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Sports Weekend | OUTDOORS

Outfitters Feel Backlash From Spate of Rafting Deaths

June 26, 1998|PETE THOMAS

Branda Snow had just completed her first trip down a river in a raft. It was exhilarating, so wet and wild that she couldn't wait to get back upstream to make another run.

During the bus ride back up the highway, the 13-year-old from Boise, Idaho, and her father went so far as to start planning their next whitewater adventure--to the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, that's a trip Snow will never make.

On her second run down a stretch of the Upper Kern River near Bakersfield, the raft she and her father were riding in ran up against a partially submerged tree and flipped. Her father and the other passengers swam safely to shore. Snow, however, disappeared. Her body was discovered two days later, pinned beneath a submerged log.

Her father, naturally, was devastated. The rafting community in the small town of Kernville was in shock. The Kern River had claimed many lives over the years, but this was the first drowning involving a commercial rafting company on the scenic waterway--and rafting companies have been running trips on the river for 24 years.

"More than 20 years had passed without this ever happening so, yes, this was pretty much a big shocker," said Glenn Cottone, 38, a guide with 18 years' experience on the Kern. "The guy . . . was pretty much devastated and off the water for quite a while."

Remarkably, it was Snow's family who helped the guide and others in the community deal with the tragedy. Snow's parents and grandparents traveled to Kernville for a riverside wake last Friday. It was attended by most of the guides and employees working for the four companies licensed to carry passengers on the Kern.

Snow's family didn't level any blame. Rather, they offered hugs and handshakes. Snow's father and mother even ran the river in honor of their daughter. They then tossed flowers into the river and said their final goodbyes.

"Instead of me comforting them, they were comforting me," said Rick Roberts, owner of Kern River Tours, the company that booked the trip for Snow and her father. "I have nothing but admiration for them."

Added Cottone, who works for Outdoor Adventures in nearby Wofford Heights: "This provided a strong sense of closure for all of us."

Not quite.

Newspapers and TV news stations around the state this past week have been calling this one of the deadliest whitewater seasons on record, citing the fact that 11 people already have died on rafting expeditions. The heavy snow that fell during the winter is being blamed. The snow is melting rapidly now, and the rivers are swifter and colder than they normally are at this time of year.

Most of that is true, of course. But buried in most of these stories was the fact that of the 11 who drowned, only Snow and a passenger running the Klamath River in Northern California were part of commercially guided trips.

It was not reported that the person who drowned on the Klamath did so after the trip, when he took off his life vest and went swimming and got caught in strong currents.

Nor was it reported that the stretch of river Snow was rafting was not a particularly wild one, despite a very swift flow.

The convenient thing about the Upper Kern is that it runs alongside a highway and can be rafted in sections, with rapids varying from Class IV-plus (for advanced rafters) to Class II (for beginners).

The section being run by Snow and her father was a Class II-III section. And Snow was allowed to run that section only after she had demonstrated good paddling skills on the Class II section.

Her death is being called a fluke by all of the outfitters in and around Kernville.

"She absolutely belonged there," said Kenny Bushling, manager of Kern River Tours. "She was a great paddler, a strong paddler, and she was having a lot of fun."

In any event, as a result of the publicity generated by Snow's death and the recent rash of drownings on other California rivers, many prospective rafters are having strong doubts. Some are canceling trips or rescheduling them for later in the summer, when the flows will be down.

Rescheduling is probably a good idea for those bringing small children, but for those who enjoy the thrill of rafting in fast water with big rapids, now is the time.

Or so say the outfitters, who feel they've been getting a bad rap by the media.

"People are thinking that if they go rafting they're going to get hurt," said Diane Strachan, a guide and spokeswoman for California Outdoors, a trade association that represents 50 outfitters in California. "What needs to be said is that this has been the best whitewater season in more than 10 years and it still is.

"What is happening is, private boaters who don't have the experience or skills necessary to raft in this kind of water are venturing into spring-flow conditions that only the professionals are used to. These are not unusual flows. What is unusual is that they are happening this late in the season when it's so warm."

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