Motorists travel up and down the Kern River Canyon next to the roaring Kern River.
Only two weekends in the past 24 years have been deadlier on the Kern River than this Memorial Day weekend.
Three people — all from Southern California — died on the river.
And search and rescue teams from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, Tulare County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Fire Department rescued more than 26 additional people from sandbars, trees and other precarious perches in the swiftly moving water.
And it’s not even June yet.
The river is exceptionally dangerous this year, search and rescue leaders say, and there is only one way to guarantee your safety.
Fifteen people died on the Kern River in 2011, the last big water year, according to a Californian analysis of Kern County Sheriff’s Office records. That was the last year in which three people died during a single weekend.
Only in 1998, when four people died in two days, and 2005 when five deaths were recorded over three days, did more people perish in the river in so short a period.
And 2017’s fatalities are coming sooner than they have in any previous year on the Kern.
The fatalities in 1998 and 2005 happened on weekends in July. And only two people had died in the river by this time in 2011.
So far 2017 has claimed five lives.
The Kern River, powered by one of the most dramatic weather seasons in recent years, is roaring.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, more than 5,000 cubic feet per second of water pounded down the river with the upper Kern surging to nearly 6,000 cfs at times.
That power, rescuers said, is deadly for swimmers, inner-tubers and other casual river users. It is even throwing challenges at the highly trained guides for commercial rafting companies in Kernville and the lower Kern, they said.
Kern County sheriff’s deputies updated the number of fatalities in the Kern River Friday morning. By Saturday it was out of date.
Sgt. Zack Bittle, search and rescue coordinator for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, said a woman and four other people visiting from the Los Angeles area went into the river near Hart Park and Lake Ming roughly 100 yards downstream from where a kayaker drowned earlier this year.
“They were on what we affectionately call a K-Mart coffin — a round raft with a mesh bottom that you buy at Costco. It became overwhelmed,” Bittle said.
All five people ended up in the water. Four made it to a safe spot and were rescued by Kern County Search and Rescue teams.
The unidentified woman — in her late 40s — didn’t come out of the river. Chief Ranger Ron Rice of Kern County Parks said his rangers helped the family during the search.
“The female didn’t know how to swim,” he said.
Hart Park was packed with people over the weekend, he said, most of them from Los Angeles and his rangers did their best to encourage people to stay safe.
Bittle said his search and rescue team was on the river at 8 a.m. on Sunday looking for the lost woman. At 9:30 it got a call that her body had been found — by her family.
It had been caught on a strainer – an area of brush and debris that can trap swimmers underwater.
Bittle said his team was maybe 10 minutes away from finding the woman itself and he wished it could have been there quicker.
“We don’t want the family to have to see their family member in that condition,” he said.
Jose Sequic, 43, of Sylmar also died on the Kern River last weekend.
Sequic entered the lower Kern at the Keyesville boat launch in a private raft at around 4 p.m. Sunday. The raft overturned and witnesses saw him struggle to swim to safety before he went under water and didn’t come up, according to a Kern County coroner’s report.
His body was found one mile downstream at 10:25 a.m. Monday.
Saturday proved deadly for third rafter, too.
Shane Ornelas, 44, was on a Sierra South rafting trip in the Class IV Cable rapids in Tulare County when he fell out of the inflatable raft.
“There was a kayak that was trailing and got the victim back in the boat very quickly,” said Lt. Kevin Kemmerling of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.
But Ornelas had a cardiac event and became unresponsive.
When a person is dropped into ice cold water, there is an involuntary instinct to gasp for air and — in some cases — get only water, Kemmerling said.
Ornelas was a big man and the shock and fear of a life-threatening dunk in a cold river can sometimes trigger physical problems.
The Kern County coroner’s office said Ornelas’ death was caused by his hypertrophic heart disease, a condition in which the muscles of the heart are enlarged and can reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood.
Sierra South owner Tom Moore said he is proud of his river guides and the reaction they had to the crisis. The raft had just been on the water for a minute when Ornelas fell out.
A company kayak, trailing the rafts as a safety precaution, collected Ornelas and got him back to his raft.
Rafters pulled him back in the raft. And then he collapsed, Moore said.
His guides started chest compressions on the man in the raft as the raft rushed to shore at Camp 3 and then they spent 15 more minutes trying to revive him before sheriff’s units arrived.
An ambulance showed up 15 minutes later and took Ornelas to the Kern Valley Health Care District hospital where he was declared dead.
Moore said his guides were heart-broken and wondered what they could have done to prevent the loss. He said he counseled them for an hour on Sunday morning and told them they handled the situation perfectly.
The river is big this year, he said, and there are going to be people who fall out of rafts even on commercial trips.
Kemmerling said, in addition to Ornelas, his teams were called to respond to reports of 17 people who fell in the river and needed rescue.
All but one of them – a swimmer they pulled off a tree in the middle of the river – were from commercial rafting companies.
He’s never seen anything like it in the 15 years he’s been assigned to Search and Rescue because the commercial rafting company guides are, he said, “just the best at what they do.”
Moore said the commercial rafting companies were a big part of getting those that fell into the river out alive and was confident that the adventures he offers are extremely safe even in high water years like this one.
“Since we’ve been commercially rafting on the Kern, we have estimated that we have taken 2 million people down the river,” he said.
Only two have drowned, Moore said, though one other person and now Ornelas died of cardiac incidents.
“I think you risk more driving up the canyon than going on a rafting trip,” he said.
But risk is part of the appeal of the recreation.
“We cannot guarantee safety, otherwise the thrill factor wouldn’t be there,” Moore said.
If people are worried about the danger, he said, there is an easy solution.
Rafting will continue through the summer and into September, he said. And the river will begin to flow more slowly after a few weeks or a month.
All people have to do is wait.