark.

Ben Stookesberry, Upper North Fork Kings

Ben after a quick portage, NF Kings

The North Fork Kings left us blistered and sore, but we continue to the North Fork San Joaquin to finish our mini expedition. It is late in the morning by the time our sore bodies allow us out of bed to go toward the trail head, and shortly after starting the hike, Ben’s blistered feet are paining him too much to continue. Decision time for me: turn around and go home, or continue on alone through the wilderness to finish the run. Talking it over with Ben, I decide to go ahead to finish the run and challenge myself on a new scale of exposure.

Ben running a tight falls, NF Kings
Confident yet humbled by the wilderness I’m entering, I hike with ferocity, knowing it is already later than I would like to be starting. I’m covering ground fast, moving up toward the heart of the Ritter Range of the Sierras, and arrive at the river sooner than I had expected. Part of the fun of kayaking is from the real danger the river poses, and nothing lets you enjoy the river and perceive its consequences like paddling solo. 

I progress downstream quickly, remembering lines and getting into the flow, one move sweeping right into the next, fully engaging me in the play between skill and the river’s power.
I finish the run, meeting Ben near the bottom, and complete the triple-crown by once again changing gears and hiking three miles up and out to the cars and comfort.

The quick change from the solid world of hiking to the fluid realm of the river highlights the need to continuously adapt and obey a new set of rules. The point of these trips is not to fling ourselves off huge drops, but to learn to treat each moment with care and skill. The key to having a safe and successful trip is learning to deal with each new situation. These four days of hiking and paddling provided great opportunity to stay sharp and prepared for upcoming expeditions.


8/10 Kiwi in a Pocket

Rusty Sage, Upper Cherry Creek, 2010