I love the Kern River.

I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see water in the river channel again.

But make no mistake, that water is barreling.

It’s also freezing cold and hiding a lot of debris washed down after years of bone-dry drought.

All of which demands extreme caution.

After three people died in the river over Memorial Day weekend, some in the community are asking if we shouldn’t force that caution on people by closing the Kern to recreation as has been done on the Kings and Tule rivers and will soon be done on the Merced River.

No, was Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s short answer.

“You can’t regulate stupidity,” he said in his typical, soft-spoken way (not).

He has no way to enforce a shutdown, he said. And he doesn’t believe he has the authority to do it anyway.

County Counsel Mark Nations agreed.

“I don't see anything in the ordinance code that would grant the sheriff or anyone else authority to close the Kern River to recreation and have not heard of any local provision that grants such authority,” Nations wrote in an email.

Tulare County has a special ordinance allowing the sheriff to close its rivers.

The Kings County Board of Supervisors issued a special proclamation giving its sheriff that authority.

Meanwhile, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims relied on a combination of a penal code giving law enforcement authority to keep people away from areas that pose a menace and a county ordinance that says authorities can restrict swimming areas in county waters.

Either way, it is currently illegal to swim, boat, raft or even wade in the north, south and middle fork of the Tule River above Springville from about Coffee Camp on up.

And it’s illegal to get into the Kings River from Pine Flat Dam in Fresno all the way through Tulare and Kings counties. (The Kings is so high you can't even get a boat under the bridge at Highway 99.)

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke will be asking his county’s Board of Supervisors to give him authority to shut down the Merced River as well.

Each sheriff’s office told me it will be putting up signs, getting the word out, and patrolling by boat and from shore.

In Fresno County, it’ll cost you $225 if you’re caught frolicking in the Kings River.

But that’s not the point.

“It’s about safety,” said Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. “We got into week three (of warmer weather) and we had five drownings in three weeks.”

He said the county, with help from the Forest Service, is warning people about the dangers.

“The object isn’t to arrest people, or cite them,” he said.

It’s about protecting lives, including those of his own people who put themselves at risk with every rescue.

On Thursday, Boudreaux had to send a team into the Kings River after some teenage boys were heard screaming for help when they got stuck south of Kingsburg.

The boys were delivered to their parents with a warning, no citation, and Boudreaux hopes they learned a lesson.

“People misjudge the water. It is dangerous.

Though he feels Tulare County has done the right thing closing two of its rivers, he understood Youngblood’s hesitance to close the Kern.

The Kern is an exceedingly difficult river to police and “a lot of livelihoods rely on it.”

In fact, Boudreaux didn’t close the Kaweah River above Lake Kaweah, a whitewater rafting mecca like the Kern, though that river had two drownings this year.

He said he’s working with the community of Three Rivers and the Forest Service to get the word out to be extremely careful.

And Boudreaux hasn’t closed Tulare’s portion of the upper Kern, either.

In fact, Tulare County deputies went out on 22 rescues on their portion of the Kern this past Memorial Day.

Kern County Search and Rescue personnel were busy with 24 rescues, including helping recover bodies in two of the three drownings.

(By the way, Search and Rescue is a tough, often emotionally difficult, job. And while anyone involved deserves thanks, I think it’s important to note that Kern’s Search and Rescue folks are all volunteers.)

Supervisor Mick Gleason agreed with Youngblood that closing the Kern would be unenforceable, but he was open to the idea of possibly adding signs in popular swimming spots warning people of the river’s dangers.

"I'll give that some thought," he said to my suggestion.

Youngblood, though, was bluntly negative.

“Look at the river,” he said, exasperated. “It’s moving 20 miles an hour. There’s your sign. Don’t get in it.”


Anyhow, as far as closing the Kern, I think Youngblood is right.

With all the nooks and crannies and points of access, patrolling would be impossible. Not to mention it runs through three counties and several jurisdictions including federal, county and the City of Bakersfield. Who would be in charge?

But I also think the other sheriffs are right in closing their rivers. They have established authority and jurisdictions worked out.

So the question of closure, really, all depends on the river.

Meanwhile, Boudreaux reminded anyone interested in jumping into the Kern that it has a long, well-deserved reputation as a “mean piece of water.”

“Hey, Merle wrote the song,” he said.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 661-395-7373 or lhenry@bakersfield.com. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.


(8) comments


Please CLOSE Kern river [ban] how much more missing people? How much more lives do we need to loose? Thursday 22, of June. at 5p.m. Michael Ramirez went missing. They cannot find him its been 2 days..no trace. Friday the 23rd of June, a person died in river, i hear 6 total missing, 5 bodies, 1 missing.. all seperate times. [ban]


Unenforceable translation......I dont want to be bothered. You dont see every red light runner get a ticket. Does that mean there shouldn't be traffic lights? Just making it illegal might save lives if you NEVER cite someone. At the very least, put up some signs. People are drowning near Hart park, a sign at the mouth of the canyon is hard to read from there. Its not some precedent or big expense. If there are shark sightings on the beach, there are signs. There's a difference between stupidity and ignorance. If there are no warnings, ignorance. If the sign says...there is a good chance you can die in this river.....stupidity.


Closing the Kern between the defined points to all but professional river guides would be a message to stay out despite the fact the sheriff can't patrol and comprehensively enforce such a ban.


It is an inaccurate belief that most people who drown are either from out of town or not English speakers. The statistics kept by KCSO's Search and Rescue are actually about 50% locals and 50% out of town and are comprised of every ethnic background. The toll these rescues and recoveries take on our SAR members is very real, but if they didn't do it, who would? Who is going to spend hours, weeks, months, even YEARS looking for the lost? Our local SAR members are involved with families at the very worst point in a family's life, when their loved one either dies or is missing and yet they do it for FREE and they would do it for every member of this community, without reservation or hesitation. It absolutely is a thankless job but if they can give a family closure, it makes their sacrifices worth it.


Lois, first your against our fireworks now your against swimming and tubbing in the river. I bet your a real wet blanket wherever you hang out. When he sheriff with little man syndrome said "you can't regulate stupidly" didn't ever cross your mind he was taking a shot at you as well. Ive noticed no names posted on drowning victims. My experience from years of this is non English speakers from L.A. Are the ones being lost. New York and California try to nanny the people too much and people like you are the culprits of it. Enough is enough let us be.

Muhammad Fatwa al Jihad

Fireworks foul the air, scare our animals, and have burned houses to the ground. She gets a plus 1 on that. The river is a different creature altogether.


At the very least, and with minimum costs, there should be signs posted at Hart Park and the campgrounds for those out of towners who constitute the majority of victims. These people come up from L.A. and are not used to the heat and the river looks so inviting. Those signs should be harsh and to the point. If you let your family in this river, you are a fool.

Muhammad Fatwa al Jihad

Lois, you probably have been around long enough to remember when George Nickel thought he owned not only both riverbanks, but the water of the Krrn River as well. He had his security posted along the river as well as Cottonwood Creek to enforce his pride of ownership. Finally he was challenged in court and here is what the result was: " The rights of the people to access a navigable river shall not be infringed upon". That's as close as I can recall.
The 2nd amendment is held sacred by many. Gun deaths are reported weekly in this paper. Guns and people kill people. The river has a different kind of soul. It gives life to the Valley.if it calls to a few people as sacrifices, something we know from Aztec history, perhaps we should let it be.

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