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After the drought, the 'Killer Kern' river is a different beast

The Kern River, three hours north of Los Angeles features 60 miles of commercially run whitewater rafting.

Deep in the brush along a churning stretch of the Kern River, they began the morning with a grim task: the search for a body.

About 10 volunteers from Kern Valley's search and rescue team scoured the banks Sunday, working methodically as they strained to spot signs of a swimmer who'd fallen into the current upstream the day before — a piece of clothing, a body part.

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Wearing life jackets and helmets, they waded knee-deep into the water, clambered over rocks and through mud, snapped spindly branches and disappeared into the trees that clung to the shore, where a body could get stuck in a tangle of growth.

They found nothing.

Ransom Yarger, right, and Paulina Stanfield search for a missing person in the mud and trees along the shore of the Kern River.
Ransom Yarger, right, and Paulina Stanfield search for a missing person in the mud and trees along the shore of the Kern River. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

By the end of the Fourth of July weekend, the Kern River appeared to have claimed three more victims: one man confirmed dead and two others missing. On Saturday, authorities also recovered the body of a swimmer lost to the churning waters more than a week earlier.

During this dangerous year on the "Killer Kern," the county has relied on about 50 trained volunteers to help save swimmers caught in powerful currents and recover the bodies of those who have drowned.

Eight people, including one who had a heart attack, have died on the river since March — making for the most relentless rescue season in recent memory.

"This has been an epic year," said Sgt. Steve Williams, a search and rescue coordinator for the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

A volunteer team based on the Lower Kern has already logged more than 3,000 mission hours this year, according to Sheriff's Sgt. Zachary Bittle. The team based on the Upper Kern is nearing that number, volunteer captain Tony Talbott said.

Deputies and rescue workers retrieve a body from the Keyesville South area of the Kern River on Saturday.
Deputies and rescue workers retrieve a body from the Keyesville South area of the Kern River on Saturday. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Several years of drought had severely depleted the Kern, a popular whitewater rafting destination known for its dramatic rapids. But this year's wet winter created a record Sierra Nevada snowpack, and the melt has engorged the river with swift, frigid water.

The Kern is now "a different monster," Williams said.

Adding to the danger of the icy waters and powerful currents is a simple reality: Visitors have forgotten what the Kern looked like before the drought.

Believing the river to be as placid as it was last summer, they have flocked here with inflatable rafts and inner tubes meant for the calm water of a pool or lake. Most who have gotten into trouble were not wearing proper life vests, officials said.

It only takes four minutes to drown, rescue team members are quick to remind. Less if you get knocked against rocks or trapped underwater in a "strainer" — a thicket of branches and roots lodged on the side of the river.

The Kern Valley volunteers cover the upper 70 miles of the 165-mile long river. On Saturday, they crisscrossed Kern Canyon, racing back and forth through the dry yellow hills and down a looped road that outlines Lake Isabella.

By the time they arrived at their first call in Keyesville, a radio dispatcher already had confirmed their worst fears with just one word: "Body."

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Edwin Carcamo Morales, a 22-year-old from Los Angeles, had drowned, pulled from the river by campers 16 minutes after he had gone in.

The Martinez and Bererra family of Los Angeles play in the Kern River at Keyesville Camp.
The Martinez and Bererra family of Los Angeles play in the Kern River at Keyesville Camp. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As the hot sun slipped slowly into the late afternoon, a group of women were drinking and dancing in a calm spot along the river when they saw two empty inner tubes floating by. An ominous sign, they thought, and called 911.

Shannon Gilbert, 41, had been drifting downstream with her friend, 28-year-old Armando Kaphan, when the current flipped her inner tube and sucked her under. She was able to grab onto tree branches extending out from an island before being pushed into treacherous rapids.

Gilbert shouted at her friend to hold onto his inner tube, but she could not see or hear him.

A local rafting guide saw Gilbert on the island. Fitting her with a life jacket, he led her through the current to safety.

The search for Kaphan commenced.

Shannon Gilbert, second from right, gets a hug after being rescued. She was tubing without a life vest.
Shannon Gilbert, second from right, gets a hug after being rescued. She was tubing without a life vest. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A helicopter flew low, the sky hazy with the smoke of a backcountry brush fire, and Kern Valley rescuers combed the banks for signs of the missing swimmer. After an hour, they were stone-faced.

"If you don't find them in the first hour…" Talbott said, trailing off. "We don't want to wear ourselves out."

The team already had called it a day when they received another dispatch.

A camper had discovered the body of Michael Ramirez, a rapper from Orange County who'd gone missing in the Kern River more than a week before. The rescue team was needed to help bring the victim to shore.

It's difficult to forget the bodies.

Volunteer Paulina Stanfield has seen four. Her teammate Ransom Yarger has seen seven. Williams can't drive by the Kern without the memories flooding back.

But body recovery is one of the most important parts of their work, the rescuers said. Families need closure, whether it takes a day or a month to find their loved one.

"I think the river has a spirit," Stanfield said as she scanned the Kern Sunday morning, pausing to marvel at the crashing rapids. "She spits you out when she doesn't want to keep you anymore."

Members of the Gonzalez family soak in the evening sun and play in the cold Kern River.
Members of the Gonzalez family soak in the evening sun and play in the cold Kern River. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

One glance at the Kern is enough to mesmerize.

Over the long weekend, visitors stared out at the pulsing current, snapping photos and uttering in awe — Look at that water. One campground south of Lake Isabella was closed due to flooding; just the tops of picnic tables peeked out over the swollen river.

Visitors typically are the ones who die on the Kern.

"No one who lives up here does this," said Cindy Veale, 69, who has made her home in the valley for 12 years.

She watched Sunday morning as rescuers emerged from the brush after searching for Kaphan. She shook her head.

"You don't tube in this stuff."

From left: Ramiro Rellano, 8; Alexander Quiroz, 10; Steve Arzate, 11; Xiomara Arellano, 10; Enrique Quiroz, 11; and Randy Arzate, 9, play in the water at Keyesville Camp.
From left: Ramiro Rellano, 8; Alexander Quiroz, 10; Steve Arzate, 11; Xiomara Arellano, 10; Enrique Quiroz, 11; and Randy Arzate, 9, play in the water at Keyesville Camp. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Many people, in fact, have been heeding the warnings — even though the speed of the river has started to slow from its peak.

Gizelle Fraga, 17, of Garden Grove, said her family had brought two inner tubes for their trip to the Kern, but they sat unused.

In previous years, when the water was lower, Fraga had drifted lazily along. But now, she said, her parents had declared that the kids were not allowed to swim.

"It's kind of boring this time," Fraga said.

Tom Moore, cofounder of Sierra South Mountain Sports, said rafting companies on the Kern have seen hundreds of people cancel or reschedule reservations this season out of fear stoked by media coverage and official warnings. The Sheriff's Department has urged visitors to stay out of the water if they are not with a certified rafting company, which rescuers laud as the best way to enjoy the Kern.

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Kernville's economy relies on tourists coming to the river and Lake Isabella. Moore lamented that the ill-advised actions of a few could scare others from seeking adventure on the Kern — safely.

"The river will never lie to you," Moore said. "It will let you know when you're doing it wrong."

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