Deadly holiday weekend on roaring Kern River: 2 dead, 11 rescued

on May30

Two people died and 11 were rescued in separate incidents over the Memorial Day weekend along the Kern River, a destination for whitewater rafting about three hours north of Los Angeles.

Flowing from the base of Mount Whitney to Bakersfield, the 165-mile Kern River is sometimes called the “Killer Kern” for its deadly potential as one of the fastest-flowing rivers in the West. The river has been marked with a sign that says “Kern River: 271 lives lost since 1968.”

A 40-year-old man died after falling into the river from a boat managed by a commercial rafting company that was navigating the Cable Run, which is classified as a Class IV rapid, according to the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. Class IV rapids are intense and turbulent, and can feature large, unavoidable waves that can require fast maneuvers.

The man was unresponsive when he was pulled out of the river north of Kernville, the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement. Rescuers performed CPR for about 20 minutes; he was rushed to Kern Valley Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The man was wearing a life jacket.

Water temperatures were in the mid-40s, said Tulare County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Kemmerling.

The perils of falling in whitewater rapids

Generally speaking, a person’s immediate physiological reaction when hitting water that cold is to gasp. That can draw a substantial amount of water into the lungs, Kemmerling said Monday. Also, the rapid shock of falling into intense rapids can sometimes trigger a heart attack, he said.

Even with a life vest, a person does not float in whitewater rapids and can be plunged to the bottom of the river and rise to the top in rapid succession.

“Classes I through III rapids, nothing is really going to keep you in that river. But when you start getting to IV and above, because of the power of the water, it changes the dynamic of the water and it becomes extremely more dangerous,” Kemmerling said. “The survivability in whitewater is very difficult.”

A second death

On Sunday morning, the body of a woman was pulled out of the Kern River in Hart Park, about eight miles northeast of Bakersfield, local media reported, citing the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. The woman, 47, had been reported missing Saturday afternoon.

Also Saturday, 11 people were rescued from various locations along the river by the Tulare County Sheriff’s swiftwater dive rescue team. The first calls for service came from commercial rafting companies at Tombstone Rapids and Tequila Chute Rapid, which are also both Class IV, the Sheriff’s Department said.

At least two other people have died on the Kern River this year, according to the Bakersfield Californian — a 34-year-old woman whose death in March in the Kern River Canyon was ruled a suicide, and a 60-year-old man who fell out of a kayak while in the Kern River near Hart Park.

A favorite of whitewater enthusiasts

The Kern River, California’s 10th-longest river, is a favorite among whitewater rapid enthusiasts, as it winds from the base of Mount Whitney — the tallest peak in the lower 48 states — and through Sequoia National Forest into the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Rafters have been excited for this whitewater season, with outfitters earlier this spring expecting an incredible amount of runoff following one of the wettest winters on record. Some outfitters expected they’d be able to continue operating through August; whitewater season typically ends in July.

Just two years ago, the extreme drought placed substantial pressure on the whitewater rafting industry. In 2015, the Kern River Festival, which draws hundreds of professional and recreational paddlers each year, was canceled for the first time in 51 years.

Classes of rapids

  • Class I: Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.
  • Class II (Novice): Straightforward rapids. Occasional maneuvering may be required. Swimmers are seldom injured.
  • Class III (Intermediate): Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Injuries while swimming are rare.
  • Class IV (Advanced): Intense, powerful rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult.
  • Class V (Expert): Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts.
  • Class VI (Extreme and Exploratory Rapids): These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger.

Source: American Whitewater

Twitter: @ronlin

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