A class V+ wilderness adventure in the heart of California
By Joe Bousquin
February 16, 2004
Kenny during good times (on right)
Photo by T.J. Vandell
Those were our positions when Kenny's boat slipped off the rock and into the water - just above the drop and with two paddles inside it. I was amazed when Erik,
without hesitation, jumped in after it, got one arm on it and swam back into the eddy. We lost one paddle to the falls, but that seemed like a small price after
the near disaster of losing a boat downstream. It doesn't take long to realize once you're in this gorge that getting out without a boat would be a major endeavor.
Once we corralled Kenny's boat and made use of a breakdown paddle, Kenny led on the nasty 20-footer. All I can say is that it's easy to walk a rapid after you see
someone else go off it and get worked; it takes a lot more balls to charge it to get your buds a little further downstream like Kenny did. Nonetheless, he got
swallowed by the hole and came up sort of sideways on the seam between it and the backed-up outwash behind it. This was all in a swirling bathtub sort of teacup,
immediately above another five-foot drop, and didn't look like a fun place to be.
In that frozen second of time when an outcome is unknown, I've got to say it was unnerving to see Kenny out of his boat, suspended in the foam below that drop
with no certainty about which direction he would be pushed next. Afterward, he just said he was trying as hard as he could to stay on top of the water and get
downstream. Fortunately, he washed out of the tub and into the swirling eddy below, which was just above another, 25-foot long slide that slammed down to the
right. Kenny clung to the wall next to some caves before expertly climbing out of the bowl, unassisted.
With the three of us still up on the walls above the drop, all we could do was watch helplessly as Kenny's boat washed downstream. On top of that, the breakdown
Kenny was using that replaced his other paddle was also washed downstream. After a pretty non-eventful morning, it seemed like things were starting to go wrong
fast for the crew at Kimshew.
But then Kenny noticed both of the lost paddles floating in the caves that he had climbed out of. As he went downstream to see if he could find his boat, Steve
didn't flinch for a second from lowering himself into the cave to retrieve the paddles, with only a rope clipped into the safety harness of his PFD.
As he extracted the paddles, Kenny came back upstream on the opposite side of the river, signaling to us that he had indeed gotten his boat back. Miraculously,
we found ourselves whole, healthy, and without any lost gear. (Kenny's Salto did suffer a gash in its squared-off stern, but nothing a little self-bonding
electrician's plastic couldn't take care of. Maybe it shows the Boy Scout side of him, but Kenny seems to carry this amazing material - rumored to be illegal
in various states - as standard issue on hard-water runs.)
After getting squared away, we knew we had to get a move on. We had spent well over an hour at this spot below the first big falls, advancing less than 100
yards downstream during that time. As Steve put it then, "We need to get out of here." From then on, we knew, we had to boogie, and the challenging part of
the run was just beginning.
After running a 20-foot slide, we got out to scout the next big drop, which was every bit of 60 feet long, narrow and gnarly. I didn't have to look more than
a few seconds to know where my line was - down the left hand bank. The rapid enters at the top on the right, only to fold into a massive hole before plunging
over the crux once again. Where it lands, there's a nasty, no-way-out eddy on river right that is completely walled in. Kenny said he got in this eddy at higher
water, and had to climb out on his own. After this point, the rapid squeezes down even more into a too-narrow channel. Having just witnessed what Kimshew was
capable of, we all shouldered it except Erik; his run was clean.
After this drop, there's a good section of river that has several smaller, but challenging rapids in it. One is a good drop with a big hole on the right. Another
is a slot move, surrounded by boulders, also on the right with a powerful hydraulic that gave me a huge back-ender as I went through it. This all happens above
the signature drop of the run: Frenchy's Falls.
This 50-foot, true vertical falls got its name a few years ago when Stefan from Donner Summit (originally from Quebec) had a heart-wrenching accident here. The
river goes over the drop clean, but as it does, the wall of the gorge comes in from the right to squeeze the paddler into a narrow line off the left side of the
falls. To add some excitement, the entrance rapid above this drop is true Class V.
Apparently, running the river at much higher water than we had, Stefan got flipped in the rapid above, and rolled up just as he was going off the right side of
the falls. Suffering a serious head injury, he had to be helivaced from the canyon. He made a full recovery, but those who were on that trip speak of the incident
Knowing this story, it's hard not to think of the consequences of a bad line once you're at the lip of this falls. We could have skipped the entrance rapid and put
in just above the falls to run it, but we judged the river level to be too low. It just looked like a thin line to get far enough to the left and away from the
wall on the right to be clean; plus, I like how the vertebrae in my back are currently arranged.
On the other hand, I suffered a pang of portager's lament after leaving this one undone. Maybe next time.
Frenchy's is the last giant drop in the canyon, but there are plenty more big, bouldery drops after this, as well as some junky stuff to get through. And of course,
there's the final, 20-footer that's visible at the take out.
Bell stepped up and charged off this - not a mean feat, considering the nasty looking hole and piton at the bottom. He went through clean, though, inspiring Kenny
and myself to follow.
It was after 6:00 PM, and we'd done the run in about seven hours.
Kenny's truck, with Erik's stash of snow-kept-cold Coors inside, was just a few hundred yards downstream. It was over these that we relived the day's events with a
good bit of relief - and a great feeling of accomplishment for Dewin' some Shewin'.
Kenny Gould, our colorful, hard-core guide on Big
Kimshew that day, commited suicide just six months
later, as the waters of the Sierra Nevada ran dry in
the fall. Always one to leave smiling, though, Kenny
completed what must have been the most epic kayaking
year of his life that spring and summer. In addition
to Big Kimshew, he ran the Upper and Lower Clavey, the
Fantasy Falls section on the North Mokelumne, the
Royal Gorge of the North Fork of the American, Upper
Cherry Creek, and perhaps his biggest whitewater
accomplishment, the remote hard waters of the Middle
Kings. As the waters run once more in the Sierra, he's
missed much, but his memories and smile live on.
Following is an epitaph I composed for my friend
shortly after learning of his death.