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The River Wild : After an Unusually Wet Winter, the Death Toll Mounts on the 'Killer Kern'


BAKERSFIELD — Don Brown learned his lesson the hard way, after paddling out into the river with his grandson in a cheap rubber canoe.

"We got about a half-mile downstream and it got wrapped around a tree, and we had to get off and head to shore," he said.

They are fortunate to be alive.

The mighty Kern River, born high in the southern Sierra and grown to a torrent raging down the canyons toward Bakersfield, isn't always so forgiving of those foolish enough to go in ill prepared.

There are those who would attest to that if they were able. Three have recently been presumed drowned, their bodies still in the river, lost in the brush or held on the rocky bottom by the river's notoriously strong currents.

When those bodies are eventually recovered--sometimes it takes weeks for bodies to surface--it will increase the summer's death toll to five. Two bodies, one of an 8-year-old boy, have been found.

"It seems every time we come up here, there's somebody in the river," said Tamara McConnell, sipping a soft drink at a riverfront campsite in the canyon.

Since 1968, according to a somewhat sobering warning sign, clearly visible to travelers entering Kern Canyon via Highway 178, south of Isabella Lake, the number who have lost their lives in the river is 178.

The sign needs updating. The body of the boy, recovered Monday, brought the total to 180. And the three missing persons will probably bring it to 183.

Since May 28, search-and-rescue crews have carried out 47 rescues on the upper and lower Kern.

The river is even more dangerous this year, experts say, because of high flows caused by the stormy winter and the melting snow that still blankets the higher reaches of the southern Sierra.

The Kern's banks are swollen to the point that bushes and even trees, high and dry in previous summers, are at least partially submerged. Their branches can be deadly, trapping and drowning swimmers.

Isabella Lake, which divides the upper and lower sections of the river, is full for the first time in years. Officials have been releasing water into the lower Kern constantly to keep it from spilling over the dam and the massive plume shooting from the base of the dam is an impressive sight.

Consequently, the lower Kern is nearly as wet and wild as the upper. In recent summers, its July flow has averaged about 1,200 cubic feet per second. Currently, it is running at 2,900 c.f.s. and has been as high as 4,000 c.f.s.

"I have a 13-year-old son and I allow him to swim in only two places on the river, and only if it's at 700 c.f.s. or below," said Donna Landry, a lifelong area resident and a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, which monitors activities on the vast Sequoia National Park, through which much of the river runs. "That's what I tell people when they ask me how safe it is. The river doesn't jump up and grab you. It takes going in."

Then it grabs you. Fierce, swirling currents and strong undertows pull people into cracks and small underwater caves.

And every time someone dies, the mighty Kern becomes the "Killer Kern."

It's a label many in this region aren't happy with, one it wouldn't have if people treated the river with the respect it deserves.

"The only reason it's called the Killer Kern is because Kern begins with a K," said Fred Roach, a fire-management officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "They wouldn't call the Stanislaus River the Killer Stanislaus or the American River the Killer American, and they claim lives, too."

Commercial rafting companies, in particular, despise the label. There are six of them headquartered in such small river towns as Kernville, Wofford Heights and Lake Isabella. They carry hundreds of passengers each week and bring in hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars every year. Rafting is far and away the most popular activity on the river.

And, despite misconceptions some people might have, rafting with a commercial company is a safe and enjoyable endeavor.

Owners and guides of all six companies point out that in the years they have been running the Kern, not one of them has lost a passenger to drowning.

"The only one I know of who died while on a rafting trip was a guy who had a heart attack on the bank during a break, and that was years-- years --ago," said Jon Harned, river manager for Outdoor Adventures, one of California's largest rafting companies.

Guides are well trained and know how to read the water for signs of danger. They require customers to wear life jackets--believed to be the key to staying alive in a river with such strong undertow--and instruct them before every outing how to get out of trouble should they fall in: to go downstream feet-first to avoid hitting their heads on rocks and to pick the proper moment to try to swim to the bank.

"If you know the trees are a danger, you stay in middle of the current until you see an open spot to get out of the river, and that's what we do and what we teach our customers to do," Harned said. "And the life jackets keep them from going under."

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