The Kern County Sheriff's Search and Rescue unit risked the swift, treacherous Kern River on Saturday looking for a rafter last seen a week ago just east of Hart Park, but the hours-long effort on an unusually warm spring day yielded nothing but weary searchers by late afternoon.
At about 8 a.m., a force of nearly 20 fanned out along the banks of the Kern, with several manning four boats, in the search for Lawrence Holguin of Bakersfield, who was rafting with a friend on April 15 when his craft overturned.
"Everybody is safe and the equipment is out of the water and concluded for the day," said Sgt. Steve Williams at 4 p.m. The search started just east of Hart Park and wound its way downriver about 21/2 miles.
"Let me remind the public: It's dangerous for us to do these searches and if it's dangerous for us, they should really consider it dangerous for themselves."
To underscore his point, Williams reported that a training maneuver Saturday on the river above Lake Ming went awry.
"One of our boats got pinned against a tree and overturned and put some of our rescuers in the water," he said. "It's an opportunity for us to practice some of our skills and a reminder that our volunteers put themselves on the line."
As for the search for Holguin, Williams said he isn't certain when it will resume, but probably by midweek when enough volunteers will be available. The search was ramped into high gear Saturday because of the grim timing: a decomposing body usually rises to the surface.
But it's difficult to find bodies when the river is so high, said Sgt. Dhana Nikkel, part of the search effort Saturday.
"There are a lot of whirlpools and other stuff and because of the rain, a lot of trees have grown that people can get hung up on."
Bodies eventually make their way downriver.
"With the volume of water and the way it's moving, no telling how far it could make it, maybe past Gordon's Ferry even," Williams said. "As long as Mr. Holguin is still missing, we'll continue looking."
Holguin was rafting on his own, not with a whitewater rafting outfit.
"If you go with a professional company, it's safe," Williams said. "They're well-versed in how to handle conditions and there are safety measures in place. However, to do so on your own is a different story."
Both Williams and Nikkel said Holguin is at least the Kern's third drowning victim this calendar year.
"If the current trend is any indication, this could be a very bad year," Williams said.