Saturday, April 25, 2009

Kern Riverboarding Weekend: A Tiger’s Perspective

Thanks so much to the Carol and Dean Koutzoukis for hosting us and letting us use their vehicles, houses and watercrafts. Thanks to Josh Galt for pulling off another Face Level Industries event.

After a couple laps around LAX and finding Josh, with Alex driving, Alicia, Kevin and myself had to find the NUUN sponsor products next, at a newer address in West LA that wasn't yet mapped to the GPS unit. Mission completed, we decided on In-N-Out between the Grapevine and Bakersfield. The first challenge was aimed at Josh, to down five double-doubles. Although a 36-hour day and freezing airport terminal preceded him, he only ate two.

Sweet scents of orange blossom and a nausea-inducing canyon highway later, we got settled in for a warm-up day on the river. Rounding up River Dave and some others at the park the next morning, we did a run on Limestone, surfing some holes on the way down. Afterwards we decided to hike up to Dry Meadow, about a 45-minute walk. The trail was up and down, the temps were climbing; several went along for the walk but without gear. We stopped at Carson Falls to take a look. A bit intimidating to me, especially after hearing Bob Carlson tell a story of someone dying in there. I said I'd do it if Alex would, which isn't the best logic - I need to assess my own skill level and make a decision - but what I was really thinking was that I'd like to watch someone do it, then make a more informed decision.


On we trudged, sweating heavily in our 5 to 7 mil wetsuits. I kept expecting to see some big flowering meadow, but it wasn't until I saw at least a dozen kayakers portaging with ropes down a large, dry wall with a waterslide at the bottom, did I figure it out. We'd run the slide after crossing the river and crawling up the slippery rock bank to the lowest pool. That one slide, with a big rooster tail that shot you and your craft into the air at the last turn, made the whole trip worthwhile. I felt 13 again. But we'd just gotten started.

Closely eyeing each rapid on the way up, the way down just didn't look like what I'd spied. Nothing seemed as big, but it was really fun, even though the water was on the low side. After about a half hour of riverboarding downstream, we came to Carson Falls. Josh had been running back along the trail getting photographs, but this time he was standing on a rock signaling us to eddy out and portage around the falls in no uncertain terms. I got out early and started walking around. A rescue attempt was being made for one member of the kayaking group that was at the slide, who had ended up out of his craft and swimming into the falls.


I don't really know what to say about that incident. I don't have any whitewater rescue certification or training, so it's hard for me to judge what was going right or wrong. The water was in the 40s and the kayaker was in his 60s. He'd had a grasp on the line at one point, but had let go.

 We paired up and continued down the river looking for anyone who might be washed behind a rock. We didn't find anyone. The authorities had already been notified. Had that event not transpired when it did, several in our group would have run the falls, and with a buoyant craft below and fins behind, they would have been fine. The jury for my own decision to run it or not is still out.

 All gathered at the Koutzoukis house for a great bbq dinner. Afterwards we watched a dvd Kevin had brought called "A Glorious Way to Die," a 1994 documentary about Russian rafters who reunited to complete a Siberian river run where they'd lost four buddies who missed the takeout. The crafts were hand made from scrap materials and felled trees. Inventive, yes. Safe? Well, they weren't easy to maneuver. One guy broke his leg as they unintentionally went through a strainer. Bob Carlson knew one of the women in the film. Small world.

 Whenever we portage a rapid, we now call that "A blank spot in your life," referring to one of the many clichés in the documentary.

 The downriver race was the same Limestone run we'd done Friday. Why is it that  water always seems lower the second time you run a new spot? This stretch was not exactly a wave train. The rapids were a welcome relief to the many flat sections. I got an early lead but was quickly passed by Alex, and since he cut just in front of me, I rode his legs until he finally shook me off. Cool, now I had a local's line to follow. It stayed this way for a while, but I took the wrong side of a rapid and ended up in the slower current. I saw Peter Cameron on his Carlson, followed closely by Kevin on his hydrospeed, off to my left. Peter got in front of me easily and I never could catch him. So much for second place, but come what may I was not going to give up third.

 My lack of familiarity with the river was probably what kept me going. I kept telling myself to keep on pushing, that the finish line was right round the next corner, when in reality it was many, many corners ahead. Kevin was a semi-safe ten feet or so behind me, and I kept a pace that allowed my breathing to remain somewhat steady. He closed the gap several times, and each time I would step up the pace until my legs screamed and my lungs, compressed by the vest and the board, burned, but felt a bit safer. At one point he was in contact with the rear quarter of my board's starboard side, trying to push around me, and we were quickly approaching a small rapid with one protruding medium sized rock, also to my right.

With riverboards you can push each other with the force of your craft, and this is allowable in competition as long as you do not use your hands to intentionally grab or pull. I focused on that rock and started pushing my opponent right at it, remaining just left of it myself to miss it and hit the current below. Just before entering the drop left of the rock, I glanced right and caught a glimpse of Aquianna* turning on her side in a flash of bright blue. I felt like a bloody shit for doing it, but it was nothing personal; it's just unfortunate that I had to do it to someone for whom I have mad respect and admiration.

 There was one point, I think it was after the rock, that Kevin closed the gap again, and I thought if he passes me this time, he can have it. I can't take it, my body has reached its limit, I'll settle for fourth. But the next time I looked back, he was about 20 feet back, and I stopped worrying. Perhaps he'd reached his limit as well.


In bodyboarding and surfing competition, a key component to getting the best waves is being able to outpaddle the others. I won a lot of heats back in the day.

The next event was the standing wave competition. Alex nailed it; his friend who was new to the sport but could surf put on a brilliant display; Peter would stay on the wave forever and do knee rides. I was eliminated the first round of the final 6, which was fine with me, I was tired. I couldn't do much on the wave and was minus my ocean bodyboard. The wave was very close to the park where all the river festival activities were, so I took a trial run through the boardercross gates. I missed three of them.

