They got the call just before 1 p.m. from a campground along the north side of the Kern River off Keyesville Road, just downstream from the Isabella Lake dam.

“Some of her siblings and cousins were visiting the river this weekend with their grandparents,” said Sgt. Steven C. Williams of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

The river was flowing at 1,400 cubic feet per second — far lower than the more than 5,000 cfs being released from the dam in June and July. But it was far from tame, knifing through a chute of granite before widening and spreading out near the campsites.

“Mya and Grandpa, they waded out through a slower-moving channel to an island in the middle of the river,” Williams said.

The island was covered in rocks and trees, he said, and Mya’s grandfather found a spot in the shade under a tree. Mya played in the shallows not far from the river’s rushing main current.

“She lost her footing,” Williams said. “Grandpa heard her scream.”

He jumped in.

He struggled to Mya. Reached for her. Touched her.

"Then the river pulled him under and tossed him around and slammed him against some rocks,” Williams said. “When he came back up Mya was gone.”


Labor Day weekend is a farewell. School has started again, families cobble together one last vacation from the holiday.

“We consider it the last big weekend for us," Williams said. "At this time of the year, the number of people in the campgrounds tends to go down."

This year it was tragic.

Williams works Search and Rescue and, with the host of volunteers who staff the sheriff’s unit, has spent the last four months responding to more than 200 rescue and missing persons calls.

Thirteen died. One is still missing.

And then, on Sept. 1, there was Mya.


One of the first sheriff’s deputies who arrived at the Keyesville campground immediately headed downstream looking for Mya and her grandfather.

The deputy found the grandfather clinging to a rock 100 yards downstream of where he’d gone into the river.

The pressure on him was intense, Williams said.

Search and Rescue teams launched a rescue boat, worked their way down to the man and pulled him into the boat.

“He was so exhausted even after he was floated down the river and into a pullout he couldn’t get out of the boat on his own without help,” Williams said.

Searchers scoured the river for Mya for three hours before they had to stop, beach the boats, get hydrated and gather their strength again.

Then they went on again until dark. They didn’t find her.


Teams resumed the search 6:30 a.m. Saturday, Williams said. Mya’s mother and father had arrived overnight.

“They were just both destroyed,” Williams said.

Before noon, they got the call. A camper on the other side of the river had seen something suspicious in a deep river pool just 150 yards downstream.

It was Mya.

They pulled her out and the coroner determined the family could identify her body there, Williams said.

“Mya was in a pristine enough condition that it was OK for the family,” he said.

That moment was hard.

“There’s not many things that have nearly broken me down but that was one,” Williams said.

He was glad to get her back to her family.

Having a family member missing for days and weeks and even months is torture when they’re an adult. But Mya was 11 years old.

“I went home that night and I hugged my daughter for about 20 minutes,” he said.

His daughter is 10.


If trends hold true, Mya will be the last to lose her life in the Kern River this year. As the crowds depart and the temperatures slide into fall, the river’s allure fades.

Since 1994, only six people have died in the river in Kern County after Sept. 1.

But the river isn’t safe.

Kern River Watermaster Dana Munn said it will continue flowing consistently throughout the fall as water from Isabella Lake is pulled out.

Flows should average about 1,000 cubic feet per second in September, drop to 600 cfs in October and slide to 300 cfs in November.

But even then the river isn’t to be messed with, Munn said.

“We certainly don’t have the big flows like we did,” he said. “But it’s still dangerous.”


In hindsight, Kern County has had one of the most deadly summers in the Kern River in the last couple of decades.

If Juan Torrez, who has been missing in the river at Hart Park since June 3, is assumed dead, that makes the tally 15 deaths in the river in 2017.

That matches the number of lives lost on the Kern River in Kern and Tulare counties in 2011, the last high-water year on the river.

Perhaps it could have been worse.

The river was larger this year with a larger snowpack powering it from the high Sierra Nevada.

One thing that may have made a difference was that media outlets in the Los Angles basin aggressively covered deaths on the Kern.

Like Mya, many of the people who lose their lives on the river are from outside Kern County — usually from the Los Angeles area.

In 2011, only two of the 15 victims were from Kern County. This year four of the 15 lost were from Bakersfield.

Williams said in an informal survey he has done over the past weeks, most of the visitors he’s talked to heard about the dangers of the Kern River in the Los Angeles Times or on their local television news.

By far the Keyesville/Sandy Flat section of the river was the most deadly in 2017, claiming seven lives, including Mya’s.

But the Hart Park/Lake Ming area — where no one lost their lives in 2011 — claimed five victims including three of the four Bakersfield residents.

Only two people died on the upper Kern River above Isabella Lake — a place where six died in 2011.

Williams credits the professional rafting companies in that area for pulling a lot of people out of danger.

“The only thing about the upper Kern,” he said, “it’s frequented by the professional rafting companies and those guys do a lot of rescues you never hear about.”

People weren’t being any safer on the upper Kern this year, Williams said.

“We had a lot of calls up there. We had a lot of calls where we went into Tulare County to assist them,” he said. “We saw people doing really, really stupid things.”


There is some hope on the horizon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is due to begin construction on the retrofit of Isabella Lake Dam this winter, Munn said.

And once the dam is done, four years from now, the storage levels in Lake Isabella will increase from roughly 370,000 acre-feet to 570,000 acre-feet.

That means there may be some chance to reduce the rate of flow from the dam in the summer months, something that could help reduce risk to recreational users.

County officials have raised warning signs around Hart Park and Lake Ming.

And river rescue groups, newspapers and television stations work hard to educate people about the dangers people face.

But, if the past is any indication, the Kern River will never be completely safe.

Chances are that, the next time the river runs high and wild, another camper will look into a deep river pool and see something they’ll never forget.

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

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