Kern River North Fork below Fairview


Stretch: Fairview Dam to Powerhouse #3
Difficulty: Class V (one portage) with brush hazards, harder above 2500 cfs
Distance: 15 miles, 2 days or 1 long day
Flows: rafts 900 - 3000 cfs, kayaks 600 - 2500 cfs
Gauge: often 600 cfs less than at Kernville (by Army Corps)
Gradient: 61 fpm average, less excluding Salmon Falls
Put-in: below diversion at Fairview Dam, 3600'
Take-out: below Powerhouse rapid at Powerhouse #3, 2690'
Shuttle: 15 miles (20 minutes) one-way
Maps: USFS Sequoia NF, AAA Sequoia
Season: summer weekends(?), from mandated reduction of hydropower diversion
Agency: USFS, private, guided Whitewater Rafting
Notes: © 1998 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo

This stretch, mistakenly called the Upper Kern, is actually a dewatered section of the north fork Kern. As a result of the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) relicensing process of 1999, Southern California Edison will be forced to return recreational flows into the river, probably on certain weekends only. Consequently this run will become a mecca for advanced boaters seeking relatively pristine natural flows in late spring and early summer. Kernville is a lovely, entertaining, and hospitable resort area.

Having been dewatered since the 1950s by Kern Project #3, the riverbed contains plenty of trees and brush growing among rocks. One death on a commercial rafting trip in June 1998 was attributable to brush. Hopefully in years to come, frequent flows will clean vegetation out of the riverbed. With less brush, and with a portage of class V+ upper Salmon Falls, this will become a great run for inflatable kayaks at low and moderate flows. Someday, it will even be worth the long drive from northern California.

Just below Fairview Dam is a class V rapid, Bombs Away. From the end of that to Calkins Flat 3 miles downstream, rapids are only class II-III. Below that the river enters beautiful Calkins Gorge, containing continuous rapids with several class IV passages. Entrance Rapid (.2 mile from Calkins Flat) should be scouted on the left, as should Satan's Slots (1.8 miles from Calkins Flat) from the highway. Only .2 mile after the end of Satan's Slots, many people take out and portage along the road to avoid running Salmon Falls. At this point you have boated 5 miles.

The portage around both class V+ upper Salmon Falls and class V lower Salmon Falls is about .3 mile long, so many boaters use this opportunity to split the run into two days. Salmon Falls has a curious name, because the landlocked Kern River originally flowed into seasonal lakes in the Central Valley and would never have had ocean-based salmon. In 1998, two strong men from Vandenberg Air Force base were killed when a raft carrying 8 people blundered into upper Salmon Falls and flipped. Keith Beck, an expert southern California kayaker, has this to say about Salmon Falls:

There are two parts to Salmon Falls: upper and lower (innovative names). I have run both of them. Upper I don't run much any more: less aesthetically pleasing, harder, greater consequences (pin slots, terminal boulder wall), very easy carry around and put-in below (river left). It is definitely a V+. I have observed numerous runs of it, none very appetizing or elegant, but at higher flows everyone flushed through, usually upside down at the end. One boat and paddler (very luckily) flushed thru a river left slot with a high entrapment potential. The nonchalance with which it is getting run now by boaters who seem insouciant about left side problems is worrisome. The portage on river left is relatively short, and there are at least two easy exits for kayaks near the start of the rapid; rafts usually take out .1 mile further upstream, also on the left. In either case, use the road for portage.

Lower Salmon is a different story, for me at least. I have run it probably 50+ times (over 15 years), with actual flow (flow at Kernville minus the 600 taken out by Fairview Dam) ranging from 400 to 7000 cfs. There are two main approaches: a far right jump into turbulence with easy outflow - the main problem is missing a couple of rocks, especially at lower flows - pretty much a straightforward single shot. The more aesthetically appealing route is far left, with a drop down a bouncy chute followed by sharp right turn on big pillow/hole combination, followed by a sequence of very turbulent ledges/holes. The key to this route is the sharp right turn: the ledge forming the pillow is a sieve, just a rock jumble, not a solid ledge. At very low water you can go look at the many cracks stuffed with limbs that lie below the lovely pillow. At moderately low water (~800 cfs) a friend of mine didn't make the turn, flipped, and pinned to the left of the pillow. It took about 20 minutes to free him and his boat: he was desperately holding to the last shred of rock keeping his head above water while rescuers tried to free him or his boat, a near-death experience. There are some other potential routes in the center of the rapid, one of which I have run. I would give this one a V; it has a good beat and is easy to dance to.

My recommendation is to thoroughly scout both parts as you drive upstream to put in. You can then make big strategy decisions and note take-out landmarks for upper Salmon Falls!

Competent boaters can do the short easy carry of upper Salmon, boat down to lower Salmon, then decide whether to run or portage. At many flow levels, lower Salmon can be easily portaged on river right. The left bank below lower Salmon Falls (on the the highway side) is steep with bad footing, making a poor raft put-in. There are some other unnamed class V- rapids shortly below this.

Ant Canyon primitive camping area is the normal put-in for day two, being below the class V action in the vicinity of Salmon Falls. Gold Ledge campground is .8 to 1.1 mile downstream on the left, and marks the start of long boulder gardens starting at 1.3 miles. Springhill primitive camping area is on the left at 2 miles. Corral Creek picnic ground is on the left at 2.7 miles. Watch for Corral Creek entering on the left at 3 miles, marking difficult rapids ahead. A class V rapid with big holes, Squashed Paddler, is at 3.3 miles. Another class V, Sock 'em Dog, with holes at a left turn against cliff, is at 3.6 miles. Hospital Flat campground is on the left at 5 to 5.2 miles. The Flume (class IV+), a chute and drop, is at 5.7 miles. Fender Bender (class V), a brushy rock maze, is at 6 miles. The Cable (class IV), a boulder garden, is at 6.8 miles. After that, rapids ease.

From Camp 3 campground (6.9 to 7.2 miles) to Powerhouse #3, rapids are easier, and suitable for intermediate boaters at low flows. The Wall (class IV) is a left bank turn at 7.3 miles. Tombstone (class IV) is a left-turning boulder bar at 7.6 miles. Headquarters campground is on the left at 7.8 to 8 miles. Buzzards's Perch (class III+), a left bend thru trees, is at 8.2 miles. At 8.5 miles boaters have a choice of two channels, Tequila Chute (class IV) on the left, or Pepsi Challenge (class III) on the right. Bubble Beach is on the left at 8.7 miles, and River Kern Beach is on the left at 9 miles. Powerhouse Rapid (class III+), a long rock garden, starts at 9.2 miles. Take out at below Powerhouse #3 on the left at 9.6 miles.

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