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Cirque 2005, the beginning

I don't know who came up with the idea first, but Andy, Jason, and Craig had been kicking the idea of a trip to the Cirque of the Unclimbables around for a while. In early 2005 they contacted me with the plan, and I decided I was in. After a few iterations there were 6 people in for the trip. We started getting serious, ordering rafts, maps, etc. We were all pretty excited when the rafts and the OR gear (Thank you very much OR, the stuff is awesome) showed up.

Paddling Practice

In preparation for an expedition to the cirque of the unclimbables, I needed to get a lot better at paddling my Alpacka pack raft. I paddled in the ocean by Santa Cruz, and this was good for endurance, and to get a little more familiar with the craft, but other than launching and landing in the small shore break, wasn't very good for what I needed, whitewater experience. The rest of the team was paddling in the surf down by San Diego. Unfortunately at this time, all of the Sierra rivers were raging from the heavy snowpack and high temperatures. I finally decided to head to the Kern River where there were some fairly mellow runs that should be survivable even with the high water levels. Also, the water levels had come down a bit there. Fortified with a wetsuit and lifejacket courtesy of the Santa Cruz community, I headed to the Kern.

Paddling Ewing's rapid (after HSI)
picture of rafting

I got to Bakersfield a little later than I thought so I only boated a small stretch in river park that had quite a current but barely any waves. After camping out that night, I got permits and info in Kernville and then scoped the put in and take outs for my first run. Then I parked my car, packed the stuff into my backpack, and biked to the put in. There I pumped up my raft, tied down my backpack, and finally put on the wetsuit before casting off. The first rapid was a fairly mellow train of waves that was no problem. In the next one I shipped some water, so I stopped to dump it out and add a bit of air to the tubes (the air in them shrinks from cooling when you are in cold water). This went on through a few more rapids some more scary than others. In general the raft was able to handle waves about 3 feet tall without much problem, although when they were breaking or crashing sideways, a lot of water could get into the raft. There was a photographer at the final rapids taking pictures of the rafts coming through for resale so he snapped a few of me. Then I took out, had lunch and dried stuff. Then I drove back to pick up my bicycle and do it again. The rafting companies call this the "Lickety Split" run.

On Saturday I decided to up the ante, and bicycled all the way up to the end of camp 3. This started me out with "the wall", a class IV rapid. Gulp. I couldn't really scout it well because the river was flowing through the brush on the near side of the river, so I pumped up my raft with a lot of trepidation. This wasn't improved when some guided groups with 8 man rafts showed up and said "you are going down in THAT?". They did give me the good advice to stay left at the bottom of the wall. Anyway, I had a wetsuit, helmet, lifejacket, and I wasn't biking back. So I put in and stayed left despite the current trying to carry me to the right. It was exciting but brief. Then I dumped out the water and added some air and headed down the next rapid. This was another class IV, maybe not as rough, but a lot longer. Things got pretty hairy partway through it, but I managed to stay in the boat even if it was a bathtub by the end. Then there was a really steep drop at the start of the next one, but it was fairly straightforward. Once again I had to dump my boat out at the bottom. I was feeling much better about the raft and my abilities, so of course I ran straight into a hole on the next rapid. I managed to surf it for a while trying to paddle out either side, but eventually I flipped and went swimming. I was about 10 feet away from the boat, so I splashed over to it and eventually figured out I needed to flip it upright from the front side, then get into it from the back side. By then the rapid was over, and I paddled to the edge to dump it out and put the splashdeck back on. The rapids were easier after that, but there were still plenty of opportunities to hit holes by accident and fill up with water. The lower run that I did the day before seemed so much easier when I got there. I did this run again in the afternoon with only a few "Kmart special" comments and no swimming (probably more luck than skill).

On the third day I paddled the lower section 3 more times without the wet suit. It actually wasn't as cold as I feared, although the air and sun were very warm. I also clued in that if I packed everything in my duffel bag for the shuttle, then I could squeeze it all into a dry bag and didn't have to deal with a sopping wet backpack. I was definitely feeling better for our pospects on the Little Nahanni.