The herd moved from the park up to the pizza joint for dinner where many beers and carbs were devoured out on the deck as the afternoon sun slipped over the peak. We moved the party to Alex's house for more revelry, including some very interesting games with a broomstick and some rope. It was a great end to a great day, aside from the tragedy at Carson Falls.


Sunday was Boardercross, a timed run with gates, two of them upstream. The first and last few gates were straightforward, but gate nine was upstream, ten was on the other side of the river perhaps only 30-40 feet downstream, and 11 was upstream, wide across a hole. Once you made 11 you were pretty much home free.

I cleared a perfect clean run before the event, hitting every gate, although wasn't trying for speed. I thought this would be a piece of cake. I'd placed 2nd in the last Boardercross event I'd entered, which was also my first, and felt ready.

With six Boardercross entrants, we were broken into two heats of three. It was myself against the locals, Alex and Dean (father and son). I took the middle position, a seeding from the downriver event. Alex and I advanced with fairly clean runs.  The second heat was Peter, Kevin and Alicia. Kevin and Peter advanced.


In the next round I had nothing left. Gate nine was kind of messy; Alex jumped in it without going around the pole and blocked the rest of us. I gave up on 11 after missing 10. I came in last and lay prostrate on the turf afterwards, feigning death from exhaustion. There was to be a consolation run for whomever didn't advance, for a chance to get into the final. I was pretty tired from the previous two days of riverboarding, and wasn't too excited about the consolation heat, but was willing. Turns out, upon close photo and video review, Alex had used his hands inappropriately, adding up enough foul seconds to put him into the consolation heat to earn his way back into the final. I got to rest, and be in the final.


I was determined not to miss the gates this time, but I had to struggle for 11, taking awhile to paddle upstream. I had missed 10 yet again, but managed to get through the rest. Didn't matter; I got 4th, Kevin showed, Peter won and Alex placed. Utterly spent, I was just glad it was over. So I thought.

Walking back from the course Kevin and I chatted about the weekend's events and came to the realization that we had both earned third place in the overall points standing. We were tied! How cool is that, I thought. I had no idea what it really meant.

Basking in the warmth of vitamin D breezes only high desert can yield, I stripped off my 5 mil wetsuit and soaked the heat into my two-piece clad whiteness. I was looking forward to running Brush Creek, and was getting into my sandals, when River Dave and Josh ambled over and announced they had some news for us, with these really smug grins on their faces. I thought perhaps Alex had fouled again and pushed our places up. Nothing so lucky. Earlier, Kevin had the foresight to ask what would happen if there was a tie for an overall points position. The awards were given out based on the overall finish, rather than individual event finishes. The tie would not stand. It had to be broken. We could do it here, now, on the Boardercross, or somewhere else after running Brush Creek.

"Are you kidding me?!" I exclaimed, throwing my remaining sandal against the dirt, losing my cool for a moment, all while being video taped. "I'm SO tired, there's NO WAY I even have a chance at this! Can't we just split the prize?" Kevin just smiled and didn't seem to have any problem with this latest development, or if he did he didn’t show it.


We squeezed back into our sopping wet rashguards, wetsuits, booties, gloves, helmets, life vests and fins and plodded back down to the starting line. But not before I pulled Kevin aside for some attempt to make it easier on both of us. "Let's strategize here. Since we both missed gate 10, why don't we both just skip it?"


"Mmm, nuh-uh."

"You sure? Or we could just run it straight for time and not hit any of the gates."

Laughter. "If we did that, he (Josh) would probably find some 10-year old kid and have him do the gates and declare him the winner."

I thought about my anger and tried to draw from some inner strength and go with it, and relax a bit. It's just a game and I was here for fun, after all. This would be my fifth run if you include my warm-up run. So what if my body had failed in that last run, Kevin had to be a little tired as well.

Kevin had the advantage of starting one body-width downriver from the jump-off platform. But I did pass him, and after shaking him off my legs, I managed to get in front for the first few gates. He got the inside, tighter corner on the upstream 9. We were both kind of stuck there side by side, fighting the current for what felt like a half a minute as the crowd cheered us on, myself grunting like a weightlifter, finally finding a way up and around the pole a second after Kevin turned. But his inside position had put him further downriver towards gate 10, giving him less time to get there, and it put him further downriver. I paddled like I was being chased by a shark, squeaked around it, then noticed that he had gotten washed out of gate 11. I was about six inches from being washed down, but paddled like that shark was still there, fought the uphill current adding precious seconds to my time, but it turned out to be a good decision. Kevin hadn't noticed I was fighting to make the gate and didn't sprint as hard as he could have. Two missed gates were enough seconds added to declare myself the tie-break winner for overall third.

That afternoon we hit Brush Creek, a gorgeous canyon with lots of teacup falls and narrow chutes to slide down. It eats your board, your elbows, and even my GoPro camera housing got destroyed. We portaged around the largest falls because it's a straight drop into waste deep water. The other drops you could slide around the sides, skimming along the slick surface. My brand new Kern riverboard was definitely broken in!


It was over all too soon, and we found ourselves again at the In-N-Out near the Grapevine, famished. Josh made up for his earlier burger challenge and downed three double-doubles.


*Aquianna is what Kevin named his hydrospeed.


Rochelle Parry is fairly new to riverboarding, but not to the water. She won the USSF Amatuer Women’s Bodyboard Championships in 1990, and has been riding waves on bodyboards since 1978. Not quite old enough to be a cougar, she prefers the term tiger, as she is aggressive in the water but pretty laid back, otherwise.
















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