Gwyny Pett has visited the Kern River for decades, camping there as a girl and then taking her now grown children to splash around in shallows so calm they feel like a private swimming pool. She’s seen it in dry spells like last year, when the river was hard to navigate not because of the rushing water, but because she swung her ankles on the exposed pebbles.
He also saw the destructive power of the river during high water years. And although Ms. Pett, 66, recently looked ready for a swim at a popular riverside campsite—black bikini, pool towel draped over her lounge chair—there was no way she was going to get in.
“I mean, this is dangerous,” she said, gesturing towards the rushing water.
After a parade of epic winter storms, the Kern River and other major streams fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada have turned wild torrents, a transformation so dangerous that several central California counties have banned people from entering the water.
From April, at least 16 people they died or disappeared into rivers across the state, according to The Mercury News, including two young brothers which were washed up on the Kings River in Fresno County in May. On Wednesday, a kayaker died on the Kern River, about 20 miles upriver from the campsite from where Mrs. Pett was sitting.
« There is a historic amount of water right now — faster, colder and deadlier than we’ve seen in years, » said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. « There is no amount of training or exercise that prepares a human body. »
In the foothills of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, swimming in the rivers and rafting trips are a way of life every summer. The infused water from melted snow may seem like nature’s gift to inland residents who must contend with the sweltering heat without the benefit of ocean breezes.
But people die every year because they underestimate currents they can’t see, often without wearing life jackets or knowing how to swim. This year, officials are warning everyone to exercise caution, especially those who have safely dipped in a river during normal years and may be feeling overconfident.
« During Covid, many people have found the outdoors, » said Mike Howard, the superintendent of Auburn State Recreation Area, which includes two forks of the American River about 35 miles northeast of Sacramento. « But when they get to their favorite spot in June or the 4th of July, where swimming was relatively safe last year, this year is going to be very different. »
So far, at least three people have drowned in the American River this year. Mr. Howard said the state recreation area now has fast lifeguards in some areas, but the currents are too dangerous for them to swim after a distressed visitor.
« We are very focused on prevention, » he said.
In Fresno County, when the flood waters lifted in March, officials closed the Kings and San Joaquin rivers to anyone but professional rafting companies and threatened violators with $225 fines. Tony Botti, a spokesman for the The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said compliance was high.
« Unfortunately, the tragedy of losing two children really woke them up, » Botti said. « It’s life beyond playtime. »
On Friday, Fresno County Sheriff John Zanoni announced his office would reopen the San Joaquin River due to low water levels, but the Kings remained closed.
The Kern River it has a reputation as a stormy beauty – a tempting playground for travis and canoeists (its north fork is one of the steepest white water rivers in North America) but potentially treacherous for those who can’t resist.
Bakersfield mothers forbid their children to dive, lest they be blown away. Merle Haggard, the preeminent troubadour of the region, promised in song that he would « never swim in the Kern River again” after a lover drowned in its waters. A popular sign near the mouth of a winding canyon road toward campgrounds and Kernville, an Old West-influenced town that serves as a base for river recreation, displays a grim tally: « 325 LIVES LOST SINCE 1968. »
It is updated annually.
The Kern River originates near Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, and meanders through Tulare County before meandering through Kern County to the valley floor and through Bakersfield. At the northern end of the river, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux has officially restricted access to the water to anyone except commercial outfitters. But his counterpart down south in Kern County, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, didn’t.
Lori Meza, a spokeswoman for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, said a bathing ban would be too difficult to enforce due to the number of agencies and property owners that would need to be involved. But she said the department has been working to get the word out about her: She wears a life jacket if you’re near water. Find out where you have cell phone service in case you need to get help.
In the past, those warnings largely haven’t made it to Los Angeles, where many weekend travelers see the Kern as an affordable road trip without understanding the risks; the river is within a four-hour drive of more than a third of Southern California’s population.
One recent morning, Zac Boyd, a Kern County Fire Captain experienced in quick water rescues, explained how campers who don’t intend to swim are often drawn to the water. Not realizing that granite rocks are slippery, they can slip in a powerful current if they lose their balance. Children allowed to play too close to the edge can instantly disappear.
Mr Boyd said few can take their attention away from the water, « almost like a car accident ».
The worst dangers may yet come. Temperatures were cooler than normal this spring across California, leaving more snow on the mountains than expected in mid-June. Assuming summer temperatures exceed their normal 100 degrees even at higher elevations, major snowmelt is expected in the coming weeks.
Not far from where Mrs. Pett relaxed in the shade at Sandy Flat Campground, new campers said they’ve heard the warnings and were content to witness the river’s resurgence.
« I’m glad to hear the snowpack is back where it needed to be, » said Hamilton Cerna, 41, who had come from Long Beach with his family. « If that means we can’t go in the river, then so be it. »
However, the raging waters are proving irresistible to some thrill-seekers.
From a perch overlooking the rough whitewater rapids, Augie Houlemard, 29, general manager of Kern River Outfitters, watched the first of three rafts filled with its guides heel as it passed over a boulder obscured by a cascade of water.
« He took a big chunk out of it, » Mr. Houlemard noted. The other two rafts passed. « That was good! » he said smiling.
When he and his colleagues aren’t leading rafting expeditions, they’re training to lead visitors safely, spotting where hazards might have emerged and practicing their routes. When they’re not in the water, they obsessively follow the flow of the river, debating when it will peak and where the best conditions are to launch a boat.
« People are still talking about 2019 and 2019 was great, » she said. « But not even close to that. »