When the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office announced it was closing the Kings River to all recreation, Justin Butchert’s phone started ringing off the hook.
What do they mean the Kings River is closed?
Are you guys not operating anymore?
What about my reservation?
“I don’t think the sheriff specified the Kings River below Pine Flat (Lake) – or at least people didn’t hear that part,” said Butchert, owner and operator of Kings River Expeditions.
“They only heard the Kings River was closed and a $225 fine for river use.”
From what I can tell, the reason for the confusion stems from two factors:
▪ Many in Fresno are geographically challenged. They don’t know the difference between the dam-controlled Lower Kings and the free-flowing Upper Kings.
▪ Far more river-goers around here seek a lazy float with a party atmosphere (Lower Kings) than a whitewater experience (Upper Kings).
Yes, the Sheriff’s Office was 100 percent correct in closing the Lower Kings to all boating and fishing. With the massive Sierra melt-off under way and water spilling over Pine Flat Dam, this is absolutely the wrong time to grab your inner tube, 12-pack of beer and other party favors (i.e. marijuana) and think you’re going for a relaxing day.
Because you’re not. Without river sense and paddling experience, you’re likely to flip over or get swept toward some obstacle and drown.
As we’ve been reminded again and again in recent weeks, rivers in California during this spring and early summer are not to be trifled with or otherwise underestimated.
But that doesn’t present the entire picture. Because those same raging flows that are flooding areas around Minkler and Kingsburg also are responsible for the finest whitewater conditions in years – provided you paddle with expert guides.
The Kings is the largest Sierra river by volume. Meaning more water funnels down its watershed than the Kern, San Joaquin, Merced or Tuolumne. It’s also wider and deeper than other rivers, so there’s more room to maneuver even at high flows.
And right now, and for the next couple of weeks, flows will be at their peak, approaching 20,000 cubic feet per second. That’s several times larger than what they’ll be later this summer.
“Nineteen thousand cfs on any other river in California would be outrageous,” said Bob Ferguson, owner of Zephyr Whitewater. “But the Kings is so big and wide, it can handle it.”
The Kings is rated Class III or Class III+, which is considered intermediate. However, at high flows like we’re currently experiencing, some of the major rapids increase in difficulty to the point where running them is inadvisable.
What do river guides do to avoid those trouble spots? Simple: They take a different line.
“The beautiful thing about the Kings is we have alternative routes,” Butchert said. “We call them ‘chicken chutes,’ but they are these little side chutes that allow us to sidestep a few scary parts. The side chutes are fun, fast and narrow and they’re just a perfect bypass for some of the scarier parts on the river.”
This is Butchert’s 40th year on the Kings. He’s run the river in monster conditions and when flows were a barely a trickle. He knows every rapid and every side channel and has imparted that knowledge to his guides, some of whom have been with KRE for many years.
Using that knowledge, KRE can tailor trips for each specific boat. If the boat contains 20-somethings seeking thrills, each rapid can be run straight down the middle. If the boat contains families with young kids, chicken chutes and side channels can be used to provide a much gentler run.
“I could run you down that river and barely get wet,” Butchert said. “You’d be bored.”
We manage the conditions. We have a name for every hit and every wave. We know exactly where it is and we know how to avoid it when necessary.
Justin Butchert, Kings River Expeditions owner
Two years ago, during California’s extended drought, the lack of water nearly put KRE and other rafting companies out of business.
Now there’s almost too much coming down all at once. Zephyr canceled one of its trips Tuesday because of the high flows, Ferguson said. KRE has yet to take that step but has rescheduled some for later this summer when the conditions are more gentle.
Bu with so much water, KRE and Zephyr plan to operate well into late summer. Both companies offer a variety of trips ranging from quick half-day runs to two-day trips with riverside camping and prepared meals.
“We’re going to have wonderful water in July and into August,” Butchert said, “better than we’ve had in a long long time,”