Water Whiplash: Reliving history while kayaking through the San Joaquin Valley
This year’s record-breaking snowpack didn’t just refill Tulare Lake; it revived a waterway that long ago connected the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area.
That winding corridor called to freelance journalist Brendan Borrell. In late May, he and a photographer hopped in pedal-powered kayaks and trekked the 225 miles from Tulare Lake to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta via the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers.
As a preview to his feature story that’s slated to run in Outside Magazine in spring 2024, Borrell spoke with KVPR’s Kerry Klein about his illuminating 10-day journey.
Listen to the interview in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.
BRENDAN BORRELL: Well, like everybody else in California, we had experienced this incredibly wet winter. Here in my home in Los Angeles I was mopping up mud off the floor, patching holes in my siding of my house, and seeing how all this rain and snow was affecting communities in the Valley and in the mountains. And then I just started thinking about all these incredible rivers of the valley, the San Joaquin and the Kings River, that have long since been sort of siphoned away and used for agriculture. And I realized, wow, this is a chance to sort of take these historic routes and try to connect them together to have an epic journey and learn about the history and the ecology of the Central Valley.
KERRY KLEIN: So you live in Los Angeles right now. You tell me you're from Texas and you've never lived in this part of California in the Central Valley. So, how did you prepare for a trip like this?
BORRELL: Well, I tried calling experts and locals for advice. I mean probably the first people I called were Bill Cooper and John Sweetser of Bakersfield, who had completed a kayak trip kind of like this 40 years ago during the last time Tulare Lake and the region flooded to such an extent. I was fascinated by what the Valley was like before, you know, Western settlers arrived and started transforming the landscape. And one of the books that I picked up was Indian Summer, which was by this guy Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, who was essentially raised by the local indigenous people there, the Yokuts people, who would take him hunting and fishing on Tulare Lake. And I was just fascinated by his descriptions of incredible fields of wildflowers and these huge trees and all the wildlife that he saw on his journeys.
KLEIN: So Tulare Lake is fully closed to recreation, pretty much every way onto the lake is marked by just dozens of science that say “Road closed, do not enter.” How did you manage all of that?
BORRELL: Yeah, well there are “road closed” signs, but I mean, you know plenty of people are going out to the edge of the lake to take their TikTok videos or selfies. And even during our scouting trip, we went out and talked to a member of the Kings County Sheriff (sic) who was there taking a picture of himself and chatted with us. So I don't think the rules were very strict. And I think one misunderstanding is, the lake is a federally navigable body of water, even if the land underneath it or parts of it or private property.
KLEIN: And then of course along your trek, you encountered a number of obstacles. I read in a San Francisco Chronicle article about your trip that you had some dangerous encounters along the way. Talk about those.
BORRELL: Well, yeah. No adventure is really an adventure unless you feel like you nearly met your end. And starting off, the first thing that happened was, my boat had a leak in it. So for the first several days, I was constantly having to drain it. We eventually patched that up and then the other thing that happened was, we were paddling upstream on Memorial Day weekend, we were hearing some gunshots, and then another shot rang out and there's a splash like right next to me. And I realized the guy doing target practice was just on the other side of the bank.
BORRELL: So that was that was a little bit intense.
KLEIN: And so you took this trip in late May and early June. So you're just a couple weeks out from this trip. How do you how do you look back on it? How do you reflect on this experience?
BORRELL: Yeah, I think I have kind of a new appreciation for the last sort of remaining beauty of the Valley and the importance of these rivers. You know, I've told some of my friends and other people that I know, hey, you don't have to go 200 miles down the San Joaquin River to appreciate it. There are shorter sections of the river that are accessible. And I think they're really neat. You know, many of these rivers we've built all the way up to the edge. I mean, they're basically straight jacketed and so much water is being taken from them that many sections of them run dry for part of the year. And I think in the future, what I'm hoping and many people are hoping is that there's more restoration of the floodplain and a wider buffer, because it doesn't make sense to be planting your almond trees right inside a floodplain. We did see flooded, dead almond trees all over the place, and that's just not a smart way to build or to protect such an important resource. And I think for the people who live in the Valley as well, the river is a place you go to on your days off. I think we need natural beauty in our lives and I'm hoping that this is just the beginning of a larger transformation of the river.
KLEIN: Yes, absolutely. Well, Brendan Borrell is a freelance reporter and a correspondent for Outside Magazine Brendan, thank you so much for talking with me. This was such an interesting conversation.
BORRELL: Thanks for having me.