Hang on for a wild ride as Kayak Diaries author Dan Simenc embarks on a solo expedition down California’s legendary Middle Kings River.
California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are geologically blessed with some of the best Class V kayaking on the planet. The combination of sunny weather, beautiful canyons, long wilderness stretches, smooth granite and excellent whitewater beckons me back to my home state from Idaho nearly every summer for a paddling pilgrimage.
The best and hardest stretches of river are hidden high in the mountains near the headwaters of each of the state’s major watersheds. These pristine rivers cascade over smooth granite, framed by spectacular wilderness backdrops. Trips down the high Sierra classics take multiple days, combining elements of backpacking with kayaking. You load your gear into your kayak, strap your boat to your back and hit the trail. Only after a long, exhausting hike do you actually hit the river for several days of kayaking.
Paddling the Middle Kings, a monumental high Sierra run, involves a brutal hike, lots of portaging, and a ton of demanding Class V whitewater – not to mention a 300-mile, 6 ½ hour shuttle. The Middle Kings’ headwaters can be reached only by hiking across the Sierras, starting on the eastern side, near Bishop. Under any circumstances, hiking 12.8 miles up and over a 12,000-foot-high pass is tough, but with a loaded kayak strapped to your back, it’s an ordeal.
In 1982 Royal Robbins, Reg Lake, Doug Tompkins and Newsome Holmes lugged their 12-foot kayaks over Bishop Pass to complete the first Middle Kings descent, portaging approximately 50 times along the way. More than 15 years passed before the Driftwood Productions crew made the second descent, whittling down the number of portages dramatically. In modern creek boats, most paddling groups can now run the Middle Kings with less than 20 portages
I made my first trip down the river in August, 2005 with three good friends and some shuttle help from family members. The experience was amazing, but also physically exhausting. Now, six years later, I was finally ready for another lap down the Middle Kings. Hungry for a new experience, this time I decided to go alone. No shuttle help. No one to help carry gear or food. No one to help me if anything went wrong.
But I’d taken every precaution in preparing, and I planned to portage more liberally than I would with a group. I’d made another action-packed trip to California earlier in the summer and was feeling strong. I was confident in my abilities. I knew and had accepted the risks.
I left Boise on a hot Monday evening and headed south toward California where the gauge predicted perfect water levels for the Middle Kings. I drove late into the night and slept at a rest stop two hours from Bishop with the first long leg of my adventure complete.
I made it to the Bishop Ranger Station just as it opened at 8 the next morning. After listening to the forest rules and picking up a free wilderness permit, I drove 30 more minutes to the South Lake trailhead where the real work would begin.
I loaded my gear-stuffed drybags into my kayak at the trailhead, then strapped the boat to my NRS Sherpa pack system. I locked the doors, shrugged on the heavy load, and set out on the 12-mile hike to the put-in. It would be six days before I saw the van again.
Back in Boise I’d loaded an audiobook on my MP3 player to help keep me moving through the hike, a tragic tale about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during WWII. The story reminded me of how much worse suffering could be as I trudged along the scenic but strenuous trail while the sun moved through the sky.
By the time I crested Bishop Pass – six miles from the trailhead and 2,222 feet higher – the sun was close to setting. I would have to make camp, then finish the hike the next day. I clambered down the trail for about 45 more minutes before stopping for the night near some high alpine lakes.
As the alpenglow painted the tall, jagged peaks around me in beautiful reds, I bundled up for a cold night’s sleep. I woke early the next morning and hit the trail just as the sun reappeared over the mountains. With sore hips and knees, I limped onward, sustained by the knowledge that I’d reach the river that afternoon.
The light at the end of the tunnel appears when you reach the rim of LeConte Canyon and see the upper Middle Kings flowing far below. But my first trip to the Kings six years earlier had taught me that the river is still a long way off from this point, and hiking downhill can be as bad as hiking up. Switchbacks seem to go on forever as you drop several thousand feet to the put-in.
After the grueling downhill trudge, I dropped my kayak on the shore of a small stream – the headwaters of the mighty Kings. I’d never had to work so hard to reach a river, but I knew my efforts would pay off in the many miles of beautiful whitewater that awaited me. I unstrapped the pack from my kayak and stowed it in the stern of the boat, excited to travel by river instead of trail.
The run starts as a shallow, rocky creek punctuated with smooth granite slides. The water was clean, clear, and warmer than I’d expected. I paddled quietly downstream, hearing only the sounds of the cascading river and my boat scraping over rocks. Soon the stream flattened out and snaked through a huge, tranquil meadow flanked by dramatic mountains. This proved to be the only flat water on the river.
Several logjams and boulder sieves lurked below, which I grudgingly walked my kayak around. I stopped to camp about three miles into the run, feeling like my legs couldn’t handle another portage. That night I recovered by a fire, reading The Hobbit and munching on freeze-dried food and bratwursts. Alone in the dark canyon, I mixed my own adventure with that of Mr. Bilbo Baggins as I read myself to sleep.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) follows alongside the upper stretch of the run, bringing with it a steady trickle of backpackers. The giant orange tortoise lumbering over the pass startled many hikers, and everyone wanted to know how much my shell weighed. But inquiries ceased below Palisades Creek where the PCT veers away from the river trail, taking most of the passersby with it. From this point on, I paddled another 50 miles without seeing another human.
Below Palisade, the Middle Kings action starts to pick up. Most of the classic bedrock slides fall in this section before the river morphs into a nearly continuous series of boulder gardens. With an average gradient of 222 feet per mile, this stretch also boasts the river’s steepest mile, tumbling no less than 510 feet.
A picturesque gorge ending in a 20-foot waterfall lay below the snow bridge. After a clean line through the gorge and the ensuing falls, I got out on the left bank to portage a boxed-in reversal. The short but steep gorge walls prevented me from shouldering my boat up the climb. I tied my throw rope to the kayak and started hiking up the gorge, ready to haul the boat up behind me. A stout 10-15 miles of Class IV and V whitewater still lay between me and my campsite, but first I had to deal with an equally stout portage.While making my way through a steep spot, I was startled to see a huge snow bank on the shore, and then to see the entire river flowing beneath a giant snow bridge! There was plenty of room to pass under the bridge, which appeared sturdy even though a sprinkle of snowmelt dripped from it into the river. I paddled through the rapids above the bridge, then slipped by underneath.
I started pulling my gear-laden kayak up to the trail at the top of the gorge. But as my boat neared the rim, it swung violently to the left. Now it hung freely off a vertical cliff directly above the rapid. This was bad. The thought of a long, hungry hike out passed through my head as I clenched the rope attached to my dangling kayak.
Read the rest of Dan’s story in Part II of Middle Kings Solo, coming February 20th.