Local News

Sunday, Aug 07 2011 02:00 PM

DYING IN THE KERN RIVER: Drownings up 75 percent this high water year

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Miguel Guerrero starts another day out in the Keyesville area July 28 searching in the Kern River for his stepson, Ivan Gameros, who slipped into the raging Kern River a few days earlier.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    In this file photo, Miguel Guerrero, Ivan Gameros' stepfather, and Ivan's sister, Yaretzy, wait in their campground in the Keyesville area near Lake Isabella July 28. Gameros, 18, had slipped from a rock at Keyesville North campground into the Kern River. His body was found and recovered Tuesday.

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  3. 3 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ricardo Garcia, center, talks about his "really best friend," Ivan Gameros, 18, who possibly drowned in the Kern River in late July near the Keyesville camping area. Gameros' mother, Araceli Paniagua, left, sister, Yaretzy, and brother, Angel, right, were all camping with father Miguel Guerrero until his body could be found.

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  4. 4 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Araceli Paniagua and her son Angel were washing their camping dishes in the fast moving Kern River right in the area where her son, Ivan Gameros had slipped in the river two days earlier.

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  5. 5 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ivan Gameros' mother, Araceli Paniagua, was still camping with her family in the Keysville area July 28 after her son went missing in the fast-movng Kern River near their camp in Keyesville a few days ago.

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    By Jaclyn Borowski / The Californian

    Kern Valley Search and Rescue Volunteer Capt. Brian Baskin walks down to the Kern River at the Sandy Flat Campground after spotting a child in the water who was tied to a branch by his life jacket. Baskin explained to the family the danger of tying someone to shore with a rope and instead recommended tying the rope around the boy's inner tube.

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  7. 7 of 7

    By Jaclyn Borowski / The Californian

    Fishermen at Hobo Campground sit on a table alongside a barbecue pit that is normally part of a campsite along the Kern River. With record-high water levels this year, several campsites along the river remain under water.

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BY JILL COWAN, Californian staff writer jcowan@bakersfield.com

Ivan Gameros' mother stood silent in the dusty shade of a tree, looking down toward the Kern River at Keyesville North campground two Wednesdays ago. Her eyes were red and swollen. She clutched at the hem of her long shirt. When she walked to a nearby campsite, she moved listlessly, her steps automatic. She didn't want to talk about her son.

Gameros, whom friends called an "adventurous" teen, had just arrived from North Hollywood with his family for a yearly camping trip to the Kern River the afternoon before when he climbed onto a rock, slipped and slid into the current. He hadn't been seen since -- and his mother, Araceli Paniagua, hadn't slept.

The small group of friends and family who'd come from Kern County and Southern California to help search for Gameros hadn't found even a trace.

"No floating hats, no shoes, no nothing," said 16-year-old Ricardo Garcia, who'd known Gameros since kindergarten.

The 18-year-old will likely be counted as the 15th person to drown on the Kern River so far this year, his life claimed by what officials are calling the river's most dangerous currents in more than a decade.

DEADLIEST YEAR

The number of confirmed deaths has already jumped by 75 percent from the eight drownings tallied by Kern and Tulare county officials last year, with weeks of river recreation left in the season.

And 2011's grim number is nearly triple the five lives lost in 2009.

This year's heavy winter and spring snows on the Kern River watershed have turned the upper Kern into a roaring creature that even commercial rafting companies and rescuers have at times refused to enter.

And the heavy flows have filled Isabella Lake to the maximum the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will allow -- forcing big releases into the lower Kern.

On July 2 of this year -- a day the Kern claimed two victims -- the river averaged a flow of 3,959 cubic feet per second, meaning almost 30,000 gallons of water passed a given point every second. That was more than twice as fast as the same day in 2009, the most recent low water year, and almost 1.5 times as fast as the rate from July 2, 2010.

The illusion of calm water on both sections of the river hides flows that have snatched people from rafts, snapped ropes and sucked swimmers downriver into deadly rapids.

