Following two deaths in the Kern River last weekend, there have been as many suspected drownings this year as there were confirmed in all of 2019, according to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
There were two Saturday, one involving a 14-year-old girl and another a man, bringing the confirmed total this year to five. Two additional people remain missing in the river, according to Gary Ananian, founder of the Kern River Conservancy. All drownings this year have taken place since early June, which isn't uncommon Ananian said.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will usually begin increasing releases from the (Lake Isabella Dam) around Memorial Day, which is why there’s the big presentation at the sign at the Kern River before Memorial Day to try and raise awareness,” Ananian said.
Despite the lethal blows the river's dealt this summer, water levels are considerably lower when compared to years past. In 2017 — which was considered an abnormally high water year by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office — at least 14 people lost their lives in the Kern River.
The river’s approximate peak this year has reached about 1,360 cubic feet per second — considered “great for aggressive first timers and experienced rafters” by California Whitewater — which pales in comparison to 2017’s peak of about 5,400 cubic feet per second.
Despite it not being a high water year, other factors have played a role in the river's increased user traffic.
“Things are different this year, with lots of places being closed and people are wanting to get out and enjoy the environment,” said Sgt. Zack Bittle, unit coordinator for the KCSO Search and Rescue Unit. “I’m sure some of the closures due to COVID-19 have had an effect on this year’s visitors, especially for people from out of town that don’t know the dangers of the river.”
Ananian said campgrounds in Keyesville are traditionally “hotspots” for drowning incidents. However, while they're closed because of COVID-19 restrictions Ananian said traffic's been driven to the river's gorge area.
The river can be deceiving because of its apparent calm surface. But its strong undercurrent is what makes it one of the fastest, steepest rivers in the country, Bittle explained. He said water travels about 156 miles from Mount Whitney and going from more than 14,000 feet in elevation down to the Central Valley creates considerable acceleration.
Bittle said he'd only recommend people going into the river with an approved rafting company.
“At the end of the day, low or high water, the river takes people from us,” Bittle said. “Even if there’s no water in the river, it’s still dangerous with the boulders and the terrain surrounding it.”
Ananian said there are many who heed, “If you can raft on the Kern River, you can raft anywhere in the world.”
The Kern County Fire Department has already successfully rescued one person from the river this year through their Search and Rescue operations, according to Public Information Officer Andrew Freeborn.
“Typically the Kern County Fire Department's role is for very swift and dynamic needs for rescue,” Freeborn said. “We are very much a critical component within Kern County to making a rescue.”
Not wearing a life jacket is a typical factor in many deaths at the hands of the river. Freeborn said there was one death in 2017 involving a person wearing a life jacket; however, it was worn improperly, he said.
Ananian explained that the Kern River Conservancy routinely provides safety messages through PSA’s and even offers free life jacket rentals in Kernville. However, he said many people don’t want to go through the hassle of making the drive to pick them up.
The river’s levels are projected to stay somewhat consistent until September, Ananian said.
Despite Bittle’s concerns with the current death rate, he's hopeful it won’t reach the levels of 2017. Regardless, he's not fond of seeing the large number of visitors currently in the local waterway.
“I don’t like seeing it,” Bittle said. “They don’t wear lifejackets and have coolers full of beer. It makes me cringe.”