You’ve been warned—at the entrance to Kern Canyon, an information sign tallies the number of deaths on the river since 1968. At last count, it stood at 266. That stat hasn’t dissuaded thousands of paddlers from braving the 22-mile stretch of classic Class IV and V rapids just north of Bakersfield, California, over the decades. The body count is so high for several reasons. First, the risk is worth it: the Forks of the Kern, which originates in the Golden Trout Wilderness and rolls through the Sequoia National Forest, is one of the most beautiful and challenging river trips in the world. Second, many of the Class V monsters are unscoutable, meaning paddlers literally don’t know what they’re getting into.
Most of the river’s fatalities come from unprepared newbies, swimmers, and jackasses taking on the river with pool toys. Still, last year two rafters drowned on the river. In an editorial, Bakersfield Fire Chief Douglas Greener implored everyone to stay vigilant. “I recall my own Fire Department swift-water rescue training years ago and the impression the Kern River made on me,” he wrote. “What appeared to be a relatively calm surface concealed angry momentum and force. It only takes being battered and bounced around once to know that endeavor should be entered into tentatively.”
Even better, enter into it with professional help. There are half a dozen world-class guide services operating on the Kern, and in the last 30 years only two people have died on guided rafting trips. Kern River Outfitters is a good bet.