"It's not like the ocean," said Kern Valley Search and Rescue Volunteer Capt. Brian Baskin. "The river is relentless."

Baskin said this year has been especially busy for his team of swift water rescue-trained specialists, which gets dispatched by the Kern County Sheriff's Department.

"There was a couple-week stretch at the end of June and beginning of July where we were working basically every day for about three weeks," he said.

RISKY BEHAVIOR

Visitors first get into trouble, officials said, when they ignore signs posted near popular river entry points urging visitors not to swim. Then, when they do decide to enter the river, swimmers often forgo life vests, helmets and -- because water temperatures can dip into the 50s -- wetsuits.

Often the decision to enter the river is made casually by people from outside Kern County who are in the middle of a relaxing vacation and have little or no idea of just how quickly the river can kill.

Wide, sandy beaches invite people to take a quick dip in cool waters that appear placid.

But Brian Mauer, general manager of commercial rafting company Whitewater Voyages, said that pretty picture is an illusion.

"There is no place in the river that is calm," Mauer said. "It's full of eddies and opposing currents."

Some visitors go further, swimming across the river, climbing across slippery, half-submerged rocks or anchoring flimsy rafts to the shore and floating out into the current.

WHAT TO DO

Kern County has struggled for years with what should be done to prevent people from drowning in the river.

There have been lighted freeway signs, billboards, public service announcements and frequent campground sweeps by law enforcement and search and rescue teams.

But officials have stopped short of mandating swimmers wear life vests or banning swimming in the Kern River.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said four different agencies have police powers over different sections of the river and enforcing any regulation would be very expensive and extremely difficult to coordinate.

Much of the Kern River's length is dotted with campgrounds and small parking areas where people can leave their cars and walk directly to the water.

"That kind of river access just allows a lot more people to get in over their heads," Mauer said.

And it makes enforcement of laws impractical.

"We don't need more laws. People need to make their own decisions," Youngblood said. "I don't mean to sound crass, but you cannot regulate stupidity."

Sheriff's Search and Rescue Coordinator Sgt. Mark Baldwin said the county does what it can to educate people on the dangers and the price of carelessness.

"Prior to the big holidays, we get out and try to make ourselves visible," he said.

But Baldwin said it is impossible to force people to use the river responsibly.

GRIM DISCOVERIES

This year, on Mother's Day, Mauer was running 30 company river guides down the lower Kern River on a training cruise.

Just after the Buffalo Run rapid, Mauer paddled his kayak out of the current on an eddy and looked back up stream to check the rafts coming down behind him.

That's when he spotted Charles Burson, 19, of Ridgecrest, wrapped around a tree, his body flapping softly in the current.

Burson had gone missing nearly two months earlier at Remington Hot Springs after he and four friends drove up to the river at 1 a.m. on March 14.

After drinking heavily with other guests at the hot springs until 6 a.m., Kern County sheriff's reports said, Burson went behind a rock to change his clothes and disappeared.

Mauer found him on May 8.

The Forest Service asks rafting companies to secure the bodies of drowning victims if possible, keeping in mind that there is a family seeking closure, Mauer said.

"We eddied out and hiked up and tied him to a tree," Mauer said. "You could still see the tattoo on his back, even though he was badly decomposed."

He has found other bodies on the river. But, Mauer said, "to tie him up and be in close quarters, that was a little much."

Putting aside the shock, Mauer said, he was glad he could help.

"If I was in the mom's situation, Mother's Day or not, I'd want to know," he said.

HOPE

Ivan Gameros' family stayed at the Kern River until last Sunday, continuing the search. His stepfather, Miguel Guerrero, eventually had to return to work.

But they've checked in with search and rescue every day and on Friday, there still had been no news.

"Until we find the body, she is still hoping," Guerrero said of his wife. "But at this point, it'd be a miracle."

-- Staff writers James Burger and Kellie Schmitt contributed to this report

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