August 25-28, 2016
I met Mike Gilroy at the June 2016 meeting of the San Diego Fly Fishers Group. He was a new member of the group and it was his first meeting. We immediately became friends. He’s a lifelong hunter and fly fisherman. His story was that he just retired and moved to the seemingly barren fly fishing opportunities of San Diego from the plentiful fly fishing opportunities of Seattle area. My takeaway was that his wife wanted to retire to a warmer climate. You can’t fault her for that. I did my penance up in Redmond, WA for a year serving Microsoft. The sun never came out that year (97/98); Never. It is true. There is an abundance of fly fishing opportunities up in the Seattle area year round. I always carry a fly rod up there when I visit Microsoft. Mike was a little bummed when he described having to move away from all the fly fishing opportunities in Washington. That is when I told him about the Upper Kern River.
I told Mike about battling the “badest”, biggest trout in the world. That the Kern River Rainbow is its own species and we’d have a chance at Goldens and “Gold-bows” too. And I told Mike how you have to earn it by backpacking in to them. Well, Mike is like me. He took that to heart and committed immediately. Because of my travel schedule I set dates more than 2 months in the future. But, I had always wanted to fish the upper Kern in August and never afforded the chance because it gets hot in August; really hot. And I could never get anyone to go with me at that time of year. And Mike did commit. He started training immediately with hikes. He trained the entire time. I trained too, but at one point I was a bit worried about a 6’5” guy north of 65 kicking my ass on the trail. So I trained pretty hard too and although I didn’t drop that 15 I need to, I did get in really good cardio shape. As you’ll read later I needed it.
I had already been to the Upper Kern over the Forks of the Kern trail twice this summer so I knew we’d see really good river conditions (low). And that meant the chance at good Huck-Hopper fishing. I cannot tell you how many pictures I have taken over the years of a big Kern River Rainbow with a Huck Hopper hanging out of its face.
We did a lot of planning. Mike came over to the house and I showed him all the stuff I was putting in my backpack and told him how I hoped to be under 45 pounds. I should have emphasized it. I told Mike that it usually takes me less than 45 minutes to lose the 1100 feet in 2 miles to get to the crossing of the Little Kern River. Mike set expectations with me that he would take a lot longer than that; not a problem.
Mike and I were going to meet at the Lower Peppermint Campground which is just 15 minutes short of the trailhead. I have painstakingly created detailed directions and guidance to the Forks of the Kern that I provide to anyone who emails me. And they do quite a bit after internet searching and stumbling into this blog. Mike was going to travel north to fish the Kings river a couple days early and camp out of his truck. The plan was that he’d find and camp at the Lower Peppermint campground during the day Thursday and I’d drive Thursday night hoping to get there before 12AM. But, I got the panicked call from Mike early Thursday, “They closed the road because of the Cedar Fire.” I told him not to give up just yet. Mike was trying to get to the campground from the western entrance which goes right though the fire. I called the Kern River Ranger station and they told me the roads from the south were still open…”…for now.”. So, Mike did the long detour all the way down to Bakersfield and back up through Kernville. But, he called me again from Kernville. “The fire is bad here.” I had been tracking the fire all day on CalFire.org and the other governmental fire tracking sites. It wasn’t really close, but it was pushing towards Kernville. Mike was seeing the smoke. I told Mike to go on in. It’s another 1.5 hours to the campground/trailhead from Kernville in a Northern Direction. Way North of the fire. I knew he’d be fine. The problem is there is no cell signal North of Kernville so I knew we wouldn’t be able to communicate. What I didn’t realize was what I’d run into a good 12 hours later when I got to Kernville that night.
I left Carlsbad at 7pm as planned to avoid the traffic when plowing through LA. As I drove up the Kern Canyon from Bakersfield I had to pull over numerous times for fire trucks to pass me. “hmmm…” I said to myself. I wasn’t as worried about them not letting me through as I was leaving Mike stranded in a place he never had been before with the thought of him backpacking by himself. As I pulled into Kernville it was Armageddon. I could see flames at least 30 feet high to the West. I said to myself, “My God.”. But, I was still more worried about the road closing and stranding Mike. Thank God I made it through. I learned later they closed the road behind me the following day. But, only for 24 hours. That was long enough to prevent my buddy Grant from making it through, though. He never did join us. We didn’t know then we practically had the Upper Kern River to ourselves. I pulled in just after 12am and found Mike’s truck in my favorite site easily. I was asleep within 15 minutes of turning off my ignition.
Friday morning Mike and I said hellos, described our journey and soon our trucks were headed for the trailhead. At the trailhead I couldn’t smell any smoke, but there was a haze in the air. Mike weighed his pack at the trailhead and it was over 50 pounds. “Hmmm…” I told him there had to be something he could offload. He maintained there was not. That ultimately turned out to be a mistake, but much of the most important things I have learned about backpacking were from my many mistakes.
