August 19th, 2019
The Kern River in Southern Califnoria has the reputation as the Killer Kern. Oftentimes, it’s the whitewater guides who are the ones pulling bodies from the river.
Every spring the snowmelt of the southern Sierra Nevadas cascade down the peaks until gradually tumbling into some of three large drainages - the Kaweah, Kings, and Kern.
The southern-most Kern River is a powerful force of nature, often underestimated in strength and unfairly labeled as a killer.
While the Kaweah and Kings are equally wild, the proximity of the Kern to LA and Bakersfield leads to a higher concentration of people who are ignorant about safety. The Kern demands to be respected - those who don’t often disappear beneath the surface, never to be heard from again. In recent years the number of people who have gone missing on the Kern has been well above average.
During the 2011-2016 drought in California the Kern River flowed at a historically low level. It was common to see tubers, fisherman and other recreationists wade across the river which was no higher than ankle level. Most local raft outfitters closed shop, as it was near impossible nor enjoyable to pass rafts through the shallow waters.
In 2017 the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas tallied to 202% of average, which meant high water on the Kern for the first time in five years. It created absolute chaos.
That year was more notable than normal because the water levels had not peaked that high since 1998. Those same recreation users were not aware of the dangers of strong currents, unavoidable strainers and foot entrapments. Unfortunately, in 2017 the waters took the lives of sixteen unprepared visitors and once again regained headlines as the Killer Kern.
As a whitewater guide on the Kern, it’s common to see people dangerously close to the side of the river drunk. We’ll holler at them to be careful, but only get a laugh in response. The day before I began writing this piece a 32-year-old man was in that exact scenario. He swam out to a rock in the middle of the river without a PFD and continued drinking there.
In a single slip of the foot, he fell into the river and was sucked under by the strong currents. He was gone and his friends couldn’t help.
Despite the number of danger signs to wear a PFD, there is still an upsetting number of people who don’t heed to the warnings. The Kern River is a treasure to the otherwise dry desert of Southern California, but these unfortunate drownings spoil the riches and display the area in a negative light.
The amount of deaths on the Kern River has also created a unique culture within the river guiding community.
The bodies of the deceased are most commonly found by whitewater guides along the river.
As a way to cope with the horrificness, it sprouts dark humor revolving around death. I once overheard a guide joke about writing ‘comfortable guiding in corpse water’ on his resume. While stories of death are passed around with a can of beer and a couple of laughs at the absurdity of the situations, the reality is hard. These bodies were once people who had families, friends and a life only to meet their end at the hands of the Kern River. The deaths are painstakingly preventable which makes it all the worse.
On one particular trip in early August, a guide noticed his raft didn’t have a bowline. He decided to use a faded orange webbing he found as a makeshift line. “Don’t ask me where I got it from,” he told me. I didn’t further question it, but he proceeded to tell me,
“I think it’s the webbing the other company used to tie up a dead body they found in the room-of-doom eddy a couple of weeks ago.”
The other company, while commercially guiding a trip, found a deceased body floating around in the powerful eddy. It was obvious something was wrong beforehand because the smell was horrible. They anchored their rafts to shore and walked upstream to tie the body along the river with orange webbing so it wouldn’t float further downstream.
Girl Scout Shoe
During lunch on a girl scout trip, a shoe floated onto the shore. One of the girls grabbed it off the sand and ran around bragging, ‘Look! I found a shooooe!’ Another guide came over and took the shoe from her
Upon further inspection, he saw a nearly unrecognizable decaying foot inside, unnoticed by the girl who found it.
The foot almost looked like an old orange peel. He brought the shoe to the other guides in order to decide who had to bring it down the river to give to authorities.
Most likely, the owner of said shoe had their foot entrapped on a rock so their body was stuck under the water. Once their body decayed enough their ankle snapped, which let the body float downstream while the foot stayed in the rock for a while longer.
Directly above a class IV rapid, a guide noticed a body begin to appear on the surface next to his raft. It was a bloated, bruised black and almost unrecognizable as a human.
He most likely had fallen into the Kern upstream, only to be pushed down by the force of the river for weeks before resurfacing.
It was doubtful he was wearing a PFD. The rapids and current had ripped all the clothes from the body as well. The guide quickly turned around the boat in an attempt to shield the guests, which were all boy scouts, from noticing it. That did not work. One of them turned around and yelled, ‘WOAH IS THAT A DEAD BODY?’ which caused every other boy in the boat to also turn around and try to get a glimpse. One of them then explained that it was their second time seeing a dead body on a troop trip this year.
As of now, in 2019, six bodies have been recovered from the river with an 11-year-old and L.A. man missing.
It’s surprising the number of deaths isn’t higher.
Grown adults will tie a rope around their waist and wade out into the river, expecting the rope to prevent the current from sweeping them downstream. Families sit along the slippery granite canyon walls without any concern of falling into the river below. Friends tube down the rapids without a PFD, unaware of the undercurrent that can easily suck them under.
The river is a dynamic place and not even the most experienced veteran is invincible against the Kern. Its challenging rapids is what draws die-hard river rats to the area, but it also creates a danger for those who believe to be above the warnings.
Rivers give and rivers take - the Kern is no exception, it is the rule.