Return of the Kern: California Braces for Booming Paddling Season

For outfitters on California's Kern River, and other rivers across the state,  it's go time, thanks to near-record snowfall and rain that have swelled water storage to its highest level in decades. Read on for a case study from the Kern, one of the most popular rafting rivers in the state…

"I had to navigate Kern River Outfitters through the worst economic period of our company's history," says company owner Matt Volpert, one of nearly a dozen rafting companies that had to close during the drought in California. "For two years our rafts never even touched the water, something that's never happened before. The return of all this snow and rain filling our lake is an incredible relief."

Thanks to near-record snowpack, outfitters are looking forward to a great rafting season on the Kern.

After clocking in at just 19 percent of average snowpack two years ago in the spring of 2015, and just 70 percent last year, this year's readings are head and heels higher. As of March 1, the southern Sierra snowpack was standing at 208 percent of average and its April 1 average is projected to be 164 percent. The readings put it neck and neck with the region's record snowpack of 1982/83.

And this bodes especially well for Lake Isabella upstream of the popular rafting runs. After studies found it to be vulnerable to earthquakes and over-topping in a 10,000-year flood, in 2006 a restricted pool limit was put in place on the lake, reducing its allowed capacity by one-third (from 568,000 acre feet to about 362,000 acre feet). But its storage hasn't even come close to that in recent years.

This year will be different. In January alone, the lake rose dramatically from back to back storms, putting it currently at 343,710 acre-feet, close to its restricted maximum. And this means the river below has already started to run. "Because of this and the amount of snow we have, they have increased outflow to over 3,000 cfs already, and this is expected to continue to rise," says Volpert. "From this lake storage and upstream inventory, we will be rafting well into August, perhaps into September. And many would say I’m being conservative."

In early February of this year, the Upper Kern briefly crested at 24,000 cfs, flows it hasn’t experienced in years

These flows, as well as the guaranteed prospect of future run-off, have outfitters scurrying.

"All rafting companies have what’s called a ‘ramp up’ period," says Volpert. "With the high water, this year is especially big. We’ve doubled hiring, and have begun training far earlier than normal. Big water is a ton of fun for guides and guests, but we have to be extra diligent with a focus on safety. Guides I haven’t heard from in years are even chiming in to burn some vacation time from their 9-5 jobs and come guide for a few weeks."

In 2013, says Volpert, local outfitters got caught off guard and after a full ramp-up, they were all finished by the end of May. In 2014, he adds, they never even operated. The next year, 2015, was an even worse snowpack, and they never operated again, their rafts kept high and dry in storage all season long. "Last year was great in the sense that we ran trips," he says, "but the El Nino hype never delivered and we were running trips on sub 1,000-cfs flows on the Lower Kern, which is fun, but tough guiding. And our last day on the water was August 4."

If this year's moisture is good news for outfitters across the state, it's even more so for the communities they operate in. Kernville (population 2,000) is a beautiful mountain town in the southern Sierras, located above Isabella Lake in northeastern Kern County. And it relies on rafting and fishing (i.e. water flows) as its lifeblood.

"The economy of the Kern River Valley rises and falls with the river," Tom Moore, the 32-year co-owner of outfitter and retailer Sierra South Mountain Sports, told the Bakersfield News in the heat of the drought. Added Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce President Marsha Smith: "The river and the lake are the core of our economy."

Volpert is the first to admit that businesses like his increase far more than his own bottom line. "This community thrives off of outdoor recreation," he says. "Summertime is boom season, and the non-operation periods were a gut hit for the lodges, restaurants, campgrounds, and us outfitters.

"Our company takes thousands of people down the river each year, and many of them spend at least one night in the area," he adds. "Which means they eat out and shop. Multiply that by five for the five permitted companies operating in the area and the numbers get pretty serious."

Finally, the whitewater is about to get serious also. Case in point:

Interested in rafting the Kern? Check out Kern River Outfitters, and don’t forget the Kern River Festival, one of the nation’s running longest whitewater festivals, which returns for its 52nd year April 21-23.

Read more on the Kern’s place in the historic “Triple Crown” of high Sierra whitewater.