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Forks of the Kern: A Calif. river's proving ground

The Forks of the Kern, where the rapids line up one after another — as white as your mother's wedding dress — is among the finer river runs anywhere.

Beneath the white water? Granite boulders, large and larger. Wedge your foot beneath one of these beasts and the Kern River will slam you to its basement.

Conk your head. Fracture a collarbone. Burst an aorta. No 911 here. It's just you and God and a $4 plastic paddle.

"You're in the wilderness, a long way from help," a guide warned us.

The knock against California is that it's overrun. For all its majesty, there is no elbowroom.

Well, almost 10 years since our raft trip, I'm here to tell you that deep in the Sierra, there is still plenty of elbowroom. To this day, I am still gob smack in love with this place.

For three days, we paddled and paddled, an armada of a dozen dads and teenage sons.

By night, we camped along the river. The dads rubbed tired arms while the boys fished for rainbow trout. The guides cooked. A full moon peeked over the granite canyon wall, watching.

The most beautiful backdrops in America can also be the most deadly, and so it was with Carson Falls, which we ran on the last day. Lewis and Clark had the rugged Bitterroot Mountains to contend with. We had Carson Falls.

Nothing to fear here. If you survive the 10-foot waterfall, there's a suck hole 20 yards beyond. Hit that wrong, and your wife is dating again.

"Mates, the way to run this," the British guide said, "is to stay close to that giant boulder."

In the end, we conquered Carson Falls, if by "conquer" you mean survived. One dad popped out of the raft and almost disappeared, rodeoed back into the raft by his son (with a slight assist from me).

Talk about bonding experiences.

To this day, it is the most exhilarating of memories. And, all in all, a living postcard to California the Beautiful.

—Chris Erskine

Erskine is a writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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