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Brush Creek in California

Trip Overview

Steep-Creeking Brush Creek, California

Lucky for me I didn't hear any horror stories before I went on the kayaking run. No, it's only after I was irrevocably committed and headed down Brush Creek, near Kernville, California, in a group of four paddlers that I heard casual comments like, "that's where Matt lost his paddle, right?...that's where John ran the falls on the wrong side and got stuck, isn't it?... I saw a guy land wrong here and get a bad spinal compression, so be sure you hit this right on... run this one to the right because if you go to the left, you'll hit the big rock, which won't hurt you too bad, but it won't feel too good either..."

When I saw the Brush Creek video at the pre-trip meeting a week earlier, my husband Pete Zwagerman, an excellent kayaker, assured me although it looked like a class 4-5, it was actually closer to a class 3 plus. I distinctly remember him saying, "The falls look harder than they are, and most of these drops have little consequence if you miss something." The others in the group who had run it nodded their heads in agreement.

After an adrenaline-induced start due to missing an eddy in which I was supposed to wait, I ended up on the wrong side of the creek and was pushed into low-hanging brush.

I caught another eddy a little further downstream. I was still confident and ready to go. I was with three skilled, experienced and patient boaters, Pete Z., Brian Tuten and Matt Seamons.

I happened to glance up from my boat, and realized for a second how I had almost overlooked the beauty of the rugged and hidden granite canyon. It was a 15-minute hike to the start of the run, and while hiking in, I noticed the colorful range of mountain wildflowers within the steep terrain. If the hike in was this scenic, imagine the feeling of running down its waterfalls!

The first few falls averaged 3-5 feet drops, and Brian led me though the fun. Drop after drop, I managed to catch an eddy and regain control before the next fall. "It's like skiing moguls," someone once told me about steep-creeking. It was imperative to control my descent of this creek, just like snow skiing. Brian and his paddling partner Pierre had actually run the creek the night before using a headlamp. He seemed to know every ounce of water on the run.

Things were going well until I missed a tight turn and ended up half turned over in some low hanging branches, unable to correct my boat. Brian was already down river waiting for me, and the rest of the group was out of site upriver from me, awaiting Brian's "all clear" whistle. As I hung on trying to get the boat upright, I let out a desperate little, "help!", wondering if my shout made it to anyone, and also curiously pondering just how long people usually wait if they don't get the "all clear" signal. I hoped the branches strong enough to stop me and nearly overturn me were also strong enough to cling to, with my head barely above the water. Finally Pete appeared just as a final "umph" got me free. I went down the next couple of falls backwards, but still in control.

One particularly technical area spun me backwards, and I ran a 50-foot chute backwards, picking up speed as I went. It was like a toboggan ride, and not knowing how it ended was a little unnerving, but it was too much fun not to enjoy it while I could. It took all my strength at the end of the chute to get back into an eddy and prepare for the next drop.

Further down, Matt, asked, "Are you ready for the E-ticket ride?"

Brian, Matt and I scouted from the shore above as Pete went over the biggest fall on the trip. Brian said it was about a 12-or so foot fall. Then he asked, "Well Matt, are you ready for the 15-footer?" I was sure he' just told me 12. Not that it matters. We decided later it was closer to 18. Pete ran it perfectly, then it was my turn. I felt good about my speed, paddle position, river position and boat angle as I went over, but it seemed to take about two full minutes to run over a 5-second fall! I landed perfectly, submerging the bow of the boat and coming up level. And breathing air. Always a bonus!

Pete said he's never seen my eyes so wide. It was a blast, and the most exhilarating run yet!

Be sure it's running/check flow before ya go.


We used one of many public campgrounds available. Sierra South is in the town - great paddle shop from whom we took an advanced whitewater class that same weekend.


Kernville is located on the Wild & Scenic Kern River in the Southern Sierra Nevada no more than a half-day's drive from most major cities in California and Nevada:

  • Las Vegas - 5 hours
  • Los Angeles - 3 hours
  • Reno - 7 hours
  • Sacramento - 5 hours
  • San Diego - 5 hours
  • San Francisco - 5 hours

Submitted by: Myra Zwagerman

  • Duration: Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking
  • Skill Level: Advanced
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip