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Wild West Roots in Kernville & The Kern River

Updated: May 29, 2018

Mile 651 | Descending from the Kiavah Wilderness into Walker Pass Campground was simply breathtaking. It was relatively easy backpacking from Tehachapi to Lake Isabella, but with this being my first ever actual backpacking trip I am constantly challenged by the terrain and find it very rewarding whenever I complete a stretch.

We climbed up and down elevations in the 6,000 ft range and have our sights set on the Sierras. It's exciting to be on the verge of graduating from the high desert as we move into the Sierras. However, there are reports of snow up near Mount Whitney and Forester Pass so we will take our time to get to Kennedy Meadows and enjoy the quaint town of Kernville which neighbors Lake Isabella and the Kern River.

Lake Isabella, California
Lake Isabella

Heather (my blessed trail angel), Brian and the dogs met us at the campground to catch up and do some exploring. I literally love them! I am so grateful they continue to come out and meet up with me on the trail. It gives me the opportunity to explore the surrounding area and get the most out of my time here. I love reading up on the history and geology of these magical places and also just take time to be still in order to really get a sense of the magnitude and power instilled in the land. Thru-hiking is somewhat of a rush in more than one sense of the word. It's an adrenaline rush for sure, but also, as a thru-hiker you are constantly on the move clocking miles trekking 8 hours (usually more) a day to get to your destination. Between finding reliable water, filtering it, staying fueled, cooking, cleaning, pitching your tent, finding rides to town and back to the trail, resupplying, etc, it's hard to find time to just relax! It is like life in that way and I believe it is crucial to take time for reflection and rest. We explored Lake Isabella and The Kern River. Inquisitive by nature, I have curated some information from Wikipedia about these locations. Pictured below from left to right is Lake Isabella, and The Kern River.

The Kern River

Kern River, originally Rio de San Felipe, later La Porciuncula, is a river in the U.S. state of California, approximately 165 miles (270 km) long. It drains an area of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains northeast of Bakersfield. Fed by snowmelt near Mount Whitney, the river passes through scenic canyons in the mountains and is a popular destination for whitewater rafting and kayaking. It is the only major river in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that drains in a southerly direction.

(Video of me livin' on the edge, capturing the flow of the Kern River :)

The river was named by John C. Frémont in honor of Edward M. Kern in 1845 who, as the story goes, nearly drowned in the turbulent waters. Kern was the topographer of Fremont's third expedition through the American West. Before this, the Kern River was known as the "Rio de San Felipe" as named by Spanish missionary explorer Fr. Francisco Garcés when he explored the Bakersfield area on May 1, 1776. On August 2, 1806, Padre Zavidea renamed the river La Porciuncula for the day of the Porciuncula Indulgence. It was locally known as Po-sun-co-la until its renaming by Fremont.

Gold was discovered along the upper river in 1853. The snowmelt that fed the river resulted in periodic torrential flooding in Bakersfield until the construction of the Isabella Dam in the 1950s. These floods would periodically change the channel of the river. Since the establishment of Kern County in 1866 the main channel has flowed through what is the main part of downtown Bakersfield along Truxtun Avenue and again made a south turn along what is Old River Road. Many of the irrigation canals that flow in a southerly direction from the river follow the old channels of the Kern River, especially the canal that flows along Old River Road. The irrigated region of the Central Valley near the river supports the cultivation of alfalfa, carrots, fruit, and cotton, cattle grazing, and many other year-round crops. In 1987 the United States Congress designated 151 miles (243 km) of the Kern's North (Main) Fork and South Fork as a National Wild and Scenic River.

At Kernville the river emerges from its narrow canyon into a widening valley where it is impounded in Lake Isabella, a reservoir formed by Isabella Dam. The South Fork Kern River joins in Lake Isabella. Like the North Fork, the South Fork rises in Tulare County and flows mainly south, through Inyo National Forest. After entering Kern County the South Fork curves to the west and flows into Lake Isabella.

The Kern is well known for its danger, and is sometimes referred to as the "Killer Kern". A sign at the mouth of Kern Canyon warns visitors: "Danger. Stay Out. Stay Alive" and tallies the deaths since 1968; as of July 2nd, 2017 the count was over 280. Merle Haggard's song "Kern River" fictionally recounts such a tragedy. Most of the people who died in the Kern River were recreational users who entered the water without proper life vests. Less than 2% of the deaths in the Kern River have occurred during commercial raft trips.

Wild West Roots in Kernville a.k.a Whiskey Flats

The Kern River was named after artist and topographer Edward Kern, who accompanied John C. Fremont on his 1845 expedition. They camped at what was a fork of two rivers, now the middle of Lake Isabella. An 1858 gold rush led to the formation of a town briefly called Rogersville, then Williamsburg, which was in 1863 renamed Whiskey Flat after a bar opened. In 1864, the town was renamed Kernville.

After decades of planning, the Isabella Dam project began in 1948. As a result, Kernville was relocated upstream to its present location at the tip of the northeast fork of the man-made lake, along with certain historic buildings. Downtown visibly retains Kernville's gold rush and Old West roots, attracting tourists along with the area's natural scenery and outdoor activities. The town's original location is slightly east of Wofford Heights. Foundations and other remnants can still be seen when the lake is low.

Whiskey Flat Days is the annual celebration of the area's Wild West roots. A parade, historical re-enactments, pioneer-style camps, a carnival, street vendors and rodeo are just part of the festivities put on every President's Day weekend and attended by thousands of visitors.

Even with its annual summer influx of tourists, Kernville remains one of the most quaint, conservative relics of early California. Many local families trace their lineage to original 19th century homesteaders. The post office, established at the original site in 1868, was moved to the new site in 1951. The original townsite is now registered as California Historical Landmark #132

The Community

Lake Isabella and Kernville are extremely hiker friendly. The Kern River Brewing Company, Freemont Deli and Pizza Barn supply the water at the campground for hikers. At the cache a binder with town information and phone numbers for hikers to call for assistance is provided. We contacted trail angel April for a place to stay. She coordinates most of the outreach for hikers and is absolutely amazing! She is a special education teacher and has 2 young sons whom she raises to be upstanding kind individuals. She raises them like adults which in my opinion is smart because kids know a lot more things than adults give them credit for. Anyway, it's better to show and give kids respect by acknowledging their awareness and teaching them to be in touch with their inner selves. They are well informed and I was surprised by the way they respect and use water so resourcefully. Shoutout to April for her selflessness (resists donations) and for making us feel completely at home.

I feel optimistic being here in this town. As I continue to build my life and contemplate the impact I wish to have on this world, I can't help but reflect on the explorers and entrepreneurs who came before me. I believe in the country America used to be and remain focused on high standards and goodwill toward all living things. Life is not about "finding yourself" but "creating yourself". Work hard, play hard, do the right thing and just enjoy the ride.

Cheers friends!

Don't forget, if you would like to contribute to my personal fundraiser for Protect Our Winters to offset the cost of global warming. Take a stand now and support POW by visiting their website, or follow their initiatives on Facebook. If you would like to donate, Great!! Here's the link, my goal is to raise $1 for every mile I hike on the PCT, a total of 2,660 miles. Thank you for rising up for the world and your future.

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