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Sun Valley Kayaker to Showcase Trip Through America’s Ultimate Whitewater
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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Andrew Dunning has wanted to kayak the Middle Fork Kings River, considered the hardest whitewater run in the United States, since he was a youth.

When he finally got his chance, he had to weigh the risk of 70-mile-per-hour winds in the wake of a hurricane, torrential rains that raised the river level 10 times and avalanches and mudslides that changed the riverbed and dumped trees into the rapids he’d be running.

Dunning elected to run it. And on Friday Dunning will show a 13-minute film that he shot with his GoPro and iPhone at the Homegrown Film Festival, which showcases short films of local athletes shot by local filmmakers.

Shows start at 5:15 and 8:15 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, at The Argyros in Ketchum. Tickets are on sale at https://theargyros.org and www.homegrownfilms.org, with proceeds benefitting the Friends of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center.

The 37.2-mile Middle Fork Kings River is considered the ultimate technical whitewater challenge in the United States, thanks to its 8,000-foot vertical drop. Located in California’s Kings Canyon National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada, it’s wild and unspoiled with no paved roads.

It boasts Class V and V+ rapids (the Middle Fork of the Salmon River’s rapids are II and IV). And the last day of the trip, considered the hardest, sports continuous rapids through boulders the size of Volkswagens.

The first descent was made in the 1990s, Dunning said, and no one ran it again until the year 2000.

“It’s a super demanding difficult river, and I’ve been talking about doing it for a decade, said Dunning, a Sun Valley caterer. “I tried to put other trips together, but it never worked. There’s only a few weeks of the year in certain years that it’s runnable, and you have to be in California or be willing to drive to California.”

Dunning had hoped to include a kayaker who had kayaked the river before in his expedition. When that failed, he put together a team that included Drew Barrere, an East Coast kayaker, and Sage Donnelly, a 23-year-old canoe freestyle world champion from Boise.

“She was paddling whitewater with her parents, who live in Garden Valley, by the time she was 4. She’s had an incredible career as a slalom kayaker—she’s on the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team and competed in World Cup events. She’s definitely one of the top female paddlers in the world and is just started getting into adventure and expedition kayaking,” said Dunning, whose uncle Chris Spelius competed in kayak in the 1984 Olympics.

Dunning watched the water levels in the Kings River fastidiously, trying to estimate when the perfect window of opportunity would be given California’s huge snowpack. Ten days before they went to put on, an August hurricane--practically unheard of in California—hit.

It spiked the river level 10 times the runnable level, creating a flood and “an insane amount of avalanches and landslides, that changed the river bed and knocked trees into the river, said Dunning.

“No one knew what to expect. Running this river is a mental and physical challenge in the best of times. Not only do you have a lot of ground to cover, but it’s the most continuous river you can imagine,” he said. “It has so many blind corners and huge rapids that you can’t get away without scouting so we ended up with some very long days—we spent from sunrise to sunset every single moment actively working downstream. We never had a second to rest.”

There was no easy way in. Dunning and his companions had to hike 14 miles up and over the 12,000-foot Bishop Pass. Dunning carried a hundred pounds of gear, including his 55-pound, kayak, five days of food and safety, camping and paddle gear.

“Kayaks are not easy to carry—they’re very awkward and heavy, and there’s no ultralight version,” he said.

The task was made worse by 70-mile-per-hour winds. Hikers and climbers warned them that they would not make it over the pass with or without the kayaks on their back. “You can hardly stand up in this wind,” they said.

“We were nervous about it because we had been blown over several times while still on the valley floor, and we were approaching switchbacks where we would be exposed,” Dunning recounted. “We didn’t want to get blown off a cliff.”

A solo mountaineer with a lot of climbing experience reassured them.

“I know everybody’s telling you guys not to do it, but I think you guys can make it,” he told them. “When you get to the exposed sections, take your kayaks off and help one another carry them.”

The trio put on the next day, exhausted from their long hike. But the second night wind brought in a ferocious rainstorm. They huddled together under a shelter but still got soaked and so had to spend a few precious hours drying their gear so they wouldn’t freeze on the river.

“Our spirits were high, but now the water levels were a lot higher because of the rain,” Dunning recounted. “Too high and the river is totally unrunnable. Too low and it’s unrunnable because it’s so steep and rocky. We had 30 percent more water than we wanted—it was really a little too high to be a comfortable level.”

The group was on edge as they moved downriver, scouring the water ahead of them for strainers—trees and other obstacles that could trap them.

“We were so stressed. We were thinking: This isn’t really fun—we’re just trying to survive. But we survived,” said Dunning.

Dunning is excited to show footage of his adventure at Friday’s film fest.

“It’ll probably scare people away from kayaking,” he said, “But it shares the struggle—why a misadventure almost becomes the best type of adventure.”

Dunning said he doesn’t know if anyone’s ever made a real film of kayaking that river.

“I did my best to film as much as I could, even though we were having big, hard, long days,” he said. “The cinematography is very raw, but the story of our journey has a lot of human spirit.”

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