On Monday, I rafted a short section below the Lake Isabella dam. This was pretty casual, although of a different character as the river was pinched between granite walls. There were a lot of weird eddy lines and whirlpools. The shuttle for this one was up a steep dirt road reminiscent of the area around Enchanted Rock in Texas. My tire was low when I got to the put in, and when I drove back up to pick up my bicycle it was flat. That was all the excuse I needed to avoid that brutal bike shuttle again.

The next Friday I returned and ran the short (Lickety Split) run again. I ran it 3 times, The first time I had the waterproof camera strapped to my life jacket and shot short movies of each rapid. These mostly showed the boat and my knees except in one rapid where I got flipped and it showed a lot of water. In a later run I managed to get all the way through it without having to dump out water at all. The weather was a lot cooler this weekend, and there was frost on stuff the next morning.

5 rafts shuttled on a bike rack
picture of rafting

We had the full team of 6 the next morning, Craig, David, Jason, Andy, Daniel, and myself. We shuttled for the Lickety Split run and set up. It took a while for everyone to pump up, pack up, and lash stuff to their rafts. We were trying to go with relatively full packs. Craig had a 4 gallon water jug in his pack for accurate weight. I had a bunch more stuff in my new pack and a gallon under it. Maybe 25 pounds or so (still light). Eventually we were ready to cast off. Everyone did fine in the first mellow rapid, but we had some swimmers by the second. I think there might have been at least one swimmer in each of the rapids after that. To complete the run, I got flipped in the last rapid.

So, bolstered by that weak performance, we decided to put in for the class IV run... Big Mistake. A couple of people swam in the first rapid, but at least that one was short. Then in the next one, all but 2 of us got to swim for a long time. It was cold and fast. The previous times I flipped I was able to get back into the raft fairly quickly, but not this time. Eventually I gave up trying to get back in and just got sucked through the rapid. After it finally eased up, we got to the shore and regrouped. We were all pretty banged up, and someone's raft was wedged in rocks higher up. The next rapid had a very steep rough start, and then whisked around the corner. Most of us made it cleanly, but David didn't. We rescued his raft before it went down the next rapid, but when we went back to find him, he was on the ground with a messed up ankle. So, eventually we managed to help him down below the rapid and brought his raft up and he was able to paddle across to the side of the river with the road on it. Then we got him out to the road and managed to get a car. Then he was off to the Isabella hospital for x-rays (there was at least one broken bone).

The rest of us were pretty traumatized too, but we put in at riverkern and ran it from there down without too much carnage.

The next day we ran the stretch from Riverkern to city park a number of times. Luckily Craig's car is automatic, so David was able to shuttle. Also he managed to get some decent video of the Ewings rapid. Of course the wipeouts were the most spectacular. In fact, he was amazingly cheerful and helpful considering he had just broken his ankle and couldn't play anymore. We decided to try the rafts without the splash decks. There were some advantages to this, it was more comfortable to lounge in the boats, and easier to dump them out. Most importantly, it was easier to get back into the rafts after a flip. Also you didn't have to spend time putting the deck back into place. However, you shipped a lot more water. When the rafts were full of water, they were very stable and were able to punch through a lot of holes, but they weren't very manouverable, so you hit lots of holes. Also it was a lot colder sitting in a bathtub full of river water.

David helps inflate the pads for the raft floors
picture of rafting
Craig paddles below the power plant
picture of rafting

Andy and David headed home that night. The next day the rest of us ran the "Picto" run of the lower Kern. This started where I ran last weekend but went about twice as far. This went quite well, and we managed to avoid the class IV difficulties of 2 rapids. One we snuck across a flooded bar, the other we jsut ran on the side. We were feeling cocky again when we hit the final rapid. There carnage ensued again. We all managed to take out though, except for Daniel's raft which continued down beyond the takeout without him. (he thought we were telling him there was a dangerous rapid so he had to get to shore). Anyway, we spent a lot of time searching for the raft, including Jason and I heading miles down the river in a combination of bushwhacking (lots of poison oak), scrambling, and swimming. No luck. It was a pretty demoralized cirque team that day.

One of the raft companies found the raft though, so Daniel got almost all of his stuff back.

Link to the actual trip page