Having seemed to perfect it, we awoke and were, once again, deep in the shit. Or more accurately, right above 'the shit.'
Toby on the lower nine
photo by Nikki Kelly
*** Allow me to set the stage. We were 9 miles from the confluence, with a 2-mile hike up a big hill, then a 5-hour car ride direct to Sactown. Tommy Hilleke had a 1030 pm flight out of said large valley town on same said Day 5 of our Middle Kings trip. As you can imagine, we didn’t arrive at the airport on time (or even close to on time). Par for the course for Mr. Hilleke and crew.
Our original plan was to make miles into lower 9 on Day 4, but we underestimated the distance from our Fourth of July camp to Tehippiti Dome. When we arrived at the meadows below the dome most of the group was wore out and not ready to pass out of site of the ‘big rock’.
Still planning on giving the ‘airport on time’ plan a good college try, we awoke at 6 am, ate the last of our foodstuffs and hit the river. The sun was still a good two hours away from cracking into the gorge, and it was a bit cold and dark dropping in. Tales of the bottom nine usually feature comments like; “Mad-Bombing”, “we should have scouted more”, “hell, we should have portaged more”. Buffy remembered a lot of blind luck and wishful thinking delivering their crew swiftly through this final section of the river. Tommy claimed we would ‘bomb at will’ and ‘not get out of our kayaks for an hour at a time’. Not.
For Video of Day 5.
Once again not a whole bunch of the action was caught on tape by myself, reason forthcoming.
The riverbed was littered with huge boulders and every corner presented another skyscraping horizon line. We began with some immediate “must-lookers”, meaning a scout was advised for all boaters by a ‘point’ man, who did not feel comfortable enough to send everyone through with just oral directions. The third big rapid saw Nikki take a hell-a hole ride, I was sure she would swim, twice. After fighting the hole for a good minute, she won the rodeo and pulled into the eddy, looking a bit disgruntled. She muttered something about, “to early after breakfast for shit like that”.
The next big rapid (conveniently located at the end of the pool from where Nikki surfed) was recognized as the cataract from which Nate Helms had swum two years prior. Tommy of course ran it without scouting and immediately signaled for everyone to get out and look at it. “Big Hole” was the specific sign utilized. We scouted and found a long boulder entrance featuring a well-formed 5-foot pourover with boxed in sidewalls at the exit. The backwash (the water returning upstream after a nasty hole which hinders the downstream progress of a paddler) seemed to be uniform and some distance from the fall. Determined to stick it, I set off on my proposed line. Right near the bad hole a piece of water deflected me right when I thought I would have gone left and I ‘augured’ into the right wall. The next 60 seconds saw my boat locked in sideways and me getting my ass beat. I tried the ‘upside down Jesus pose’, where a paddler rolls upside down and attempts to grab the water at the bottom of the river, like Jesus with his arms outstretched to the sky, and pull his or herself out and away from the hole. At one point I thought I had won my freedom, but upon returning to the surface found myself just as locked into the hole as in the beginning. Sensing the futileness of my situation, I released my paddle and pulled my skirt.
From years of experience of swimming out of nasty holes, I always find the easiest way to freedom is to ball up and head for the bottom and hook into the outflow almost always found there. As soon as you make contact, spring out with your legs in the direction of the water going downstream. Worked like a charm, only problem was there was a large ‘fence’ of rocks on the river floor, and I ran headlong into them with a pretty good deal of speed. The result was a big flash of light and a disorienting spin. I broke the surface and caught a rope provided by Mr. Hilleke. My head and ear hurt like a somofabitch and my balance/equilibrium was shot. Worst thing was I had to watch my 3500 camera float off the top of the next big drop.
Through the course of the next 30 minutes all my gear was retrieved, the camera dried out and my bell became a little clearer. This being 830 a.m., and only two miles into the nine, we were still optimistic to make our 2 o’clock takeout. The first big drop I ran I melted down underwater filling my ear canal with water and producing a shocking pain, a clear indicator that I had done something to my eardrum.
Every horizon line proved to be long, involved and littered with large boulders. With my head all wobbly I chose to walk some of these earlier big ones, but Tommy, Nikki and the crew managed to run most of the rapids.
And Toby again
photo by Nikki Kelly
After an early lunch I got to feeling better and joined in the “Mad Bombing”, as our 2 o’clock takeout time overtook us we were still working through big ass drop after big ass drop, with no end in site. We portaged a few times, but most of the lower half of the lower nine proved to, overall, be spectacularly clean.
Daniel post bell ringing
photo by Nikki Kelly
Just like they said in the Driftwood film,
“We arrived at the confluence tired and amazed that such a steep river could be so runnable”
-or something like that.
A group photo at the get out. Certainly an incredibly motley crew for such a big undertaking.
One Kiwi, an Alabamian, two Floridians a Tennessean and a Hoosier.
Nikki Kelly, Tommy Hilleke, Daniel DeLaVergne, Buffy Bailey Burge, Toby MacDermott and John Grace.
photo by Nikki Kelly
We took between 54 minutes and an hour and half to reach the top of the Yucca Point Trailhead, two steep miles above the confluence of the South and Middle Kings.
Relieved to find cold water and colder beer, we had little time to enjoy the grandeur of the Kings Canyon. We loaded fast and headed out for SAC, most sad to see such a prolific whitewater odyssey coming to a close. Others were deep in thought, trying to logistically put together what would be the sketchiest river of the Eight, and the final piece of the puzzle.