Unusually swift river currents, inexperience lead to Kern River drownings

June 29, 2011

As summer vacationers and warmer temperatures increase, river enthusiasts are being warned to use extreme caution in and around the Kern River.

Two bodies were retrieved and several rescues made last weekend as rescue crews battled raging waters from a heavy snowmelt in the mountains.

Tulare County Sheriff’s swift-water rescue team retrieved two bodies from the river last Saturday while searching for a 53-year-old Palmdale man who had been reported missing from the Gold Ledge Campground on Friday. [Fresno Bee]

A helicopter spotted his body caught in a tree Saturday morning. Shortly after retrieving the body from the river, divers found the body of another man about 20 yards away, caught in the limbs of another tree.

The second body was identified as 25-year-old Minh Tu Quang Nguyen of Westminister. Quang and another man, Scott Neacato, 22, of Los Angeles, were missing since their raft overturned on the river on June 13.

They were camped in the Ant Canyon area when they tied a line across the river and attached it to a two-man raft, according to a statement from the Tulare Sheriff’s Department. Nguyen and Neacato were in the raft trying to reach the north shore when “the raft was pulled into a boil (turbulence) and subsequently was partially submerged and capsized due to the extreme current,” the statement read. [OC Register]

Neacato reportedly did not know how to swim and both men weren’t wearing lifejackets. Neacato’s body is still missing.

The two bodies retrieved on Saturday were found in the river between Johnsondale, in southeastern Tulare County, and Kernville, in Kern County.

Officials warned that seemingly calm conditions in the river change rapidly and without warning; they estimated class 6 runs, which come with the warning “danger to life or limb,” in some areas along the river, and should only be attempted by expert paddlers.

Kern County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Baldwin told the Bakersfield Californian that deaths on the river occur most often because swimmers are unaware of the river’s swift and strong currents. Additionally, water temperature is a chilly 45.

“The river might seem serene, but you don’t know what’s downstream. You could have boulders, rapids, or a decline in elevation.”

If caught in a swift current, swimmers should put themselves into a “lounge chair” position and try to relax without letting their feet drag. If a suitable riverbank becomes available, swimmers should point their heads upstream and swim for it.

“The river is a natural resource; you have to respect it,” Baldwin said. “Everyone who goes into the river needs to know their limitations.”

In a recent editorial, Bakersfield fire chief Douglas R. Greener added: “Respect for and awareness of the potential dangers of the river is critical to staying alive. There is a distinct difference between rafting and kayaking with trained water guides or experienced enthusiasts using maintained equipment and certified personal flotation devices, and floating down the river on an inner tube or pool toy. That is not respect—but an invitation for disaster.” [Bakersfield.com]


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I have fished the river many times but would never swim in it. I believe that huge sign that tells how many people have died in the Kern River. God Bless anyone that swims in it. They are probably going to need help quickly.

Great song and oh so telling, there is a very good reason why they have that huge sign at the bottom of the canyon listing all the deaths…

As an ex whitewater guide with hundreds of trips on the Kern and having been asked to look for bodies more than once, I can say for sure and for certain, if you can’t swim, if you have been drinking or you are not wearing a PFD don’t even think about going into the water…

I’ll never swim Kern River again…