Their rapids re­sponse

Raft­ing firms on de­pleted Kern River look to ride out drought

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Rosanna Xia

BAK­ERS­FIELD — Dar­ron Nils­son nav­i­gated his truck down a dirt road to the Kern River. The trail, less trav­eled this year, opened up to a dusty clear­ing at the wa­ter’s edge.

Here, if the snow­pack had not amounted to 5% of nor­mal this spring, if the drought hadn’t been so un­for­giv­ing for three win­ters, if white- wa­ter raft­ing didn’t de­pend on, well, more wa­ter, Nils­son and his staff would be launch­ing hun­dreds of rafters into the rush­ing rapids.

In­stead, wa­ter lev­els are a 10th of what they could be, and Nils­son had to can­cel his raft­ing sea­son for the first time since he opened shop more than a decade ago.

He could hear the first rapid around the cor­ner — once a roar­ing “wake- up rapid” to an ex­cit­ing jour­ney down the Kern. This day, it was a gen­tle gur­gle.

“This is bit­ter­sweet,” he said. “I haven’t been down here all sea­son.... I’ve been avoid­ing it.”

Dis­mal snow­pack lev­els in the south­ern Sierra Ne­vada have forced raft­ing com­pa­nies up and down the 165- mile Kern River to make tough busi­ness de­ci­sions this year. Some have writ­ten off 2015, while oth­ers are hang­ing on with cre­ative busi­ness al­ter­na­tives and fewer work­ers.

For decades, the mighty Kern — some­times called the “Killer Kern” — has at­tracted ad­ven­tur­ous visi­tors to one of the fastest- f low­ing rivers in the West. The Kern

made head­lines as re­cently as 2011 for its dan­ger­ous wa­ter level. As mo­torists en­ter the Kern River Canyon, trav­el­ing along the river from Bak­ers­field up to Lake Is­abella and into the Se­quoia Na­tional For­est, a sign f lashes a re­minder of wet­ter times: “271 lives lost since 1968.”

This year, the river is tamer, and Lake Is­abella has dwin­dled to less than 8% of ca­pac­ity. For those who live and work along the Kern, this is just part of the deal with Mother Na­ture. It’s a shame how the drought has dried up tourism in their com­mu­nity, they said, but each year is a year closer to the next wet one.

But stay­ing af loat has not been easy. The Kern River Fes­ti­val, which draws hun­dreds of pro­fes­sional and recre­ational pad­dlers each year, was can­celed this spring for the first time in 51 years. Ho­tels and restau­rants face another sum­mer with fewer tourists.

On the lower end of the Kern, in Bak­ers­field, there were few op­tions. Can­cel­ing the sea­son made the most sense for Nils­son’s com­pany, River’s End Raft­ing & Ad­ven­ture.

He had to break it to 20 em­ploy­ees that they wouldn’t be work­ing with him this sum­mer.

“The river is our econ­omy,” Nils­son said, ex­am­in­ing the wa­ter, which even­tu­ally dumps into ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels for thirsty farms. He no­ticed tall weeds pok­ing out where wa­ter once f lowed.

Pulling out his smart­phone, he checked the wa­ter f low — 313 cu­bic feet per sec­ond. It needs to be at least 800 to 1,200 cfs for good raft­ing. The Kern has seen 4,000, he said.

“You can only sur­vive on no snow­pack for so long,” Nils­son said.

Last year, he helped cover op­er­at­ing costs by start­ing an ad­ven­ture camp for kids and an “am­phib­ian” land- and- wa­ter 5K. He still lost money.

This year, he’s hi­ber­nat­ing. He points visi­tors to the up­per Kern, where some raft­ing com­pa­nies have stayed open by pro­mot­ing scenic kayak trips and stand- up pad­dle- board lessons.

In Kernville, a close- knit tourist des­ti­na­tion 40 miles up the river, Tom Moore, his sis­ter and son talked hope­fully about the signs point­ing to a big El Niño — and po­ten­tially a wet win­ter.

