Although this is not a camping story, it is an outdoor experience we shall never forget and perhaps a lesson that will save someone’s life. I have posted our lessons learned at the end of this story.
The power of water
The deafening roar of the water added to its shocking power to hold me underwater. I could see the turbulent water bubbling just above my head and raise my hand out into the life giving air, yet no matter how hard I fought to swim, I could not push my face past the raging surface to gasp for breath.
As I was inner tubing with my husband Pres, he had been waiting for me below a section of small waterfalls. When I did not float down behind him, he worked to find a way back up the rushing cascade. He ditched his inner tube to swim and crawl up the rocky waterfalls where he had seen me disappear. When Pres saw only my hand above water waving desperately, my alarmed husband quickened his pace.
Knowing seconds counted in saving me, Pres jumped into the dark swirling water behind me. My hopes for rescue were quickly dashed when Pres disappeared underwater, swallowed by the force of the *water hydraulic we were now both trapped within.
The start of a fun day
Earlier that day, Pres and I had been looking forward to this trip to Kernville in the Sierras to celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary. We spent a few nights of our honeymoon in this charming Sierra hamlet and have enjoyed visiting there through the years. I was excited to try out my new fly fishing rod, a Mother’s Day gift from my children, to fulfill my lifelong dream of hooking a trout.
We met friends on Saturday after checking into the Sequoia Lodge in the nearby community of Riverkern. While exploring the back of the property along dusty trails dotted with native vegetation, I scoped out my idea of a perfect fishing spot along the river bank. I dipped my foot into the cool, inviting water which felt welcome as the hot day felt oppressive with the temperature soaring near 100 degrees. We agreed it was too hot to fish and none of us wanted to escape indoors as the cool splashing river gave the promise of adventure.
So, we ventured across the rural highway to the nearby tourist trap to purchase inner tubes to float down the refreshing waters of the Kern River which were at an historic low. Our friends left their car at our motel and we carpooled to a lovely, inviting spot several miles upstream. Numerous campers and tourists with colorful inner tubes crossed the road coming out or going into the river, carrying beer or sodas to drink as they floated. We planned to float in our tubes down the river back to our motel.
Pres and I were having a great time paddling and rolling along with the lazy flow of the river. Floating in the cool water was delightful and invigorating as we caught currents that playfully bounced us over rocks and under tree falls. Some sections felt like a water slide as I whooped in joy to ride the descent. We had lost sight of our friends after a while as we continued down the river. They were in an inner tube made for two people and floated much slower. The water was so low and slow in places they had to get out of their tube and carry it over the rocks. Unbeknownst to us their tube suffered a large puncture so they got out of the river and hitchhiked back to our motel.
We had to paddle often to get over low rocks or to find another current to carry us along. I told Pres I was getting tired and he kept close leading the way where he felt the course was easier. I was much slower in paddling and sometimes became temporarily stuck in an eddy against a rocky outcropping. Pres would wait for me to reappear and then lead the next leg of our trip.
We floated to where the current grew stronger with another section of cascading water ahead. The current forked around a large boulder and carried me away from Pres’ route. I kicked and paddled to follow Pres, but a swirling eddy sucked me away from his path. I considered popping out of my inner tube and trying to swim but the water looked deep and menacing. I realized I would just have to hold on tight to my tube to ride out a turbulent section of rocky water falls where I was being carried, until I could rejoin Pres below. I exclaimed to myself, “no, no!” as I felt the water suck me further towards a drop off.
As soon as I was sucked into the descent, I was hurled into a deep pool of funneling hydraulics. The force of the water instantly crushed my inner tube, wedging it into a narrow crack in a huge boulder. I was pushed under water thinking I would simply swim back up to the surface. I was shocked to discover the tremendous power of the roiling water as it continued to push me under. I could see the sunlit surface and reach my hand out to feel the air, but could not push my face those last few inches to break the surface. There was nothing to grab onto as I struggled to hold my breath. The boulders forming the pool were slick and slanted steeply away from me under the water. As I helplessly watched air bubbles escape out my mouth and nose, I asked, “Dear God, is this how my life is to end?”
Just as I felt I would involuntarily have to breathe in water, my left foot found a toe hold on an underwater ledge. Pushing with all my might, my face surfaced where I could gasp for breath.
The waterfall rushing overhead was pounding me, so I pushed my face into the crack of the boulder where my inner tube was wedged to find air free from rushing water. The crushed inner tube acted as a bumper to keep me from being drawn further into the deep crack.
