Community solutions to river danger

By Ashleigh Bartlett
Kern Valley Sun

Photo by Ashley Fike / Kern Valley Sun
The turbulence of the Kern River claims lives every year.

In light of the recent drownings, deaths, and missing swimmers, Kern Valley residents have become increasingly active and vocal when it comes to advocating possible river safety solutions.
Online community forums are ceaseless virtual conversations, with locals and non-locals alike suggesting politely with research – or arguing passionately – over which options are the most pragmatic to enforce, successfully increasing safety in heavy recreational usage areas. All of the ideas are proposed with pure intentions; however, KSCO, USFS, Search & Rescue, the Kern River Conservancy, and the Bureau of Land Management are working tirelessly in their respective ways to promote lake and river safety.

There are several petitions currently circulating. One requests closures in certain areas known to be dangerous during big-water seasons. While Al Watson of the United States Forest Service (USFS) is not an official, he explained that a petition may be challenging regarding USFS land, considering these areas are not county or privately-owned, and there isn’t an elected official representative. When dealing with federally owned land, one is dealing with Congress. “That’s where my authorities come from,” Watson explained. “I work for the executive branch, the President gives me the authority to manage, according to our own rules, regulations, policies, etc. A petition, although we will work with our community, is not a way to force policy change.”

Watson explained further, “We have to make decisions differently than the Parks & Recreation service. For instance, Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park – people can enjoy it; they can go out into the Domeland Wilderness by themselves for weeks. We don’t monitor them day-to-day, we don’t make sure they’re wearing the proper footwear, we don’t refill their canteens when they’re out of water. There is a certain level of risk that is the user of public land’s responsibility to understand.”

The USFS has partnered up with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Gary Ananian, Executive Director of the Kern River Conservancy, to develop PSAs that are specific to water safety, not only in English, but in Spanish as well. They have been consistently and actively pushing to get their messages heard, airing as far as Los Angeles and Bakersfield daily.

Answering an inquiry about the community’s request for pictograph signage – imagery with no words, depicting unmistakable water danger – Watson explained that there is currently very similar signage in these areas of heavy usage. “If there weren’t so many signs already, we’d agree. But we know. We know how many there are, where they are, and how descriptive and clear they are intended to be.”

Watson also stressed that a critical part of the Forest Service’s is making regular public contact. Upwards of a dozen employees are scheduled to go site to site – multiple times a day – discussing fire prevention, campfire permits, glass prohibition, water safety, staying aware of your surroundings, etc. He explained that the messaging is happening daily, and frequently.

“Not only is it posted, but my employees are out there having these conversations. Can they reach everybody? I really wish. But everyone they make contact with? Better off, and properly educated. We’re out there every day. Whether it’s recreation technicians or fire prevention technicians, we are out there.” Watson himself goes out most weekends. “Any given day, I’ll make 40 contacts.”

He continued to explain that there are signboards at all of the entrances to all of the campgrounds, and on those signboards there are clear warnings about wearing life vests, being cautious and aware in the water, fire restrictions, as well as a number of different public announcements. “Adding more signs may seem like a good idea, but at the same time, adding signs where signage is already present…if they aren’t read currently, what evidence is there to say a different sign in a different place would be read now?”

Watson also noted that it’s more complex than merely closing down the river. “This river is a really big deal to our area. We’re talking about people’s livelihood, outfitter companies’ functionality, job presence, people’s right to enjoy themselves safely. Even if it were open to the outfitters, commercially only…What about the guides – anyone, really, that’s seasoned, trained, and certified?

They can only enjoy the river at work? Moreover, how could that be monitored on such an enormous stretch of river? Choosing even a few areas would require multiple volunteers/hired employees on guard. It makes you wonder why there isn’t a petition to close the canyon. I don’t know all of the answers. But the wrong message is dangerous. The economy is based on the river, and one has to be cognizant of that when offering solutions. The river is constantly changing, and in a month or so, some of the more turbulent of areas will have calmed.” Watson also agreed with KSCO officers, as well as multiple Search and Rescue members, about the nickname ‘Killer Kern’ being misleading.

