Stay out, stay alive: A story of Kern County’s killer river
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Colorful awnings and tents lined the shores of the Kern River on a Saturday afternoon at Riverside Park in the small town of Kernville in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.
Even in town, the otherwise dark blue-green river churned white over and around the rocks and tree branches within the choppy waves. Despite the swift currents, families played in the water to beat the muggy August heat, some splashing near the shore, others floating on rafts and inner tubes near the middle.
Then disaster struck.
"People were just hanging out when these two inner tubes that were lashed together came floating down the river upside down," said a witness at the scene, who declined to give his name.
"Their legs were in the air. We weren't sure if they were okay. Then someone screamed, 'Help them!'" he added.
From what he could tell the people were rescued, but he wasn't certain since they had floated too far downriver for him to see what happened.
"It spooked a lot of people," he said. Indeed, many people were packing up their towels, picnic gear and water toys and heading for the parking lot as he spoke with a Courthouse News reporter.
Others continued to play in the water, most of them without life vests — a bold thing to do, since this river is nicknamed "the Killer Kern."
It's unfortunately an appropriate moniker. According to two signs in English and Spanish that stand at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon, 325 people have died in the river since 1968. That's an average of about six people a year over a 55-year period. More than 100 of those deaths have happened since 2000.
Drowning is the leading cause of death on the river, and "falling in is as dangerous as swimming," the U.S. Forest Service says.
Since most of the victims are from out of town, Kern County spent about $100,000 on an ad campaign in the Los Angeles area to warn about the river's dangers. County park rangers are also handing out flyers and speaking face-to-face with people this summer. There are signs in both English and Spanish at various river access points.
Though the Kern County Sheriff's Department updated the death toll signs in May, around the same time the PSAs hit the airwaves, they're already out of date.
One of the latest victims was a professional kayaker who drowned in mid-June. A Guatemalan man visiting family in the Los Angeles area who went camping at the river died in early July. Yet another was a 38-year-old Anaheim man who drowned during a baptism.
Another body was retrieved from the river on Aug. 13, but there was no relation between the victim and the inner tube incident on Aug. 12, according to a release from the sheriff's department.
But what makes the Killer Kern so dangerous?
It's a combination of several factors, according to WX Research, a weather and climate research group.
One of the river's defining features is its swift currents, which often reach over 8,000 cubic feet per second. Spring and summer are the most dangerous times, as snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains adds speed and lowers the water temperature — sometimes to 38 F.
Swimmers are at risk of hypothermia or drowning by inhaling water in an instinctive gasp response to the cold. They can also get trapped by underwater hazards or caught in hydraulics, holes that form when the current turns back on itself as it meets an obstacle.
Even the legendary Merle Haggard, Bakersfield native and pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound, wrote a song about the river that peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1985. Simply titled "Kern River," it recounts the fictional story of the singer's girlfriend drowning during a moonlight swim.
"Well it's not deep nor wide/ But it's a mean piece of water, my friend," Haggard sings.
The Indigenous people of the Kern River Valley see things a little differently.
"We have quite a bit of lore about the river," Robert Gomez, tribal chairman of the Tübatulabal Tribe, told Courthouse News in a telephone interview. "The river has always been sacred to us."
The Tübatulabals, whose original tribal name is the Pakanapul, "people who speak the language," have no migration stories, Gomez said. According to a tribal elder interviewed in the 1950s, the Tübatulabal people "have been here before there were mountains." Scientific data and the tribe's stone artifacts indicate they have lived in the valley for thousands of years.
"The two forks of the river have always been important for us for food sources, flora and fauna, seed gathering, fishing, hunting and so on," Gomez said.
In the tribal language of Pahka’anil (a dialect of the Uto-Atzecan language families), the north fork is called Palegewanap, which means "place of the big river," while the south fork is called Kutchibichwanap Palap, "place of the small river."
"At the fork of the two rivers, which is all under water now where the dam is, that was a place called Yauwahamup, 'where the river forks,'" Gomez said. Many of the tribe's other sacred sites are also at the bottom of Lake Isabella, a reservoir formed by the Isabella Dam after it was erected in the early 1950s for flood control as well as hydroelectric and agricultural uses.
Gomez told Courthouse News a legend about the north fork of the river.
"We have a legend where Duck and Hawk made a contest where they would race up to Mount Whitney," Gomez said. "As they were racing through the canyon, they created the nooks and the crannies of the canyon.
"Near what's now Wofford Heights, there's a mountain that in English is called Split Mountain; in Pahka’anil, it's Wagipuban. What happened is that when Hawk and Duck were racing up the river, I believe it was Duck that decided, 'Well, I'm gonna take a shortcut and break a hole in that mountain,' and that's what created the crevice. The end result was, they both reached Mount Whitney at the same time," Gomez said, laughing.
To his knowledge, the Killer Kern reputation is largely a modern phenomenon.
"Aunt Clara used to tell me that back when she was young in the 1910s and 1920s, they used to cross the river on horseback," Gomez said. "Whenever they needed to cross, she and her sister would get on a horse and go across wherever. That's not to say that none of the tribal members weren't in auto accidents near the river, but they were not killed because of the river."
When Spanish colonists arrived in the Kern River Valley in the late 1770s, missionary friar Francisco Garces named the waterway Rio San Felipe. Several decades later, American explorer John C. Fremont named it after his topographer, Edward Kern.
From its headwaters near the base of Mount Whitney in the Sequoia National Park, the north fork of the Kern River flows through the Sequoia and Inyo National Forests and the Golden Trout Wilderness to meet the south fork Kern, its largest tributary, in Kernville. The river then winds through the Sierra foothills before entering Bakersfield, the largest city on the river, where most of the water is diverted for agricultural and municipal use.
Since the river is the only major water source in the area, it's no surprise that it was at the center of Lux v. Haggin, a landmark 1886 California Supreme Court water rights case. At the heart of the matter was whether the state would base water rights on existing English riparian law, which gives water rights to property owners; institute appropriative — or first-come-first-served — water rights; or create an entirely new system. In its perhaps questionable wisdom, the Court upheld both systems, leading to confusion.
The national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act included the Kern in 1987. In 2022, American Rivers listed the Kern as one of the most endangered in the country because of the amount of water diverted for agriculture, a leading industry in the county, alongside oil and gas production.
Several local groups are working to help restore the Lower Kern, including Bring Back the Kern, which wants to fill the riverbed in Bakersfield with water instead of the dirt and dry vegetation most long-time residents are familiar with.
"Our goal is to use the Kern River to its highest potential, by working in concert with growers and community members to create a water system that is healthy for farming, wildlife and our citizens," the group's website says. "Water flowing through the city will provide not only a healthier natural ecosystem, but also a healthier community."
The heavy rains earlier this year gave Bakersfield residents a glimpse of how beautiful having a river permanently flowing through town could be.