‘Did you see that?’
IN the 106-degree heat of August, Deva DeLisio plants his feet down on the crest of a slab of granite partially submerged in the main fork of the Kaweah River. Water rushing over the rock looks like a wide, short waterfall tilted at a 45-degree angle. The 16-year-old stands, his long, shaggy brown hair crowning his skinny, deeply tanned frame. The pounding of water into the pool beneath creates an intense, almost visceral, sound.
Standing on dry rock about 20 feet away, Deva’s eyes focus on the giant rock locals have named Slicky. He takes off full throttle toward the cascade. Once his feet hit the ankle-deep water, he takes short steps that maintain his momentum and allow him to keep his balance. Water flies all around him, and, after about 10 feet, he begins to slide.
He speeds up as water pulls him down a channel in the rock, bends his legs and absorbs bumps like a mogul skier. A spray of water precedes him as he sticks the landing 20 feet below where he started -- still upright and mostly dry. This is “surfing” Slicky.
A river culture
For those growing up in Three Rivers (population: less than 3,000), a town that survives largely on tourists passing through on their way to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks just a few miles east, options for summer activities are limited. With movie theaters, shopping malls and skate parks 35 miles away in Visalia, the nearest city, generations of Three Rivers youth have turned to the river.
Deva is one of the latest batch of kids to dedicate his summer to surfing Slicky. Over the years, these rock surfers have been able to refine their craft, running, jumping, sliding and spraying over the slick surface of the rock with remarkable strength and grace. Almost daily someone from the San Joaquin Valley, hypnotized by what he sees, decides to give it a shot only to return with a bruised ego and rear.
No one seems to know when the practice started. Chances are, Slicky -- the product of thousands of years of water and sand flowing over a massive hunk of granite until rails and bowls and peaks and ledges were formed -- began as a water slide. Then sliding while sitting down got boring. Someone decided to stand and it was discovered that, with a little lateral speed and a good line, you could land upright at the bottom.
For decades, locals have been riding this rock with a common goal: They were all kids who would be king. King of Slicky.
Over the years, this river culture has made other discoveries: cliffs to jump from, natural waterslides, underwater rock tunnels, rapids to shoot and air pockets behind waterfalls. But Slicky has always been the big attraction, a spot where children -- fueled by small-town boredom and big heat -- were able to recognize the rock’s potential, embrace it and elevate it to artistry.
A natural playground
Bored teens with time on their hands find a way to take nature’s raw material and turn it into a playground. As with any endeavor, it’s a work in progress -- with those who naturally excel pushing the boundaries.
“We weren’t as adept at surfing as they are today,” says Donnie Stivers, 58, owner of a construction and surveying company who played on the rock in the 1950s. “We would do things like go down it and see who could stand up the longest without falling. But now the kids are doing all kinds of fancy things we never dreamed of.”
It’s called surfing, but aside from the stance, it has nothing to do with ocean surfing: There are no boards, no wax, no leashes. Instead it’s a stripped-down, bare-bones venture that involves only rock and water. While tricks and highflying maneuvers are nice, smooth-flowing style is what counts; the moves are only as good as the grace with which they are executed.
Aside from the fewer than 30 locals who ride it, Slicky also serves as summer’s hangout for those who don’t. “I can’t keep people off Slicky. Nobody can keep people off,” says Gary Cort, a 63-year-old architect who bought the property adjacent to Slicky in an attempt to preserve the land and the river, or as he puts it, “to keep it from becoming a parking lot.” "[I try to] open it up to good people or make good people out of the people that come.”
A few years ago, Cort and some buddies were cited for trespassing and became known locally as the Slicky 4. He contested the charge and it was eventually thrown out. In buying the land, Cort’s vision was not to keep people out but to foster a less-restrictive vibe. This and his frequent appearances at the rock have earned him the nickname Godfather of Slicky.
This summer the river was exceptionally high, the result of a healthy snowpack in the high country and mild temperatures in the early season. This was good for rafting companies that work the river, but the big water kept Deva and his friends off Slicky until early August; in most seasons, kids are on the rock from late June to early September.
The summer also was unorthodox for Deva, who spent six weeks in summer school and worked odd jobs. In previous years, with few responsibilities, he spent almost every day at Slicky perfecting his moves. Now, like most of his friends who work, he still squeezes in as much time as he can at the river.
On this day, less than an hour after he arrived, Deva’s chin begins to bleed. During a routine slide on the lower half of the rock, his feet came out from under him, and the first thing to hit rock was his chin.
“Did you see that?” he says in a nervous chatter to a friend who’s too far away to hear.
“Dude,” Deva says louder, in earnest. “How bad is it?”
He scoops up water to wash the blood away. Mike Mestaz inspects the half-inch cut on the ridge of Deva’s chin. “I don’t know, man. It looks pretty bad. You might need stitches.”
An hour after visiting a doctor who glued the cut together instead of stitching it, Deva’s back on the rock. He says this wound is relatively minor compared with other injuries he received on the slab: He chipped his teeth on the rock on two separate occasions, one which resulted in his front teeth being filed down. Two years ago, a friend tore ligaments in his upper leg and had to be carried off the river. He was off Slicky for the rest of the season.
Around 3 p.m., the scene is buzzing. A number of people have begun to filter over to the rock where girls in bikinis are sunning themselves and guys are standing around laughing and talking.
Mike, 20, is riding a little bowl above Texas, a small hump in the middle of Slicky, his feet sending curtains of water over the side. Sometimes he falls and washes down into the pool below. But each time he makes it, he rounds his turn and slides down into the pocket. In seconds, after a few measured steps, he’s back at the top and runs across Texas and then drops into a ledge that sends another gouge of water out over the flow.
As he does this, Devon Ehrlichman, 18, runs from the middle of the rock, slides on the Rail, jumps over Texas -- clearing the hump by at least a foot -- and then lands crouched in the pocket. Hoots emerge from spectators.
Sessions can last hours, fueled by competitive spirit, with each person trying to outdo the other. There are numerous moves the sliders can choose to make their way to the pocket.
Texas, Cross Country, the Rail, Upper Bowl, Butt Breaker -- all are difficult. But this is also a training session. Each successful maneuver and fall is noted; new moves are attempted; bruises are earned; blood is drawn; teeth are chipped -- the evolution of rock surfing continues.
Around 6, the sun dips behind a mountain that casts a shadow on parts of the valley, including the main fork of the Kaweah and Slicky. It is still an hour before the temperature will fall below triple digits. After a late lunch at a nearby restaurant, Deva and Devon are spread out, leaning back above Slicky watching the water roll down the rock, glassy and smooth. There are still quite a few people scattered up and down the river.
“I can’t believe I [have to] start school,” Deva says with a short chuckle and wag of the head. “It’s not fair. It just got good.”