One enthusiastic and dedicated local community member posted on Facebook that he had found PFDs on Amazon for $5 each, with free shipping, to stock free loaner PFD stands. It was mentioned, however, that the intention behind the concept is primarily to get people thinking and engaged, and could help more than going without. Ideally, it would eventually be stocked with proper vests.

Some members of the community appear to be on board with donating towards a goal of $1,000 to purchase 200 jackets. While this may seem economical enough to stock free loaner stations, there are concerns, naturally, that the PFDs would need to be regulated consistently as safe for the loaner’s particular usage. This would require more volunteers/hired employees at each of the stands, all day and every day. Additionally, there would inevitably be safety concerns if the jackets weren’t purchased through a more reputable outlet, and proven to be United States Coast Guard (USCG) approved.

“Different PFDs are designed different ways,” explained Matt Adkisson, Operations Manager at Kern River Outfitters. “For instance, PFDs designed for rafting [in turbulent water] are designed with your chest to have more flotation so that when you float, you’ll float on your back. Lake PFDs are primarily designed for comfort. There’s usually no current or fast moving water, so they are thinner and the floatation is not as tenacious. Obviously, a vest that anyone wears is better than no vest at all, but if they are going in the river, they should be wearing a Type III or Type V river vest.”

Adkisson was willing to quote realistic prices for the least expensive PFDs available through wholesale, in bulk, with a discount, that would be considered appropriate. “The cheapest we can get – the lowest grade they recommend, not for whitewater, but flat water – is $33 per PFD. If it were to be a whitewater grade – wholesale, bulk, and discounted – they would be in the $50 – $80 range per.”

Touching on the idea of free PFD loaner stands, Watson offered his opinion: “If I were to give you a cell phone, you might think, ‘Okay, great. I’m safe! If anything were to happen, I can just call 911.’ You might feel a sense of confidence. However, if you go into an area you’re unfamiliar with, that you were totally uneducated about – and you didn’t know you wouldn’t have cell service there…you’d suddenly be in a situation you weren’t prepared for. That’s sort of how I see this to be. If you give someone a life vest, they may have a skewed view of their true level of safety and jump into the water with less caution. And it’s certainly not safe.”

Adkisson also explained that essentially, they do have a free loaner booth; it’s located in their warehouse in Wofford Heights. As long as potential loaners call ahead and bring an ID, they can rent a Type V, commercially designed, USCG-approved personal flotation device approved for whitewater. He added as well that the volunteers, or if it were Keysville – the primary area proposed for big water closures – the BLM employees, would also need to be trained on the appropriate procedure for tightening the straps and ensuring the PFD is properly buckled and adjusted. This process is certainly not easy to execute alone, includes more than a few buckles and straps, and is absolutely imperative to one’s safety. There is no room for error.

The bottom line, in Adkisson’s opinion, is that those who are going to get in the river, who are either uneducated about river safety or choosing to ignore it, are going to get in the river. Having PFDs available for loan could be instrumental in big-water seasons.

“Everyone is trying their best – all of the outfitters are trying to make this free loaner PFD program work, the USFS is at Keysville every weekend.” Adkisson mentioned Watson specifically,

“Watson and Zac Boyd (with Kern County Fire) have even hired a Spanish translator to accompany them when they talk to families with a language barrier. They scheduled in advance, you know, the Fourth of July, Labor Day – they were there for Memorial Day.”

Adkisson also added that it’s particularly important to educate tourists who have visited in years past and may return without understanding the magnitude of danger in a big-water season, versus the calm river they saw prior. “They may not know where to look. It is published and public online, but that’s why we need to constantly indicate where. If one person hears who didn’t know, we have done something helpful.”

Adkisson and Watson agree, river safety is largely about education, and some of it is unavoidable ignorance, unfortunately. “All we can do is continue to educate and do our best.”
The BLM and Kern County Sheriff’s Office could not be reached for comment by press time.

Contact the outfitters offering free loaner PFDs:
Kern River Outfitters: (760) 376-3370
Mountain & River Adventures: (800) 861-6553
Whitewater Voyages: (800) 400-7238

To view current cfs (cubic feet per second) on the upper or lower Kern, the way to gauge its power and speed, visit: http://www.spk-wc.usace.army.mil/fcgi-bin/hourly.py?report=isb.