Shared Stories: The Killer Kern

Frank Novak’s story of a rafting trip after a winter of heavy snowfall is a cautionary reminder for those vacationing in the Sierras this summer.  Ten people have died so far in Kern and Tulare county rivers this year.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Frank Novak

In the winter of 2010 – 2011, the Sierras received nearly double the average yearly snow fall. At Donner Summit, made famous by the ill-fated Donner party, the snow level was over 60 ft deep.

By June, the snow melt had swelled streams and rivers up and down the Sierra, and the Kern River was flowing at twice it’s normal volume. My three brothers-in-law, my niece, and I had a reservation for a rafting trip.

We had rafted this river before, on a warm day with the river drifting between banks and occasional sandy stretches, dropping around rocks that threw spray into the boats and caused squeals of laughter. 

This year, the river was high over the banks, flowing into trees and fields, and in the middle of the river a column of water moved like a freight train over massive rocks that were exposed in normal years. In a portent of thing to come, we were given heavy wetsuits to wear along with the usual life jackets and helmets.

There were four rafts in the group. Our raft shoved off third, going single file down the river.  It didn’t take long before the second raft in line flipped. We could see it enter a particularly sharp bend in the canyon, and as it rounded a large rock with vertical walls on both sides, the boat was over in an instant. 

The six guests and the guide took a long ride in the water. They were in quite a while, but eventually were able to get back in the boat. We didn’t think too much about it; we were still having fun.

A little bit later we arrived at the lunch spot. We felt good and ready to eat, but the folks who had been in the water were in a somber mode. Some of guests from that boat had bare feet because their rubber wet suit booties had been sucked off by the current.

They all sat quietly, staring blankly into the distance. They didn’t seem much interested in food. The guide of the boat that had flipped walked around talking softly to the other guides. 

Eventually, all the folks from that boat loaded into the supply van and headed back to base, done for the day. The rest of us—we still didn’t get it. 

Just after lunch, it was our turn. Sliding down a chute, paddling to try to keep the boat steer-able while bouncing up into the air, we were suddenly in the water, the boat upside down. 
I surfaced six feet away; but the current was relentless and I couldn’t get to the boat until our guide reached out with his paddle and pulled me over. We hung to the side, moving fast past another boat that was pulled over at the shore. That guide threw a rope, and only by that means were we able to get our boat out of the powerful center current. 

We sat on the warm rocks, gathering our breath, feeling the adrenaline subside. No one talked, but to be honest, none of us wanted to continue. 

We had all felt how powerless we could be against the force of the river. But we had no choice now—for us the only way off the river was to continue down: only a couple more 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 from behind a rock appeared a four-foot-deep hole in the swirling water.
The bow nosed in hard, the guide at the rear of the raft was catapulted down river in a high arc, and we were in the water. 

I was completely under, the black bottom of the boat above me, the life jacket pushing me up, pushing my head against the bottom. 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, but suddenly the suction of an undercurrent pulled me down. It was deep and flowing.  Above me, three feet of green water was dimly lit by the sky. I remember thinking, I’m still OK … but 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 after I lay hunched over the thwart, gasping and repeating the same curse word over and over 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 to drowning and can still talk about it.” 

Between June 1 and the end of the Fourth of July Weekend 2011, five people drowned in the Kern River.