Rafting companies in the Lake Isabella area are gearing up for a surge in business this spring and summer after recent storms raised expectations for rousing times ahead on the Kern River.

Bookings for outdoor adventures are up significantly over last year, rafting outfitters report, thanks to social media marketing campaigns focused on above-average snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada.

Adding to the optimism is the recent decision to begin raising Isabella Lake's water storage level 400 percent to a maximum 361,250 acre-feet because of the completion of construction work that had required keeping storage at a minimum. The increase is expected to extend the area's water recreation season into the fall.

"We're excited for the season," said John Stallone, owner of Kernville's Mountain & River Adventures, a full-service outdoor recreation business where reservations are up as much as 10 percent over last year at this time. "Definitely February and January brought big storms in and great snowpack. You know, it brings people."

Such optimism is a welcome turnaround from a few years ago, when drought and repairs to Isabella Dam reduced river tourism to a trickle. Although river outfitters managed to survive by diversifying into paddle boarding and other activities, the recent snowfall allows them to return to their historical mainstay: taking groups of weekend adventurers down the river on a raft.

The rate of snowmelt flowing into the lake was 120 percent of normal as of Feb. 14, according to official estimates. Kern River Watermaster Dana Munn said enough of that water is being stored up in the lake so that, when it's released starting in July, the outflow should continue at a healthy rate until at least September.

"It's really a good situation for the rafting companies," he said.

The current level of inflow to the lake is actually strong enough that rafting trips could start any day on the upper Kern, upstream from the lake, Stallone said. The only complication is that the water remains chilly, but he was quick to point out that the company is happy to set up customers with wetsuits.

Tom Moore, owner of Sierra South Paddle Sports in Kernville, said reservations for whitewater kayaking trips on the Kern River are up between 25 percent and 50 percent over their level a year ago.

He's particularly enthusiastic about the upcoming business because, even though snowmelt projections aren't quite where they were in 2017, additional storms are anticipated later this month that could add to the inflow and extend the recreational season.

"It's going to be just fantastic," he said. "the water will last through Labor Day."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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