Kern River outfitters close shop, river festival canceled for first time in 50 years

No Doubt about Cali Drought

Kern rapids at low water. Photo courtesy AmericanWhitewater.com
Kern rapids at low water. Photo courtesy AmericanWhitewater.com

A recent headline in the Bakersfield Californian says it all: "As drought persists, Kern River rafting businesses dry up."

With California mired in a historic drought, and snowpack only around 10 percent of normal, at least three companies offering raft trips on the Kern have thrown in the towel, including River's End Rafting, Kern River Tours and Kern River Outfitters. Another indicator of the times: the Kern River Festival, held every third weekend in April for the past 50 years, also pulled the plug, canceling this year's event.

"The drought has reduced projected Kern River flows to a level that is inadequate to run the top-quality rafting trips our guests expect," reads the post on the Kern Rivers Outfitters web site. "We hope to resume our schedule next season."

While Kern River Tours and Kern River Outfitters didn't run trips last year either, at least one outfitter is making do. Sierra South, says the company's Ann Beman, plans to begin offering raft trips as soon as the water cooperates, probably by mid-April. "They'll be mellow, low-water rafting trip," says Beman, adding that they'll also be offering low-water inflatable kayaking trips as long as they can, likely from now until July 4, if water levels behave as they did last year. "Once the rafting and IKing end, we’ll go full-bore into tube rentals and shuttles," she says, adding that they also rent SUPs for lake use. "There's no better place to be than on the water up here in the summer. Snow levels are less than those of the last two years, but close enough to last year’s totals that we’re using the 2014 season as a predictor."

While the drought may affect tourism, other area businesses are still hopeful their numbers will hold up. "Luckily, people still drink," says Olympic slalom kayaker Eric Giddens, who owns and runs Kern River Brewing Co. with his wife and fellow Olympian Rebecca. "But it's worse this year than last, and a bummer for the whole town."

Giddens adds that Lake Isabella is getting lower and lower, such that "once lakeside buildings are now dirtside." This means that the run below the lake is in jeopardy also. He adds that even now, typical high runoff season, you can barely get down the river in a kayak and that "it might not even get above 400 cfs this season, typically the bare bones minimum you need to get down it."

While Giddens admits it might well have an effect on his brewery business with fewer visitors in town, he's worried about paddling more than profit. "Our company keeps growing every year, even last year," he says, adding that they're currently building a new brewery behind their existing one and investing in a water-treatment system so they can re-use water. "But we're always waiting for that one year when we don't grow."

But it really bothers him that he can't go out and take his noon paddling lap. "It's why we're here," he says. "Usually, between the Upper and Lower Kern you're boating from April through September. Now we might not get any at all. And there's no where else to go. The whole state is dismal. We need a big water year, and we need it soon." Further illustrating the state of affairs, he adds that the state is asking people to not boil their Easter eggs this year.

Water officials say the lake levels are so low because it was already drained as low as possible last year, and this year's lack of snowfall exasperated things. In fact, officials don't even have models for how to operate the river at this level, putting outfitters in a lurch with many bowing out instead of trying to patchwork trips together.

"The operating levels last year were just comical," River's End owner Darron Nilsson told the Bakersfield California. "If I tried again this year, I think I'd be hurting my business in the long term with people thinking this is all the Kern has to offer."

Beside Sierra South, other outfitters who do plan to give operations a go this year include Whitewater Voyages and Mountain & River Adventures, who hope to focus their efforts on a scenic section just below the main Lake Isabella dam. But that's a far cry from what the river corridor is usually able to offer customers.

Still, like river runners everywhere who learn to go with the flow, most involved are staying open-minded. Says Moore: "We're one year closer to the next wet year."

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