Traffic was steady and growing, heading up to the Kern River Valley on Highway 178 by 9 a.m. Friday as a small group gathered for a grim kick off to Memorial Day weekend.
The river’s body count, announced on signs at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon, was increased by nine.
That brings the total to 307 people killed in the river since 1968.
Members of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue teams stood quietly as Sgt. Zack Bittle changed the numbers.
“This river is unpredictable,” Bittle said later. “People need to respect the water. Use life preservers, not pool toys they buy at Walmart. And keep an eye on children.”
Bittle said Search and Rescue teams expect to have a busy Memorial Day weekend as a number of campgrounds and day use areas on the river and around Lake Isabella opened on Friday after months of being shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.
And while this is a lower water year than 2019 — and nowhere near what it was in 2017 when a record 16 people drowned — he said there’s a fair amount of water coming down the Kern River, making it more dangerous.
Each year, volunteer Search and Rescue teams get dozens of calls for help, said Brian Baskin, Captain of the Kern Valley team.
The vast majority of calls end with victims safely back on dry land.
“Those ones don’t make the front page of the newspaper,” he said. But each rescue or recovery is treated with the same tactical effort and personal care.
“We know that’s someones loved one and our goal is to get them back to their family,” Baskin said.
The Sheriff’s Office has tracked Kern River recreation deaths for decades to increase awareness about the need for safety.
That said, the signs at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon are the only “death toll” signs along the river.
There are a few signs near popular swimming spots that warn visitors to stay out of the water, or wear life preservers.
Meanwhile, other areas around the state and the country have gone the extra step of putting “loaner life vest” kiosks right next to swimming and boating areas.
In fact, the California Division of Boating and Waterways has grants to create loaner life vest programs and even provides vests. BoatUS has step-by-step instructions for creating loaner vest programs.
Bittle said the county has looked into putting up more warning signs, including around Hart Park and he would love to partner with a community group to explore a loaner life vest program.
“Victim’s families have also asked about more signs or other preventative measures,” he said.
There was a brief push by Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard in 2019 to create a loaner vest program but his office was told if the county put out vests, it could be liable if something went wrong, according to Maggard’s Chief of Staff Jeff Flores.
Instead of vests, he said the Kern County Fire Chief and volunteers will be walking campgrounds to verbally tell people to stay out of the water.
“If we can find a way to increase river safety that protects the county from liability, we’re interested,” Flores said.
Over in Morro Bay, a loaner life vest kiosk got started by a private person who put one up at the harbor in honor of his mother, according to Harbor Supervisor Becka Kelly.
The city included some wording and brochures about how to properly use life preservers.
That was it.
It’s been going well ever since, Kelly said.
“Some are borrowed and not returned, but the feeling is hopefully that’s because someone needed it.”
Even if no return “borrowing” became rampant, it wouldn’t be a problem, she said.
So many people have donated life preservers to the kiosk, they have a huge back stock.
“Some of them might not be the prettiest, or they’re the U-shaped ones that people think are dorky, but they’ll still save your life.”