We hit the trail together by 830AM and it was nice and cool. It did take a while for us to get to the Little Kern crossing; longer than I had ever done it. but, Mike’s a big guy and a stud at 65. I kept telling myself (and Mike), “I hope I’m still doing this at 65.” After the little Kern crossing Mike needed a rest. This is where I made my first mistake. I should have emphasized (instead of just giving him the option) of finding the closest primitive camp site right there. But, Mike was hell bent on making it to the Huckaby site that day. And that next 2.2 miles in the heat was very physical for Mike. With ¾ mile to go I told Mike I was going to charge forward to make sure the Huckaby site was open and double back. Thank God it was open. Upon doubling back I offloaded a few things from Mike to make him lighter and we made it to the site after 4+ hour very physical journey for him. Finally at the site he took his shirt off to cool off. “What the hell is that sticking out of your chest?” I asked. “My defibulator.” He joked. “What?!”. He had a pacemaker and had by-passes and heart surgeries in his past. Now, I was feeling really badly for almost killing him on that hike!
Mike rested a bit and I partially set up camp. But, I was dying to fish, so I rigged up a huck-hopper dropper, walked up 100 feet to the tail out that is at the top of the site and within 5 casts hooked up with a nice 14” Kern River Rainbow that battled me all the way down to Mike. We kept that one and ate it for dinner.
My battle sent the adrenaline through Mike, causing him to rig up. He soon landed a really nice Kern River Rainbow right in front of the site.
Right after that is when Mike found the best treasure in the history of my hiking in there: Two Coors nestled nicely in the river. Since Mike doesn’t drink I got them both! How awesome is a cold Coors on a hot day on the Upper Kern?!
We continued fishing and setting up camp never wandering far from the site and we did well. We turned in early; I mean really early both because of exhaustion and because the rangers invalidated my fire permit. No fires in the golden trout wilderness on this trip. Which is a total drag because having a campfire riverside is one of the best parts of this trip. It’s a shame us responsible folks have to suffer for the ways of the ignorant.
The next day (Saturday) we fished up river for the first half of the day. We did well too. It wasn’t crazy good; I was having trouble getting fish to rise to my hopper and there were no bugs of significance in the air. But, we were catching fish regularly on nymphs. And the best part was that the river was tame enough for me to cross in a few places. That meant Mike and I could fish together, him on the “right handed side” of the river and me on the “left handed side” as we marched up river a mile and a half or so.
It was getting hot and we waded all the way up to rattlesnake creek before we determined it was too dangerous to go on. That is also where I lost a really nice big rainbow on my hopper. I hated having to turn back after that. But, I Did.
We made the mile and a half back to camp, ate and watered up a bit and fished downriver from the site for the balance of the day. Mike found a great run and really killed in it. That pleased me. We ended the fishing day by dry flying at camp as the sun went down. We kept one of Mike’s trout this time and ate it along with the backpacking food. But, without a campfire and the sun down it was in bed early again.
Sunday we did a really smart thing. We broke camp in the morning and backpacked all the way back to the Little Kern, crossed it, then followed it downriver to a site at the confluence of the North Fork (main) of the Kern and the Little Kern River I had always wanted to camp at. I knew the fishing was really good down there. This cut in half the big hike out of the canyon the next morning. But, I was still a bit worried about Mike’s hike out because it is very physical hiking out of that canyon; especially in the heat. Without setting up my tent or unpacking in any way I hit the run in front of the new site at the confluence and did really well as I worked up stream. I walked back to camp, gathered up Mike and we worked downstream and I had battle after battle with big fish. So fun.
As the sun set and we ate our dehydrated back packing food I had accomplished something I had never successfully managed before: We had eaten all the food; we wouldn’t have to carry any out. But, because of not being able to have a campfire I had to pack out all the trash. Monday morning came way too soon and I have to admit I was worried about Mike and the hike out. Without telling him the plan I had already decided I was going to plow out of that canyon as fast as I could unload my pack, and head back down empty to offload some of his stuff into my pack. I let him get a 15 minute jump on me because he was ready as I scrambled to pack up all my toys. I was very pleased when I didn’t catch him until he was about 1/3rd of the way up the mountain. That is when I unveiled my plan to him. He probably didn’t believe me. I made it to the truck in 50 minutes, emptied my backpack and headed back down.
I reached him about 2/3rds up the mountain and we offloaded some of his stuff into mine. He assured me he was fine. So I told him I’d was going to plow back up, sun shower, then have a beer while waiting for him. And that plan would have went great until as I was enjoying my beer I heard a gun shot. Mike was carrying a gun. “Damnit!” I said to myself. So without a pack and a beer in my hand I headed back down again. I didn’t have to go far before running into him, exhausted. It wasn’t his gun. He made it. What a stud. Again I hope I’m still doing it at his age. Great trip; great friend.