The relentless water pushed forcefully against me and I lost my toe hold, plunging me underwater again. I could find nothing for my right foot and fought my way to regain a hold with my left. I could hold my head above water for short periods of time before getting swept off my slippery perch again. I desperately waved my left arm in the air and loudly cried out in a desperate groan when I surfaced, hoping Pres would find me.
I fought to live by pushing all of my weight on my left leg, which was fully extended sideways to reach the ledge, to push my head just above the sucking water. Under the strain of the roaring torrent my knee started to pop out of joint several times, and yet again I fought to swim back up for air. My left water shoe was sucked off and my foot could feel the slippery moss on the rock, making it even harder to push and hold my place on the hard to reach underwater ledge.
As exhaustion was quickly draining my strength, I inwardly pleaded with God for relief. I did not feel I could keep up this fight for long enough for Pres to find me. I sensed a deep aloneness as I longed for release from this battle of overwhelming water to claim my life. Through the water roaring in my ears I heard Pres’ voice. My heart leapt with hope and I pushed on my straining, outstretched leg to keep my head above water just a little longer.
Pres saw the back of my head as I struggled for air. He made the classic rescuer’s mistake and jumped into the churning pool to save me. He was briefly able to lift up my shoulders which moved me enough to gain a better foothold. I could not turn to see him and I realized I no longer felt his body close. In quiet desperation I prayed to God to help Pres, as I was powerless to do anything but cling to my fragile position.
Pres had been pushed underwater and had the presence of mind to explore deeper to find where the water might be rushing out below as a means of escape for us. It was totally black – a perfect rock enclosed trap! The force of the *water hydraulic prevented my big, strong man from resurfacing.
He closed his eyes and stopped swimming with surrendering thoughts to God and prepared to take his final breath underwater. A peacefulness came over him. Pres then felt himself miraculously floating up! Encouraged, he felt God giving him the tenacity to hold his breath a bit longer. He opened his eyes to see the light from above him growing closer and began to swim to emerge right next to me. I was overjoyed! As I had been clinging to my spot, I had horrified visions of my dear man dying to save me, knowing I too would die without his help.
Pres found footing on the underwater ledge where I was clinging and was able to push me from underneath. He called out for me to aid him by trying to get my knees up and push against the rock. My swimsuit skirt stretched over my knees making the task even harder. I felt renewed determination to fight and finally with Pres’ aid I could scramble out onto the top of a bordering boulder where my spent body relaxed while panting to recover from fighting for my life.
Out on a rock “higher than I”
Pres was still trapped in the rushing hydraulics of water, unable to push himself out onto the boulder with me. The force of the water was pinning one of his legs down. Pres ordered me to leave and get to shore so he would know I was safe. I was taken aback at his urgent command but knew there was no way I would leave my hero alone to continue to fight to get free.
I stubbornly held onto a rocky lip with my left hand while offering my right arm as a hand hold for Pres. I pulled with all my might but could not help Pres move up and out. I considered throwing myself off the boulder as leverage but Pres was slowly making headway.
Using his other arm, Pres jammed his elbow into a crack in the rock to push against and slowly inched himself like a harbor seal, closer to freedom. At last he heaved himself out onto the boulder to lie beside me.
From the end of the earth will I cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed and fainting: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” Psalm 61:2
We gratefully hugged and kissed each other as our bodies could finally relax as we caught our breath. We then turned to the task of finding a way to shore. In the struggle Pres lost his hat, prescription glasses and most noticeable, his swim trunks were gone. Fortunately his button down shirt had stayed on as well as his shoes and our motel room key on a lanyard around his neck.
Pres went on downstream, but I felt too weak, so he encouraged me to boulder across to a mossy ledge where I was able to crawl out. We could hear traffic from the rural highway above us and walked to find a way to the road. The dense growth along the riverside disguised any easy way out. My knee gave out a couple of times, sending me to the ground. Angry, red ants bit my arms, legs and shoeless foot as we disturbed them climbing over dead limbs and through prickly bushes.
Pres was determined to walk out and get to our car to come back and get me. I was equally determined to reach the road with him as the underbrush was thick and I wanted Pres to be able to find me when he returned. I reminded Pres that no one was going to give a man a ride while “going commando,” and felt grateful for a bit of humor. We buttoned his bright, Hawaiian print shirt around his hips to give him a covering skirt.
