River rescues relentless

Photo by Ashley Loza

It’s been a busy and frustrating summer so far for members of Kern Valley Search and Rescue unit. Busy because this year the Kern River is high, swift, inviting and unforgiving. Frustrating because despite repeated warnings, people continue to jump in. And some don’t make it out alive.

This past July 4th holiday proved to be what many expected – an active week of call-outs for service, river rescues and recoveries for the 27-member team of the Kern County Sheriff’s office Kern Valley Search and Rescue team.

It was a busy seven-day period for Kern Valley SAR says Tony Talbott, who serves as Captain of Kern Valley SAR, as the team responded to four drownings, although technically only two can be confirmed since the bodies have been recovered. Two additional individuals are still missing in the river.

One of the first drownings occurred in Isabella Lake on Thursday, June 29. According to reports, 62-year-old Vicky Guiles was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car at Kissack Cove. Guiles reportedly could not drive, and when the car slipped into neutral, it rolled into the lake with Guiles still inside. Because the car was heavily packed with personal items, Guiles was unable to get out and was trapped inside the vehicle. It is also speculated that she may have been trying to rescue the two dogs that were also in the vehicle at the time it entered the water.

A Kern County Sheriff deputy and a bystander were on scene when the SAR team arrived, followed by Kern County Fire Department crews. Talbott said when they arrived, the car was totally submerged in approximately nine feet of water. Crews from the three agencies jumped into the water, and after several diving attempts, Talbott said they were able to free Guiles from the vehicle. Despite resuscitation attempts, the woman was pronounced dead at Kern Valley Hospital. Both dogs also perished inside the vehicle.

During the seven-day period, the Kern Valley SAR team had 15 saves where individuals were rescued from rocks, trees and bushes along the swift and relentless currents of the Kern River. On Thursday, June 29, SAR members had just rescued a kayaker who had fallen off his kayak downstream from Riverside Park in Kernville when they received a report of three people stranded in the middle of the river downstream from McNally’s in Tulare County. The Kern Valley SAR assisted Tulare County in the successful rescue.

The first call-out on Saturday, July 1, was in Keyesville, where a 22-year-old man from Los Angeles drowned, despite being warned by Bureau of Land Management officials about the dangers of the Kern River. Edwin Carcamo Morales and two cousins were jumping from rocks into the river near Keyesville. After being warned by officials, the two cousins got out of the water, but Morales jumped back in and was quickly pulled into the river’s main channel. His body was recovered in some brush near the Keyesville South Campground.

From Keyesville, SAR members were sent to Riverkern for yet another drowning. The victim of that incident is still missing in the river. From Riverkern, Talbott said they responded to a call of seven people stranded below Sandy Flat.
Fortunately, all seven safely made it to shore.
That same day, the body of Michael Ramirez, 27, of Orange County was pulled out of the river. Ramirez, a hip-hop artist, went missing on June 22 after jumping into the Kern River near Keyesville.

“With the high water levels this year, we knew this was coming,” Talbott said referring to the busy summer season. He added that members have put in many hours of training in preparation of a demanding year. Kern Valley SAR’s area of responsibility covers the upper Kern River, Isabella Lake, and a portion of the lower Kern River through the Kern River Canyon.

To date, Talbott said that SAR teams from the Kern Valley and Bakersfield have responded to 11 drownings; specifically, ten river drownings, and one lake drowning. Of those, there have been seven confirmed and four who are still missing. Statistics for the Kern Valley include four confirmed, where the body has been recovered and two that are still missing. The Bakersfield SAR team has three confirmed and two that are still missing in and around the Hart Park area.

With the exception of the drowning in Isabella Lake, Talbott said the recent drowning victims were from the Southern California area. While Kern County law enforcement agencies and media sources have consistently warned against swimming or tubing in the river, out-of-area visitors may not be aware of the dangers of the Kern this year.

“The people literally don’t know better and it is a different river this year,” Talbott said. “People will ask why we don’t have more signs warning about the river, and they will be standing right next to a sign.” He added that it is difficult to speculate how many people decide not to go into the river after reading the posted warning signs.
Talbott takes issue with media articles that reference the “Killer Kern.”

“The river doesn’t kill people, it is people’s poor decisions that kill,” Talbott said. “I am positive this is happening to rivers all across the west this year. But the Kern has been labeled ‘the Killer Kern,'” Talbott said. “But it’s not just our river. If you jump into any river and you are not prepared, you will not make it out.”

Search and Rescue officials cannot stress the importance of having the proper safety equipment and knowing how to use it. And at the very least, wearing a properly fitting life jacket is tantamount to staying alive. Better yet, Talbott says, go with a certified rafting company.

A majority of the drowning victims Talbott has pulled from the river were not wearing life jackets. “I can only think of three people who we pulled out that were wearing life jackets, and with two of those, the life jackets slipped off the person because they did not properly fit.” Talbott said, adding that he has responded to more than 100 drowning victims in his 29 years with SAR.

Dealing with family members is a difficult task for SAR members, Talbott said. “You know that they are hurting and you feel for them. Some are reasonable in accepting what happened but some are not.” And sometimes, family members are critical that the SAR team is not spending enough time searching for their loved ones.

While he said he understands their grief, Talbott said it is frustrating when people don’t understand or respect the power and danger of the river, or when a person is not properly prepared.

“I am extremely proud of the commitment of my team. They are dedicated unpaid professionals,” Talbott said. “Whether it is Christmas day and we are with our family or a 105-degree day in July, when we get a call out, we just go.”

Talbott said it is hard on both the SAR team and family members when the body of a drowning victim has not been recovered. “We would rather be the ones who find the body than to have the family, campers, rafters or fishermen find it,” Talbott said. “Finding that person brings our team members a lot of satisfaction because it brings comfort and closure to the family.”

SAR members spent the day on Saturday, July 8, searching for the bodies of those who are still missing, but did not find any of the river’s recent victims. Kern Valley SAR members, along with SAR teams from Tehachapi, China Lake and Glennville spent the day combing the river from Riverkern down toward Kernville, as well as the lower river at Sandy Flat.

Because the Kern River will continue to be high through the next couple of months, the SAR team anticipates that they will continue to be busy all the way until the end of September.

“The Kern is a different river this year,” Talbott said. “It’s relentless.” With that, he offered four simple words of advice to those planning to visit the river: “Educate, prepare, respect and enjoy.”