“It’s the worst drought we’ve seen in the 30 years we’ve been here,” Moore said. But he has found ways to keep Sierra South Pad­dle Sports busy. He mar­veled at his re­cent dis­cov­er­ies on the river — hid­den rapids that had been cov­ered by higher wa­ter lev­els.

“We’ve sunk to new lows,” Moore said. “We have to have a sense of hu­mor about it.”

Busi­ness hasn’t been easy. In a good year, on a Satur­day, 600 to 700 peo­ple would be f loat­ing down this stretch of the river. Now, 150 peo­ple on the wa­ter is a good day. A rush­ing 20- mile jour­ney has turned into a leisurely three- mile trip that avoids rock­ier sec­tions of the river.

Moore’s large inf lat­able rafts gather dust, def lated and re­placed by his grow­ing f leet of kayaks. He hopes his sea­son will last through Au­gust with ac­tiv­i­ties that are more suit­able for calmer wa­ters: tub­ing, stand- up pad­dle board­ing and kayak lessons.

He watched Javier Ruiz, one of his in­struc­tors, bal­ance on a pad­dle board as he made deft turns down a rapid, through clus­ters of boul­ders. Three boys gaped as Ruiz pow­ered by. A cou­ple on their hon­ey­moon laughed and shrieked as they ca­reened af­ter Ruiz on inf lat­able tubes, feet thrust into the sky. The strength of the cur­rent took them by sur­prise.

“It doesn’t take a lot of wa­ter to have a lot of fun,” Moore said.

Through­out the Kern River Val­ley, res­i­dents ac­knowl­edged that the drought had hit them pretty hard but said it could be a lot worse.

At Lake Is­abella, which sep­a­rates the up­per and lower Kern, Lisa Wyly watched her 6- year- old daugh­ter play in the mud where wa­ter used to be. It was a hike down, she said, point­ing to faded wa­ter lines on slopes now wrin­kled with tire tracks as cars drive closer to the re­ced­ing lake.

“This used to be all wake board­ing. There’d be party barges, wa­ter sail­ing, at least 20, 30 boats out there,” Wyly said. That day, the heat break­ing 90 de­grees, she could see three boats and a hand­ful of trail­ers camped along the hol­lowed lake.

Her daugh­ter still loves it here. Wad­ing 20 feet out into the lake, she stretched out on her stom­ach, her chin barely touch­ing the wa­ter.

“At least we still have a lake,” Wyly said. “Other lakes have dried up be­cause of the drought.”

Back in Bak­ers­field, Nils­son’s wake- up rapid is a field of boul­ders with some bub­bling wa­ter. He held his hand up to his chest: “We’d be stand­ing in the river right here.

“I have no con­trol over what f lows down this river,” he said. “I just have to ac­cept it.”

He pon­dered what to do for the rest of the day. The wa­ter looked re­fresh­ing, a prom­ise of re­lief from the mid­day sun. He wants to go kayak­ing.

‘ This is bit­ter­sweet. I haven’t been down here all sea­son.... I’ve been avoid­ing it.’ — Dar­ron Nils­son, owner of River’s End Raft­ing & Ad­ven­ture in Bak­ers­field

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

A RAFTER tra­verses rocks that are usu­ally un­der­wa­ter as the Kern River f lows to­ward Lake Is­abella. For res­i­dents and busi­nesses, each year is a year closer to the next wet one, but stay­ing af loat hasn’t been easy.

Pho­tog r aphs by Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

JAY BROWN guides his wife, Glo­ria, into the Kern River while friend Ar­mida Flores looks on. Ho­tels and restau­rants face another sum­mer with fewer tourists.

I NNER- TUBE RIDERS nav­i­gate amid rocks pop­ping above the sur­face of the Kern. The river made head­lines as re­cently as 2011 for its dan­ger­ous wa­ter level.

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