Swift, Seductive -- and Deadly

Times Staff Writer

Erected only two weeks ago in what has become a grim rite of spring, the big, red-lettered sign beside the churning Kern River is already outdated.

As motorists enter the winding Kern River Canyon with their freight of sunscreen and fishing rods and beer, it tells them about the river with no minced words: “234 lives lost since 1968.”

But when a Long Beach construction worker was flipped from his inner tube on Memorial Day weekend, the Kern’s toll rose by one -- the first of the drownings anticipated by rescue workers this season as an unprecedented volume of water shoots through the narrow river.

In the High Sierra, nearly twice a normal year’s snowpack is melting, turning usually swift rivers such as the Kern into swollen cascades. On top of that, the 17-mile lower Kern -- in some ways the river’s most treacherous section -- is receiving emergency releases of water from Lake Isabella upstream, where engineers are lowering the reservoir to investigate possible weaknesses in one of its two aging dams.


The additional water has renewed alarms about the Kern’s safety, particularly for the horde of picnickers and campers who while away sweltering afternoons in inner tubes and on the kind of flimsy, blow-up rafts designed for swimming pools.

At the same time, the region’s many professional river-rafting guides are doing a brisk business, pitching their trips as the only safe alternative for people who want high-water excitement.

Authorities say guided outings amid the deafening rapids seldom lead to trouble. They worry, though, about the seductive stretches downstream, where powerful currents can drag waders, swimmers and fun-seekers below a seemingly placid surface.

In a riverside park near Lake Ming north of Bakersfield, friends and relatives of Alejandro Almaguer Andrade learned that lesson all too well. Tubing with some friends May 27, the 33-year-old Andrade disappeared in the river. His body was not recovered until a week later, on Saturday.

At his campsite by the Kern last week, more than 30 friends from Long Beach had showed up to scour the riverbanks for Andrade. His widow, about to give birth any day, was back home with their two toddlers.

Holding vigil at a picnic table Thursday evening, his uncle, Jose Cuadros of Long Beach, watched the river as three young men with broad grins whooshed by in inner tubes.

“All I can say is, ‘Why?’ ” Cuadros said. “This is so dangerous. Why is it allowed?”

There is no law against plunging into the river even without a life jacket. Still, U.S. Forest Service employees such as Shannon Solis cruise through campgrounds and picnic areas all summer, trying to dissuade people from taking to the water with little more than rubber duckies.

“Sometimes they tell me they’ve been coming here for 20 years and they know what they’re doing,” she said. “They don’t.”

This season, the river is so high that it has submerged some of the tubers’ favorite beach spots. But it also has covered the brush, boulders and downed trees that can be fatal traps for swimmers and boaters.

“The river is more dangerous,” said Solis, who helped in efforts to rescue seven of the 11 people who drowned last year. “There are more snags to get hung up on and get sucked under.”

One of the fastest-flowing rivers in the West, the Kern has been a lethal attraction for decades. Country singer Merle Haggard, a Kern County native, even wrote a melancholy ode to it in 1985 with the haunting refrain:

I’ll never swim Kern River again. It was there that I met her. It was there that I lost my best friend.

With the river’s danger so well-known, local search-and-rescue experts are astonished at the nonchalance of many visitors. Deputies from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department last weekend encountered a 12-year-old boy who refused to wade into the river with his inner tube -- until his mother and other adults already bobbing in the current kept yelling at him to get in.

“People are always amazed at the number of drownings on the lower Kern,” said Sgt. Mike Kirkland, who leads the department’s search-and-rescue efforts with 50 swift-water volunteers. “But after watching this for five years, I’m amazed that anyone even makes it out.”

With water thundering into the Kern from Lake Isabella, old hands liken the river’s power to what they saw during the worst of the El Nino storms a decade ago. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the releases have nearly doubled the river’s normal flow and will continue until well into July.

Jeff Hawk, a spokesman for the corps, said that during a routine seismic study, engineers recently found high water-pressure readings inside the earth-filled auxiliary dam. That could mean too much water is seeping from the lake into the 53-year-old structure, potentially weakening it, he said.

Although Hawk stressed that no imminent danger was discovered, the corps decided to ease pressure on the dam by lowering the lake’s water level 20 feet -- a particularly tricky chore as melting snows pour into the reservoir from the mountains upstream.

The dam’s problem has been compounded by other unsettling discoveries: A supposedly inactive earthquake fault nearby has been found to be active, and soils beneath the auxiliary dam might just be the kind that are conducive to seepage.

“Back when the dam was built, they just didn’t make as many geotechnical efforts as we do now,” he said.

While the dam is having its problems, the high water is a bonanza for the river-rafting companies that are Kernville’s bread and butter.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Bill McGinnis, owner of Whitewater Voyages. “This is a very exciting time to go out.”

But McGinnis, who wrote a book about rafting techniques in high-water conditions, acknowledged the risk that the Kern poses to the unwary.

“The people who get in trouble,” he said, “are the ones who treat a river as if it were a long, skinny lake.”