Let’s get vertical: The biggest drops on the Kern River

Another guide trapped in our guidehouse, Patrick O’Connell takes to the keyboard to gush about his favorite drops during quarantine

What makes a whitewater rapid memorable? Some revel in the navigational challenge of running tight, boulder choked rapids successfully. Others find pure joy in the low-consequence bliss of long, unimpeded wave trains While fun, these technical rapids and splashy waves can’t produce the stomach-dropping adrenaline rush found while staring down the yawning chasm of a big drop. In the moment of near-vertical suspension between a drop’s start and its chaotic conclusion dreams are realized, fears overcome, and memories made. Life gets boiled down to one beautiful moment of uncertainty and exhilaration that for many leads to, or is an extension of, a life-long passion for adventure. Whether you’re a seasoned adrenaline junky looking for your next fix, or a slightly more reserved adventurer still looking for some fun, here is a selection of some of the biggest, steepest and most exciting drops the Kern river has to offer…Hold on tight!

Sundown Falls – Lower Kern

Sundown Rapid is the second Class IV rapid encountered on the Lower Kern and is truly a one-hit wonder. Although Sundown’s drop is always a wild ride, the structure of the drop and thus the nature of the rapid, varies wildly depending on water levels. At high water, two menacing holes form on either side of the main drop, leaving a boat width-seam between. Too far left of this seam? A thumb rock lurking just beneath the surface will flip your boat in a heartbeat. Too far right of this seam? Well, good luck! As water levels decrease the drop becomes far less intimidating, but no less exciting…in fact, the lower the water goes the steeper the drop becomes! As the rock that creates the boat-eating hole at high water starts to appear, a fun, left-angling slide forms, which morphs into a sharper and sharper drop as the season progresses. As one of the most accessible and commonly run big drops on the entire river, Sundown packs a punch no matter the water level and is sure to be remembered fondly after any trip down the lower Kern.

Satan’s Slot – Thunder Run, Upper Kern

With a name like Satan’s Slot, you know you’re in for a hell-of-a-ride! One of the gems of the action-packed Chamise Gorge, Satan’s Slot has a little bit of everything, including a huge drop into a must-make eddy. A tight, technical entrance keeps you honest as you approach until about half-way down the rapid, when you’re greeted with a prominent horizon line punctuated by two boulders in the dead center of the river. Although its namesake slot is a kayaking line between these two boulders, the meaty drop that the rapid is known for is found just left of them. On approach, what looks like a drop leading straight into no-man’s land slowly reveals a sneaky move, punching through the right side of the main drop and into an eddy. Hit the drop, quickly react, and make the eddy or suffer the consequences! Although fickle water levels needed to run the gorge make commercial trips here rare, the section is a local favorite, with Satan’s Slot and its unforgettable drop providing a thrill on every run.

The Flume – Thunder Run, Upper Kern

Considered by many to be the most beautiful rapid on the Kern, the Flume is truly a sight to behold. As the third of four Class V rapids on the legendary Thunder Run, the Flume demands respect and has a nature of its own. While most of the Kern’s big drops are formed where water funnels between two large boulders, the Flume is formed as water slides down a steep, polished granite ledge. The approach to this slide is not trivial; a few quick technical moves lead to a sneaky ferry into a tree-choked eddy just above the drop. Sitting in this slack water is a surreal experience and provides a few precious seconds to ponder the life decisions that led you to this point. From this eddy, a huge horizon line provides few clues as to the ride ahead, but as you slowly inch closer the Flume begins to reveal itself. A steep, bumpy ride down the slide awaits, after which options abound; react and make a decision quick! Two large boulders just below the drop can be split for a sexy, “field goal” line sure to make on-lookers at the nearby Chico Flat campground cheer.

Carson Falls – Forks of the Kern

Out of the dozens of memorable Class IV and V rapids on the Forks of the Kern, none strikes as much fear into the heart of river guides as Carson Falls, the final major rapid on the section. The quintessential Kern waterfall, a trip down Carson Falls feels more like an aquatic train-wreck than a rafting run. Carson is formed as water funnels between a massive triangular boulder in the center of the river and granite bedrock on the right shore, creating a nearly vertical drop. At high water flows this drop is flattened slightly, but a sinister ledge hole known simply as “The Thing,” forms below and awaits any mishaps As water levels drop, and “The Thing” goes out of play, the waterfall becomes simply a dead-vertical cascade culminating in a churning maelstrom of chaos and confusion! The best bet for running this monster is to stay as close as possible to the center boulder and take advantage of a slight weakness on the drop’s left side. The split-second spent teetering on the brink of the drop, staring straight into the mouth of the beast, is a unique Kern experience and will indelibly be seared into your brain for the rest of your life.

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