As the road out of Bakersfield heads into the narrowing Kern river canyon, a sign greets the traveler in English and Spanish. “¿Cuántos este año?”, “How many this Year?”. Below it is the number of people known to have drowned in the Kern since records were kept. In the Spring of 2011 it was 260 and climbing.
In the Spring of 2011, a record snow melt swelled the rivers and streams up and down the California mountains, and the Kern River was raging.
Swimming The Kern River
After the first raft was flipped
in a particularly sharp bend
in the canyon, around a large rock
with vertical walls on both sides,
and after the six guests and the guide
took a wild ride in the water
and after we pulled out for lunch
and the guide of the boat that had flipped
walked around talking softly to the other guides,
and the guys that had been in the raft,
some of them with bare feet because
their rubber wet suit booties
had been sucked off by the current,
stared past the rest of us,
past the lunch laid out on the tables
and past the scrub oaks on the hill,
looked past all of that
to somewhere else,
after all that,
the rest of us still didn’t get it.
We had been on this river before,
on a warm day with the river flowing
between rock banks
and occasional sandy stretches,
dropping around rocks that
threw spray into the boats
and caused squeals of laughter.
This year, after a record snow melt
the river was flowing high over the banks,
flowing into trees and fields,
and in the middle of the river
a column of water that
moved like a freight train
flowed high over massive rocks
that were exposed in normal years.
After lunch it was our turn.
Sliding down a chute,
paddling to try to keep the boat steer-able
while popping up into the air,
we were in the water in an instant,
the boat upside down,
and me just six feet away
but the river current dominated
and I couldn’t close the gaps
until our guide reached out with his paddle
and pulled me in.
Together there were three of us
holding on to the raft.
We tried to swim the overturned boat
over to the slow eddy running along the shore,
but we made little progress in spite of
all our exertions and the gasps of the guide
exhorting us to help.
We were moving fast
past another boat pulled over at the shore.
The guide threw a rope, and
only by that means were we able
to get the boat out of
the roaring center current.
We sat on the warm rocks,
gathering our breath,
feeling the adrenaline subside,
and one by one,
we realized that this was serious.
The previous group that had flipped,
had left at the lunch break area done for the day,
but for us the only way off the river
was to continue down:
only a couple bad rapids to go.
The last rapid was Pinball,
a hundred yard field of boulders
snaking down the canyon.
It didn’t look bad considering
where we had been.
We were half way through,
controlling the boat and doing well,
when behind a rock
was a four foot deep hole
in the swirling water,
and the bow nosed hard into it,
and we were in the water.
I was completely under,
the black bottom of the boat above me,
the life jacket pulling me up,
pushing my head into the black bottom of the boat.
I tried to work out from underneath,
but I was wedged
between the edge of the boat and something else,
maybe another swimmer.
I pulled with my arms and kicked,
and now the suction
of an undercurrent pulled me down.
It was deep and flowing.
Above me three feet of green water
was dimly lit by sky,
and I remember thinking
I’ve been down here a long time.
After I surfaced
and spent the next minute
sliding down the middle of the river
getting face full after face full
of water from waves standing three feet tall
and after I decided to swim for the shore
and was carried down a side channel
where one of the other rafts was waiting to pull us out
and I lay hunched over the thwart where I landed
gasping and repeating the same curse word under my breath,
not caring what anyone else in the boat thought,
and after the long bus ride back to the camp
and the returning of gear and the mandatory
smiles and photos with the guides,
and after we had taken inventory of the physical cuts and scrapes,
we sat in a restaurant and tried to sort out the psychic damage.
“Now that it’s over,” one of us said, “I’m glad that it happened.”
“Not too many people get that close and can still talk about it.”
Between June 1 and the end of the Fourth of July Weekend 2011, 5 people drowned in the Kern River.