I have special memories of the Kings River. The first and last time I paddled its roller coaster rapids was back in 2008 for my birthday, which kick-started all the river trips every summer since.
After a few years of kayaking our local Kern River and exploring more remote rivers, my guy and I decided to revisit the Kings for a long weekend of camping under the supermoon.
It was running at a good cfs (cubic flow per second) last weekend, which is saying a lot considering our very dry winter. Its flow comes from natural snowmelt in the high western Sierra Nevada, and since it’s practically summer up in those parts, the flows were fast and fading. We packed up the pugs, the kayaks, and the camping gear, and set off for the six-hour drive from Los Angeles.
The Kings straddles the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, where its three forks converge into the main river in the Sierra foothills.
It sits in a remote canyon with no services and the only sign of civilized life is a literal sign, about an hour outside of the valley, indicating the last stop for cell signal. After that, we were on our own in the wild.
This time of year, the drive into the river valley is as green as can be. We passed through the San Joaquin Valley, where wildflowers were blooming in abundance and happy cows were grazing on grassy hillsides plucked out of a postcard.
We passed rolling ranch land full of sprawling oaks and not another person or car the whole way… even though I knew there had to be another person out there, somewhere, because we passed a whole lotta cows.
A beautiful sunset made the twisty-turny road along Pine Flat Lake much easier to stomach. I am notoriously carsick on winding roads, which is such a cruel fate considering I love the mountains so much. If I’m not driving, I’m usually passed out in the passenger seat until the road straightens out again.
Two hours after we left the smoggy suburban sprawl of Fresno, we were on the idyllic banks of the Kings River just as night fell. It was the most wonderful feeling to fall asleep to the sounds of the river and the glow of the supermoon. If my camera could actually capture what my eyes could see, it would’ve made one spectacular picture.
The next day, I slept in and woke up to tall oaks above my head and snoring pugs in my sleeping bag. The weather was perfect. Since it was Sunday, all the weekend campers had already packed up and gotten an early start home.
We set up camp at Kirch Flat, the take-out for our run. Our campsite sat on the edge of a meadow under a canopy of oaks, with a little trail that led to a sandy beach.
Life is ruff.
After milking the morning, we geared up for our drive upstream to scout the 10-mile stretch of rapids between our take-out at Kirch Flat and our put-in at Garnet Dike.
There are a handful of Class III wave trains and boulder gardens on this section of the Kings, but with flows running high at around 3,500 cfs, many of the holes and hazards mellowed out into fun little obstacles.
The rapids always seem so much smaller from high up on the cliff, but this was one of the major wave trains on the river.
This boulder garden was so scrappy and technical, I couldn’t believe I made it through cleanly. I remember looking back upriver after paddling for my life and still feeling rattled! Note to self for next time: Take river right.
After a scouting-turned-sightseeing mission, we unloaded at Garnet Dike, a primitive campground on the north bank of the river. The early-season snowmelt was clear and cold, but the afternoon sun felt warm on my back.
We paddled out to a beautiful butterfly send-off, with dozens of “flutterbies” swirling around our boats.
A run on the Kings starts right off with the notorious Class III+ Banzai, a rapid that threatens to swallow you up into a big hole or wrap you around the rock just below it. We powered through the rapids right side up, relieved that neither of us got thrown in the first five minutes on the river.
Another set of rapids required an onsite scout after the river split into two streams that dropped off into… what? As it turned out, the right fork narrowed into a pile of boulders at the bottom of the rapids. Playing pinball with your boat is never a fun thing, so we opted for the more forgiving left fork.
The whitewater was swift but sparing, and after the rush of holding on in a bucking wave train, it was nice to sit back and take in the scenery between rapids.
We ran the river in just under three hours, and pulled right up to our beach at Kirch Flat.
A couple of panting pugs greeted us at the campsite, and we decided (for them, that is) to go for an après-paddle swim.
Of course, we couldn’t let just one of them have all the fun…
Remember the Dutch oven debut in Baja? For the initiation we had kept it simple and sweet with a Boy Scout-style peach cobbler. For its second appearance, however, we decided to put it to the test and use it as our only means of cooking all weekend.
To prep the fire pit, I made the world’s most perfect teepee…
And then we had fire!
Over a bed of hot coals, we sauteed onions and ground beef.
In went the egg noodles…
Then the secret sauce…
And by the time we finished our beers, a steaming pot of beef stroganoff was calling our names. This 8-quart oven fed two hungry people who ate over three-quarters of a six-serving meal. Seriously.
I’m not sure how I managed to digest all that in one night, because the next morning I woke up to the smell of campfire and my rugged guy flipping a cowboy omelet in the Dutch oven. And I was hungry. Again.
I swear that the best thing about camping is the food. There’s something about cooking over a fire that’s so freeing. At home I have a cupboard full of dozens of spices and more oils than I can count on both hands. At camp all I need is a spray can of cooking oil and a good stick for stoking the fire.
We lazed in the morning before launching at Gravel Flat, a campground just three miles upstream, to get wet on a fun little section of the river. It’s nice to repeat rapids when you know you survived them the day before!
On our way home, we stopped off at one of the creeks running through the canyon and picked out imaginary lines down its granite chutes. Because you never know, creeking might have to be my next feat. In an innertube.