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 needto 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.