You can feel it in the air, even at sunrise, that the day will be searing. A bad case of insomnia the night before, I roll into Fast Eddy’s driveway at 6AM, hoping for a coffee refill, greeted by the sound of a million roosters in the surrounding neighborhood. A mix of canyoneering and riverboarding gear sprawled across the dirt driveway, I’ve always admired Eddy’s style. I immediately notice that his sleeping pad is an old vinyl, foam-filled workout pad from a 70s or 80s P.E. class, printed with stretching diagrams. His water is packed in 1 gallon, screw-top glass jars placed inside cardboard boxes. I can always count on Eddy, who gets out as much or more than any adventurer I know, to humble me with his gear choices. Every trip with him that begins with me thinking I need a new piece of gear ends in certainty that, with a little more duct tape, I can put the money towards gas and another outing instead.
We drive, winding up the Kern River, Eddy regaling me with whitewater feats, stopping the car occasionally to show me famous rapids and waterfalls. As his excitement spills forth, my stomach turns while staring into roaring, churning chutes of water through rocks. I reassure myself that he knows I’m new to this, that hopefully we won’t be running anything like what I’m seeing. But I’m not so sure. I can’t help but dwell on the fact that getting pinned under a rock or knocked unconscious and drowning just looks so easy.
Settling on doing the Limestone run, from Johnsondale Bridge to the dam, we manage to finagle a shuttle with some rafters up the canyon. Loading our gear into their trailer, I see some of it for the first time; baseball catcher knee and shin guards, elbow pads, PFDs, a roll of duct tape. It looks like it’s going to be an interesting day.
The put-in at the bridge is teeming with rafters and kayakers. We are the only riverboarders. We definitely catch quite a few sideways glances from the boaters as we carry what essentially amount to thick, overbuilt boogeyboards with handles down to the water. Putting on our wetsuits and helmets at the water’s edge, a kayaker spots us.
It’s an older friend of his. Immediately, tales of whitewater feats and the old days start to flow. More kayaks start to gather. Eddy is introduced among the younger with an almost royal status, having done, from what I can gather, just about every major rapid and waterfall on the river during the most extreme flow rates. I’m assured by JB, an old veteran, than I have the best teacher there is on the Kern and I’m in for a treat.
We finish reinforcing our pads with duct tape, put on our fins, and hop in.
Now I’m completely new to whitewater, but I can immediately glean that while kayaks and rafts tend to flow over most waves, on a riverboard, you tend to go through them, all of them, head first. You have to be comfortable holding your breath. A lot. And where you might slide over rocks in a boat, on a riverboard you bump and drag your body across them. Keeping your legs high and on the surface is paramount to avoiding getting completely battered, let alone stuck and drowned. Needless to say, it’s a pretty wild and fun ride. On Limestone Rapids I got caught in a current and took a bad line, got pinned against a boulder, and started to get dragged under. I freed myself by rolling off upside down and to the right, getting sucked down a small drop head first and on my back. Eddy watched, complementing me on making a good move to get out of a bad situation. I have to wonder about a sport where going down a rocky chute head first and on your back is a “good move”. The turbulence of the water is also very different from a surfing wipeout. As opposed to an explosion of force, there’s the strange and uncomfortable feeling of it wanting to hold you and steadily pull you down.
But it’s a blast. I fully understand the appeal vs. kayaks and rafts. Simplicity of technique and intimacy with your surroundings. As opposed to being on the water, you’re fully in the water. At class III and IV, the day feels comfortable and well within my ability, a good introduction.
And Fast Eddy is already texting about the next trip. Higher flows and bigger water are being predicted for next weekend and he’s itching to take me off a 15′ waterfall. Hmm.
I took no pictures on this trip, but here’s a video of Eddy running Upper Salmon Falls for some perspective.