Life is such a trip. I mean it. You never know what’s going to happen next or what experience lies around each corner, and I’ve learned over the years to just go with the flow and let things happen. I know some of you may be thinking I should be a part of the decision making process, and you are absolutely right, yet sometimes you just gotta let it happen.
That’s how I got to this point in my kayaking career. I’m turning 50. Man, I gotta let that settle in for a second. Yup…I’m turning 50 this year and it feels pretty good. I’ve been kayaking for a very long time and charging for most of it, and turning 50 hasn’t really slowed me down that much. I’m not as brave as I used to be. I’d like to call it more calculated, more thoughtful, more reflective. A lot of whitewater history has left an indelible “dent” on my psyche and prepped me in ways that I never had as a young lad.
Most of the time, I’m the old fella in the group of young ones showing folks down my favorite run. Other times I’m joining in on something new getting as excited as ever at the unknown ahead. Over the years my kayaking has evolved like most folks I know. When I started it was all about river running and exploration. Then it evolved into freestyle and the 90’s explosion. Since the early 2000’s I’ve gone back to my roots and exploration. It’s really my jam and something I get more stoked on than anything. You have to be a well-rounded paddler and each discipline lends to the other, yet pushing off shore and heading downstream for days/weeks on end exploring a river system is by far my favorite thing.
On a spring break trip to California last year with Tom Janney, we talked about the summer and plans and that’s where the Middle Fork Kings trip hatched. Tom has done it several times before and it’s one of his favorites, so he’d be the perfect person to go with. We paddle together a lot so we know each other well and he’s got the run dialed in. As time progressed and the snowpack evolved we nailed down a tentative range of days and a sweet group of paddlers formed around the idea. The group changed over time as they sometimes do and our tentative date became a reality. June 29 was when we decided to start hiking in. It would work out perfect with my summer work schedule and family and also with Tom’s brother Jim. Together the Janney brothers had spent a lot of time in the Sierras and had done the MF Kings River several times, so it was a no brainer when Jim said he was coming. Jim’s friend Ben was also keen and had done it the year before so it looked like a solid group of 4. Enough for safety when needed, and on this run it’s a guarantee, and small enough to boat scout and route down stuff which is a must on a run like this.
Everything was looking good and I was getting mentally ready. Most of the time I would have included the physically ready piece but this year was different. I had torn my MCL in May and had been rehabbing it trying to get ready for the MF Kings trip yet with all injuries, the body dictates how you heal. So I paddled a lot, hiked a little bit, and didn’t do much heavy work on it. I just wanted it to heal up as best as possible so I could hike in there. Before the tear, things were really looking up; I was paddling heaps, charging hard, and mountain biking a lot. And then I got pinned, swam, and tore it. On my home run; one I knew oh so well, and had so many laps on. Yet here I was, in there at low flows and offline. Next thing I knew I was pinned upside down and trying to get out of my boat. I tore my MCL as I crawled out of my kayak. There goes my summer, there goes my work with First Descents, and there goes all my plans.
After the initial shock wore off I set about testing my knee, seeing my orthopedic friend for advice, and getting ready to head to Washington to paddle and work around White Salmon. You cannot argue with how much the mental game plays into kayaking both on and off the water. Being able to turn something around into a positive motivator and using your faculties to move forward with a growth mindset can be a game changer, and in this case I never let this injury get me down. Yes I was hurt. I had a full tear of my right MCL and it hurt, yet I was still trying to get after it and doing heaps of physical therapy on my knee. It started to get better slowly and I was paddling low water laps on the Little White and lots of laps on the Green Truss, keeping the kayaking edge on a good level.
I saw marked improvement on my knee. My doctor friend gave me some CBD balm pain relief rub and this became a huge turning point in my rehab. Every day I massaged my knee with it and then exercised and paddled. I couldn’t do any heavy movement with it so building strength and muscle mass was not happening, yet I could walk, bend, stretch, and paddle. Things were starting to change.
Flash forward to the end of June and I’m heading south out of the Hood River Gorge; driving down to Bishop California, the starting point for the MF Kings and the place of my dreams.
We met up at the Hostel California in Bishop and spent the night hanging out and getting ready for the next day’s hike in. Jim and Ben flew in from the east coast and had to return a rental car so our morning was not going to be early. After a few mistakes and a missing bag, we finally got to the trailhead at South Lake way later than we thought and were hiking around 10am. I knew it would be an all-day affair so it was time to just grin and bear it.
The views are spectacular the whole way to Bishop Pass. The trail maintains an ever-steepening grade until the final steep switch back push to the top.
Once at Bishop Pass, Ben and I took a break to hydrate and eat then it was the easy hiking across the 2 miles of a relatively flat and enjoyable Dusy Basin.
From Dusy Basin down to LeConte Canyon and the ranger station at the MF Kings, the trail goes from 11,200ft to 8,700ft dropping around 2,500ft. The trail at times is pretty steep with stone steps. If you’ve ever hiked a kayak into something heading downhill, this means tail tapping your boat a lot when you step down, which sucks. So you improvise your stride, taking little side steps at each big step so you don’t go flying forward.
By the time I got to camp I was toast. My MCL was pretty sore, my body was broken, and I was happy to just get that kayak off my back. It was also dark so nothing left to do but make some food, stretch, and go to bed. I was happy to be there!
Getting ready and putting on in the morning, you quickly realize that you are way up there with little flow. The first mile or so is really low volume with some log portaging and scraping along. It starts to clean up and gets better with bedrock drops forming. The first one you get to is a right hand turn then down a slide. It’s a fun drop, but we had 2 pitons out of four here.
After the first drop, the run picks up and gets real steep with lots of fun boogie, some boulder gardens, slides, and drops. If you’re good at boat scouting grade V you’ll love these two days. In fact, you’ll love the whole run! In the middle of the run is Money Drop and something I’d been looking forward to all day. Wow what a drop!
