Strike almost-one for the guide was that he looked like my ex-brother-in-law. Athletic, sparse beard and laid-back take on most subjects.
Almost. but Joey Simmons turned out to be a home run as well as a crackerjack river guide on our recent float down the Upper Kern in a run called the Lickety-Split, 3½ miles of churning water that will charge you up as if you'd plugged a cord in a light socket while wearing a wet pair of underwear.
I want Joey’s life. Lives in Chile six months a year with his girlfriend, Heather Ward, another river guide. Guides the rest of the year in Idaho, California and Colorado.
I want that but to have that, I’d have to shed 30 years, four kids, two grandkids and probably Sue (she’d toss me out of the raft before I could say, “Paddle”). In the meantime, we scheme, dream and do things like tumble down rivers.
This is the moment. The spring. Everything is growing or flowing. If you don’t raft this year, if you don’t take some of that icy, refreshing, just-melted snow from Mount Whitney in your face, when are you going to do it?
It’s not expensive. The Lickety-Split was $38. Thirty-eight bucks or one handle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka with $12 in change if you paid with a $50 bill.
I Googled “river rafting” and booked a trip with Sierra South Paddle Sports, the first company I saw. There are several rafting companies in Kernville; I counted five. I like Sierra South but I suspect the others might be good too.
It was cloudy on the valley floor but as I climbed into the canyon, covered on the south side with blue flowers, the clouds lifted and my spirits lifted with them.
The river is on your left and it’s impressive, hypnotic really. If you’re not careful, it will call your name: “Hey, Herb, come closer. See what danger looks like.”
That’s when I realized one of the draws of river rafting. We want a near- death experience without the death part. Living is good and we want good but we also like the thrill of a roller-coaster plunge, jumping from an airplane (with two parachutes and a mountain of pillows at the bottom) and spinning down Class 3 rapids with someone like Joey at the helm.
Between deep thoughts, and trying to stay on the road, I focused on a pre-float snack highlighted by Dewar’s Chews. Peanut butter, peppermint, almond — all perfect until I reached for a caramel.
“No, caramel, I’m not going to eat you. You taste good, but you're a filling extractor.”
Fillings intact, I reached Kernville in about 80 minutes after driving past Lake Isabella — pregnant, blue and ocean-impressive — being whipped by a 20- to 30-knot north wind.
Kernville. It’s easy to forget how charming Kernville is. Colorful river-rafting storefronts, breweries, restaurants, the river a stroll away. Transplant this setting 100 miles south or 200 miles north and you couldn’t afford pie and a cup of coffee.
I walked inside Sierra South and spoke to the clerks in order to get the lay of the river. They were busy, and rafting trips were flying off the rack. Sierra South expects the season to go through September.
“We’ll run out of people before we run out of water,” said Marti Jaramillo.
Most of their customers are from LA, San Diego and Las Vegas. Bakersfield is close but people tend to forget that this fun is this close.
Proof was in our boat. We were four-strong — or weak depending on where we were on the river: Joyce “Bucket List” Rossiter, of Las Vegas, and David Hill and Richard French from Ramona and Escondido, respectively.
River aficionados talk about the water, the flow, multiple peaks — when the water rises and falls — like surfers talk about waves.
“It’s running 5,500 cfs (cubic feet per second) now, but when we get a couple of 90- degree days, it will go up to 10,000 or 15,000 cfs,” Jaramillo said.
We donned booties, life vests and wetsuits to protect against the bracing water temperature — the low 50s on this day; wrapped in rubber, you won’t feel it.
Then we were bused four miles from Kernville to Riverkern Beach, slightly above the Powerhouse rapids.
Joey gave us paddles. Heather, who was captaining our sister boat, talked about how to hold the paddle and not let go of the T-Grip, the top of the paddle, because you could knock someone’s teeth out, giving them summer teeth: some are there and some are not.
Within five minutes of launch, one of the people in our boat let go of the T-Grip, albeit slowly, and I grabbed the paddle like a river kung-fu master.
Leaving the shore is exciting. The river is running, ripping and doing flips all over itself. This is when you are very glad to have a Joey on your side. Sierra has never lost anybody; in fact you’re probably more likely to be eaten by a land shark than die on one of these guided trips.
“There is a rapid 100 yards into the run,” Joey said. “We have to paddle in sync.”
We knew three things — forward, back or nothing. That’s all our pea brains could absorb under pressure.
The river was intensely beautiful. Forget about the rapids, the fun, and the exhilaration. This is outdoor art with refreshing twists and turns.
We laughed, we paddled and eventually Joey asked me if I wanted to ride the bull, which means sitting on the front of the raft with my legs over the side, feet almost in the water.
Heck yes, Joey. I want to live your life, but I can’t, so this will do.
The trip was over in a lickety-split moment. I can see how this works. They set the hook and then you want more, like the Lickety-Blaster, two runs on the river, a half-day float and then a full day.
That’s how it happens. Next thing you know, you’re growing a mustache, your house is being auctioned on the steps of the courthouse, you’re living in Chile half a year and dating Heather’s sister, or, in my case, probably Heather’s mother.
If not that, then a trip to Kernville. Rafting could be perfect for office team building, birthday parties, family outings or whatever floats your boat.
The real danger here is missing an opportunity to have some fun.