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Kern River--'It Invites, It Entices and Then It Kills' : Hazards: Swift current runs through pools in state's deadliest river. Heavy runoff this year heightens danger.

August 02, 1993|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — Far from its headwaters in the High Sierra, the Kern River packs a vicious punch, thundering over huge granite boulders as it cuts a deep, narrow cleft through the mountains above here.

It is in the quiet pools between the roaring rapids where the Kern earns its reputation as the deadliest river in California. It is there, where the river takes a short breather, that the Kern most deceives.

"It invites. It entices," said Kern County Sheriff's Deputy Marty Williamson. "And then it kills."

The big highway sign along the steep river canyon is hard to miss: "Don't Swim! 171 lives lost since 1968." This spring and summer, with the melting of the first heavy Sierra snowpack in six years, Williamson's search and rescue team has pulled five more bodies from the river--all Los Angeles-area residents.

Many of the dead are like 17-year-old Wilson Chavez, a Central American immigrant who drove the two hours from Los Angeles to sun and swim. Chavez disappeared on Father's Day while cooling off with friends in a particularly treacherous pool. On a recent Saturday, nearly a dozen family members combed the rugged bank in search of him, their fourth attempt in two weeks.

"I feel maybe Wilson is somewhere alive because he grew up next to a river in Guatemala," said his mother, Amparo Chavez, as the search began. "But it wasn't like this river. This river gives no hope."

The mother did not know that the day before, her son's good friend, Jose Cruz, had also disappeared a few miles up the river and was presumed drowned.

From Kern County in the south to Plumas County in the north, search and rescue crews are seeing their worst fears realized this summer. Swimmers, tubers, fishermen, kayakers and canoeists--accustomed to six years of drought and giddy over the high waters--are entering swollen rivers with their guards down, like Wilson Chavez apparently did in the wild Lower Kern.

So far, 37 drownings have been reported since May in rivers and streams in 11 counties bordered by the Sierra Nevada. The number is thought to be higher than in typical years, and much of the heavy recreation season still remains.

"This is the highest water we've had in 10 years," said El Dorado County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Weaver.

He had just seen some children playing in eddies of the American River. "I mean one step out in that current and they're gone," he said. "It would throw them 50 feet in seconds. I'm afraid it's going to be a long, long summer."

No river west of the Mississippi matches the Lower Kern for steepness. Narrow and relatively shallow, the Kern descends 75 feet in the course of a mile in some stretches. Professional rafters consider a 60-foot-per-mile drop steep. The toll of 176 dead over the past 25 years does not include a run of the Upper Kern in Tulare County where scores of others have drowned.

Here in the canyon of the Lower Kern, where the river measures only 30 yards bank to bank, the Kern was rushing at this year's peak runoff when Wilson Chavez disappeared. Three friends accompanying him that day told his parents that Chavez was swimming from shore to a big rock in the middle of a pool that appeared calm on its surface but was swirling just below. "The water just took him," the friends said.

Rescue teams conducted two massive searches by raft and helicopter in the first week, with no sign of the body. The family took this as good news.

Guillermo Chavez hoped his son's familiarity with the water--the boy grew up swimming the Amatitlan River in Guatemala before coming to America in 1986--had somehow allowed him to survive.

Then, the 42-year-old janitor came face to face with the Kern for the first time. "It is a horrible river," he said.

In the days that followed his son's disappearance, Chavez returned to the river three more times. He could not wait for the water to retreat or for the body to free itself, he said. He had to know one way or the other the fate of his only son.

On this morning, he pushed his short, powerful body along the bank, through the thick tangle of cottonwood and sycamore. He had scoured the same patch of river each previous visit without a clue. Lagging behind were the youth's mother, his girlfriend and eight relatives who had packed a van early that morning with food, drinks, a jar of holy water and a bouquet of flowers.

"We come in the morning and leave in the evening and go to sleep with nothing," said the girlfriend, Norma Amezcua, 16, who met Chavez at Virgil Junior High School in Los Angeles and gave birth to their son two years later. "I don't feel like he's in here. I feel like he's alive somewhere."

The boy's mother wanted to believe, too. But her questions sounded more like prayers. "Maybe my son hit his head on one of those rocks and has lost his memory?" she said. "Maybe he is out there wandering around?"

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