Day 3 is steeper with more bedrock gorges. This is a day of bigger horizon lines, granite walls, and gorges. Waterfall Alley is in this section, along with Breakfast Slide and Raw Dog Gorge with the big and burly Raw Dog Falls. If I could sum up days 2 and 3, I would have to say it’s primarily bedrock drops with some wicked boulder garden sections.
We made it downstream and camped just before Goddard Canyon in a huge open basin, and wow what a place. From boxed in and gorged out to a huge open basin amongst the peaks with a sandy beach and killer fishing. It also allowed late evening and early morning sun. Stoked on our day we got a fire going and chilled out for the night.
Did I mention I was tired?
Waking up to a beautiful day, we cooked up some food and got our stuffed packed without wasting time. That seemed to be the theme of the trip. Each day was a big day. Up early, on by 9, paddle all day, get to camp around 6. Ah…the rhythm of the river. We put on and enjoyed some easy grade III/IV boogie before things quickly got steep again. This time we were out of the gorges and bedrock and into boulder gardens. “The Middle 4” as it’s called isn’t as steep as the “Bottom 9” yet there’s heaps of action in there. A competent team with a couple of chargers could boat scout most of it and when it got too steep, scouting was available from both sides. Luckily Tom and Jim had been here a few times prior so they knew most of the lines and when to scout. As Jim put it, “we’re going to boogie a lot and just deal”. I like that phrase especially the “deal” piece. Once you get the rhythm and feeling of a river, dealing gets easier and becomes really natural. Where we made very few miles on days 1 and 2, day 3 saw us routing lots of rapids and sections and making a lot of miles comparatively. Later on we would look at a map and laugh at how little mileage we made early on and how many more we made later.
The water quality never let up and neither did the rapids. There are way too many horizon lines to remember, yet I do remember how tired I was when we rolled into our camp at the end of the day. We linked the Middle 4 section with the top 2 miles of the Bottom 9 section and found a spectacular camp at a deep pool that was totally walled in. Surprisingly in this mini gorge, the high water had flooded the camp depositing a lot of sand in the trees. It made for a spectacular camp with epic fishing. We could also see Tehipite Dome in the canyon way upstream.
Going to bed that night I was filled with thoughts of the next day. I had heard a lot about the Bottom 9 and the tales of steep boulders and hard rapids were legendary. Getting to this point on the run, having the hardest section ahead the next day, was both exhilarating and exhausting to think about. Good thing I was completely exhausted so crawling into my bed and falling asleep was easy.
Waking up to another spectacular morning, my thoughts were not on the rapids that lie ahead but on the stretching that I needed to do. My body was tired, sore, and stiff and I needed to pay attention to it. I’m almost 50 and my body was crying out for attention. The portaging, scouting, and moving around with a heavy load had taken its toll on my body and on my sore knee. As we ate breakfast, our usual banter and fun conversation was suppressed by the impending day ahead. We all knew we were in for it so I guess there just wasn’t that much to say. We packed up rather quickly and were on the river. We were camped at a flat pool on the run, and as we pushed off shore and headed downstream the earth just fell away. I asked Jim over breakfast about the day and what to expect, and he said we were a couple hundred yards above the steepest section of the run. Not the steepest mile, but the steepest stacked up section. Miles of boulder gardens that didn’t let up. And he was right…
Between Jim and Tom, they seemed to know when to route and when to scout, and a few times we should have scouted that’s for sure. But whatever, my mind was hyper focused, my attitude was on fire and we were rallying our way downstream. We portaged here and there, routed through boulders and killer boofs, and picked our way through the chaos. I couldn’t get over how beautiful it is and how killer the quality of the rapids are. They’re fantastic and as scary and nerve wracking as they could get. They are also amazing and some of the best kayaking I’ve ever done.
The river was also getting a lot warmer and the weather was getting pretty hot. Portaging was a sweaty affair and when we were on the water it felt really warm. I could have easily warn a shorty at this point even though we had good medium flows in there. At some point, and that moment is fading, I felt the river ease up in gradient. Wow…we were done with the Bottom 9!!! I remember the feeling of accomplishment and elation as reality set in. I couldn’t believe it but I had just paddle the meat of the Middle Fork Kings. Elation turned to torture as I realized we still had about 12 miles of kayaking to go, including the Garlic Falls section. I was totally shattered with exhaustion by the time we paddled by the South Fork of the Kings River. Rather than enjoying what should have been a fantastic run through Garlic Falls, I just wanted to get it done. It was late in the afternoon, the run had just about doubled in volume, we all knew there were about a half a dozen big grade V rapids that we had to paddle, and then miles of grade III and IV rapids to get to the take out. We bombed down through it paddling into the fading light, making it to our parked car with hours of daylight to spare. Elation set upon the whole team as we congratulated each other on the run. There were snacks in the car and warm beers in the cooler. Time to celebrate.
Looking back at our trip, the Middle Fork Kings was worth the wait. It was the last of the High Sierra runs to do, and I am super stoked to have done it during the year I turned 50. For an expedition kayaker, it’s the best run in the lower 48. I haven’t paddled them all, yet I’ve been on a lot of the overnights people talk about and this one stands out among the best. There are other runs in California like Fantasy Falls and the Royal Gorge that definitely deserve their due credit, yet the MF Kings is a special place. You gotta work hard for this one and once you’re there retreat is difficult. You start on the east side of the Sierras and finish in the lower valley of the west side. Shuttle logistics are challenging to say the least. You gotta hike over a high mountain pass to access it. The water quality is exceptional, the camping spectacular, and the whitewater legendary.
Hopefully I’ll be back again before I get too old