Middle Kings Solo: Part II


Catch the exciting finish of Dan Simenc’s epic solo trip down California’s notorious Middle Kings River, captured in words and video. You can read Part I of the story here.


I wrapped the rope around my hands for a better grip and yelled out in desperation as I repeatedly attempted to lift my kayak up above the rim. The slope I was standing on was loose, and the throw rope was thin and hard to grip. After a short but intense battle to hoist the loaded kayak up and over the cliff, I realized this effort was futile. I began searching for something to wrap the rope around while the boat hung dangerously over fast moving water.

With the day fading, I proceeded to mob downstream in a scoutless flurry of routing.

A large but loose rock was the best anchor I could find. I untangled the rope from my hands to release slack, letting the boat slip even closer to the river. I wrapped the rope around the rock several times and then tied the line off to a tree root.

Hurrying down to the river, I found my boat hanging partway in the water at the top of the portage rapid. I was just able to reach the stern. I pulled the kayak toward the shore, unclipped it from the rope and found a less precarious place upstream to haul it up.

I was hot and tired after retrieving my boat, but I still had a long hike ahead of me to complete the portage. There were several portages in the next mile of the river, so I opted to stay high on the trail and portage the whole stretch at once. Finally, I put in directly above a cascading Class V rapid. It felt like I’d already completed a full day of kayaking; I’d navigated about 2,000 vertical feet of whitewater in around ten miles, but another ten to fifteen miles of Class IV and V still remained before my planned camp near Tehipite Dome.

With the day fading, I proceeded to mob downstream in a scoutless flurry of routing. Fortunately, the river mellows slightly during this stretch, but there were still plenty of stout Class V rapids for me to blindly paddle through. After an action-packed evening, I made it to Tehipite Valley just in time to chase away the darkness with a warming campfire.

I’d paddled most of the river that day, and I was exhausted. My evening camp was 4,000 feet lower than the one I’d woken up in that morning, and the tiny stream I’d launched on was now a river several times larger. As hard and long as that day was, I knew the next one would be even more difficult; I’d have to face the infamous “Bottom Nine” section of the Middle Kings. This steep, continuous, sieve-ridden, nine-mile stretch of Class V boulder gardens would demand all my remaining focus and energy.

The next morning I left camp anticipating a challenging day. It began floating alone through the serene Tehipite Valley where the 7,708 foot Tehipite Dome towers 3,600 feet above the river. It’s hard to believe that the elevation at the put-in is over 1,000 feet higher than the summit of this magnificent dome; this gives you a dramatic perspective of the magnitude of the trip. But despite the amazing stretch you’ve already navigated, it’s not time to celebrate until you safely make it through the next nine miles of whitewater.

The dome quickly fades from view just as the Class V gorge begins. The comforting trail that has accompanied you along the first half of the river now abandons you as the canyon walls narrow and the Middle Kings musters up its final challenge. I fought off the fatigue from the past three days as I scouted, paddled and portaged my way through the maelstrom of whitewater.

To navigate the Bottom Nine, you must be able to draw order from chaos – each messy rapid must be analyzed and solved in a wild succession of “shit-running.”

The steep river forced me to scout at almost every bend. I would get out of my kayak, make a quick assessment of the rapid, then decide whether to portage or paddle through it. At the beginning of the trip I had been more conservative, even portaging some rapids that I had run on my first trip down the river five years earlier. By the Bottom Nine, weariness encouraged me to stay in my boat as much as possible, and I evened the score by running a handful of demanding rapids that I’d portaged the last time around.

While scouting a rapid I was startled to see a bumbling black bear on the shore ahead of me, and I yelled and waved my arms to scare her off. After a brief staring match, she continued along her way, and I followed after her, opting to portage the rapid. I kept my paddle with me on subsequent visits to the river-left bank just in case the bear and I met again in closer quarters, but our paths did not cross a second time.

To navigate the Bottom Nine, you must be able to draw order from chaos – each messy rapid must be analyzed and solved in a wild succession of “shit-running.” Locked into this battle with the river gods, I kept my bow pointed downstream and eventually emerged haggard but victorious below the last Class V rapid on the Middle Kings. That night I enjoyed a much-deserved rest at a pleasant campsite just upstream of where the Middle Fork meets the South Fork to form the Kings River proper.

The climate had steadily warmed as I’d descended from the High Sierras. By my final camp the air was still hot even after the sun went down, but I lit a fire to escape the incessant swarm of bugs, which were overexcited by my sudden addition to their landscape. Ready to enjoy another amazing night beneath the stars, I dipped my gallon water jug into the river to fill it one last time with the refreshing water of the Middle Kings.

I felt an enormous release having successfully completed the mighty river, but had to remain focused for ten final miles of Class V whitewater through Kings Canyon. I hit the river early the next morning and immediately reached the confluence. Here the river’s volume nearly doubles, reaching a level 10-15 times higher than where I put in. Though the character of Kings Canyon is tame compared to the Bottom Nine, fatigue and big water combined to make many of the large Class V rapids feel just as hard.

After a full morning of Class V, I passed Garlic Falls as it cascaded down into the canyon and smiled to myself knowing I was almost done. I passed the deserted standard take-out, and continued downstream another 10 miles through mellow Class III. Occasional campers and fisherman silently welcomed me back from the rugged solitude of the last week as I floated towards the bridge where I’d escape from the river.

In concluding his segment on the second descent of the river, “Liquid Lifestyles” narrator Scott Lindgren says they reached the confluence: “relieved, excited, and exhausted.” His words rang absolutely true to how I felt as I climbed out of my boat at the take-out and hung my gear up to dry in the 100-degree weather.

The river and mountains had put my mental and physical durability to an extreme test. I had made it through the belly of the beast unscathed, and was delivered to the sunny shore to bask in the wonder of the trip: the purity of the last several days, the power and beauty of the river and its pristine canyon, and my amazing luck to be able to experience it all in such an incredible way. After enjoying a peaceful half-hour lying on the shore, I began preparing for the final leg of the mission: hitchhiking with my boat 300 miles across the Sierras back to my car.

The long hitch back to my van would prove to be a saga in itself. I travelled back through downtown Fresno, Yosemite Valley, and Mammoth Lakes. I enjoyed great kindness and indifference, swapped stories with welcoming strangers, and spent two more nights underneath the stars before finally reaching my van at the South Lake trailhead. It was 9:30 am; seven days earlier I had left the same parking lot hauling a boat full of gear up the pass, uncertain of the adventures awaiting me.

I blasted music while driving back to Mammoth Lakes where I had stashed my boat in the woods the night before. I was alone again, and reflected on the amazing expedition I’d just completed. The unique attributes of each leg – pushing my body to complete the hike, silent intensity through each rapid, solace at precious camps, and unexpected companionship on the trek back. It all combined to make an incredible and unrepeatable journey, a trip full of powerful and beautiful moments that I will remember for the rest of my life.