“All forward!” yelled our guide, Blair, from the back of the boat. And like soldiers marching toward the enemy, my brother Jose and I, in unison with the three recent high school grads we had just met, rowed into our first Class IV, or advanced-difficulty, rapid. “Right back!” Blair yelled again as he steered us away from a giant boulder. Drenched and struggling to see, I back-paddled as the left side of our crew steamed ahead and the boat just made its way around the rock. It felt like summer.
White Maidens was the first big rapid we conquered after warming up earlier on in the day with Kern River Outfitters, whose guides strapped us tight with life jackets and bright-blue helmets as they delivered a safety talk. Still, the rapids get your blood pumping.
We had just met the high school grad boys on our boat, but already we were a team. The key to moving forward, or at all, on the river is rowing together. So yeah, we got to know one another pretty well. When we weren’t paddling through rough whitewater, we were lazily floating downstream or jumping off rocks to cool down. We even swam through some Class II rapids. “Breathe after you crash through the waves,” suggested Blair. As the current threw me from wave to wave, I kept thinking, “Breathe!” Much easier said than done.
We finished off the first day with the Sundown Falls and Powerful Possum rapids — all great names with fun backstories that Blair would tell us about as the roar of the rapids got louder. After Powerful Possum, we made our way to camp, where Blair and the other guides — Mitch, Charles, and Leslie — made the greatest seven-layer bean dip to snack on before the main dinner of tri-tip, charred chicken, pasta, and curry veggies.
Many of the folks with Kern River Outfitters — headquartered in Wofford Heights near Isabella Lake, an hour’s drive northeast of Bakersfield — are recent UCSB grads and lovers of all things adventure. Blair put it best: “We’re weird, wet, and wacky.” The guides clearly love what they’re doing, and their high energy and fun spirits are incredibly contagious out on the water. Most important, they are knowledgeable and dedicated to safety. It’s no secret the Kern is a dangerous river, but while I was paddling for my life, not once did my life feel like it was in actual jeopardy.
We finished off the night around a campfire with three guitars and many stories before hunkering down on thick foam pads to sleep under a starry sky. On the second day of our trip, we paddled through six more big rapids, including one called Preparation H. The day was filled with laughter, trust games, and, of course, lots of paddling. After we navigated through the last bit of whitewater, I floated alongside the boat, sunburned, and riding my adrenaline high. It felt like summer.