Don Paul Josephsen didn’t mean to go swimming in the Kern River Monday afternoon.

He just wanted to cool off.

He parked his black Mercedes and went into the river with a beverage cooler at a small beach on the river just east of the Kern River Golf Course.

Then he tried to work his way around thick brush on the river’s edge to get to another spot.

But the cooler got caught in the current and it pulled him off his feet.

The next thing Josephsen knew, he said, he was scrambling his way onto a precarious perch — half submerged — in a tangle of shrubs and bushes.

The cooler was gone.

He spent two hours there, he said.

“I actually thought, ‘I’m going to die today,’” Josephsen said.

But he didn’t die.

Just after 2 p.m. he was able to catch the attention of the last in a line of five commercial rafts from Rivers End Rafting.

Guides Ben Juarez and Jon Kephart dropped off their passengers at the end of their run and made their way back up river carrying an inflatable kayak.

They made it to Josephsen and pulled him out of the five-feet deep pile of branches and shrubs he was trapped in, the water up to his chest.

Juarez said Josephsen’s feet were trapped deep in the sand and he was pretty hard to see in the bushes — and hard to pull out.

But they got to him and wrenched him free.

“This is the sixth we’ve pulled from the river this year,” Juarez said.

“No. He’s seven,” Kephart corrected.

Josephsen was safe by the time Kern County Sheriff’s Sgt. Zachary Bittle made it on scene.

Bittle asked him if he’d seen the news stories about the deaths on the river this year, the power of the flows and the danger of swimming.

“I know the river,” Josephsen said. “I’m a strong swimmer.”

“Michael Phelps couldn’t swim out of this,” Bittle told him, then eased his tone. “You’re not in trouble. I’m just glad you’re safe.”

Dripping, scratched and cold, Josephsen thanked Juarez and Kephart and shook their hands before they headed back to their raft and their customers waiting in buses.

Then he plodded back to his car.

His electronic key pad — in his pocket the whole time — still worked.

Josephsen got out of the river safe.

But Bittle was able to rush to the scene so quickly because he hadn’t been far — at Hart Park, preparing to look for one of four people still missing in the cold, strong, fast-moving river.

Kim “Lapp” Phov, 36, of Long Beach went rafting in the Kern River near Hart Park over the weekend and disappeared.

She joins Juan Torrez, 34, of Bakersfield who went missing from Lake Ming campground on June 3. They’re the two who are missing from the Bakersfield area of the river.

Guadencio Perez and Mando Kaphan are missing from spots to the east, up in the Kern River Canyon.

Eight people have died on the Kern River this year, including one man who died in the Tulare County part of the Kern after he fell into the water from a commercial raft, was rescued and then collapsed.

If the four missing persons are added to that tally, something most river experts say is likely, that will bring the number of dead so far in 2017 to 12.

That’s on pace to match — if not exceed — the number of deaths on the entire Kern River from Johnsondale Bridge to Bakersfield in 2011, the last year with a significant number of drownings.

But, if you count only the 11 Kern County deaths and missing persons this year, 2017 quickly leaps out to a deadly lead.

In 2011, Kern County portions of the river saw nine drownings, a number likely to be easily surpassed this year. Don Paul Josephsen is happy he won’t be among them.

James Burger can be reached at 661‑395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @KernQuirks.

(3) comments


We don't have the manpower to enforce a stay out rule, you know, a park ranger, but we can send helicopters and rescue units to clean up the aftermath. Typical Kern County government thinking.

Nikki Stuart

On a better note, I am so happy this man survived and help was there to assure that. Kudos to everyone who help rescue the many who are falling victim to our river this year. This story shows how easy it is to get trapped helpless in no time.

Nikki Stuart

The man who fell from the raft initially fell out of the commercial raft because he was having a heart attack. He did not drown. Not that that helps the numbers but he was not a drowning. He unfortunately had a medical issue and it presented itself while whitewater rafting with a professional company. I am simply stating this because I live here and there is enough tragedy without adding to it with inaccuracies.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.