Reaching the roadside I rested in the shade on a rock to catch my breath and wait. I laughed out loud as I reached up to pick leaves out of my hair and realized my Lilla Rose hair clip had stayed in my hair though this harrowing event. My “Blossom Medley” style clip will continue to be a memento of our miraculous escape, (yes I realize the unabashed marketing here).
I saw a forestry truck go by and realized the missed opportunity to flag them for help. Shortly afterwards another green truck came by and I held up my arm as a sign of distress and the truck stopped with the two rangers hopping out to see if I was okay.
Both were very kind. I asked the driver if she had seen a man walking up the road wearing nothing but a shirt around his hips. She said indeed she had. I asked her to please pick up my husband who had just nearly died saving my life. The driver instructed Josh, the young man with her, to stay behind with me.
As I realized the crisis was over, I felt an asthma/panic type attack coming on as Josh was questioning me for details. He understood what was happening and encouraged me to take slow breaths and rest. Josh told me he was an experienced rafter of 20 years and had nearly drowned in a similar situation. Caught in a water hydraulic, Josh rolled himself into a ball and eventually came out, dazed and incoherent from lack of oxygen. I felt he appreciated the miracle of our escape.
The lethal Kern River
Sadly, Josh reported that a man had drowned in nearby Lake Isabella, fed by the Kern River, earlier the same day as our near drowning. The low water levels make the lake more treacherous with
currents snagging swimmers in the lake bed’s debris. Over 270 people have lost their lives in the Kern River since 1968. I later learned the Kern is the fastest falling elevation river in the United States with its headwaters near Mt. Whitney of the Sierra Nevadas, the highest peak in the continental U.S.
An ambulance happened to be nearby and was called to check on me. My lungs were clear, oxygen level good and I was okay other than my knee, for which I requested an ace bandage. I refused transport to the hospital as I desperately wanted to return to our motel to shower, lie down and rest. While showering I giggled at all the green moss and woolly buggers, (fisherman speak) that washed out of my swimsuit and hair.
Blessed to feel pain
Pres suffered cracked ribs and a bruised hip. I tore the ACL in my left knee along with a small fracture in the tibia with bone bruises and ligament sprains. My shoulder was injured and we both had cuts, bruises and “rock rash.”
Pres and I enjoyed the peace and quiet of our little motel room and were grateful to be reunited with our friends as we had reported them missing. Our friends were relieved to find us and know we were safe as well. They took us out to an Italian restaurant to celebrate on a cozy patio as the sun set – food and wine never tasted so good!
We lay awake with sore, achy bodies that night with a new perspective on the blessed ability to feel pain. We cried, rejoiced and held hands, talking through the amazing miracle of grace and life we had lived through.
We have written down our story, so as not to forget any of the details that time may dim. Pres is a strong man, yet knows beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his strength was not enough to save us. Rather, when he surrendered himself to God in that underwater moment, that it was divine intervention that saved Pres’ life, so he could save mine. Pres had chosen to wear his tennis shoes rather than his water shoes that day. In retrospect Pres feels certain that choice gave him the footing he needed for us to escape. Pres says he can never throw that pair away. Perhaps we will bronze them later, grin.
We continue to thank God as we heal from our injuries. Thankfully, surgery will repair the damage to my knee. One day I still plan to catch that ever-elusive trout.
Written in celebration of my 59th birthday
Thank you to Rich Zimmerman for his beautiful photographs of the Kern River
*Definition of a river hydraulic:
A boulder or ledge in the middle of a river or near the side can obstruct the flow of the river, and can also create a “pillow”; when water flows backwards upstream of the obstruction, or a “pour over” (over the boulder); and “hydraulics” or “holes” where the river flows back on itself—perhaps back under the drop—often … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitewater
- In a life threatening emergency take a few seconds to scout out the surroundings and evaluate how to keep both the rescuer and victim safe. In retrospect Pres could have reached my position by the neighboring boulders and grabbed my outstretched arm.
- Always wear a life vest in wilderness waters. Never rely on an inner tube as a life vest.
- Low water levels can actually be more dangerous than normal water levels as the rocky bottom is more exposed as well as underwater snags.
- Never swim alone. Use the buddy system to keep close together and help one another through difficulties you may encounter.
YouTube of the Kern River:
2017 Deadly year on the Killer Kern River
Kern River rescue 2017
Kern River photo gallery with photos courtesy of Rich Zimmerman
Rich is a retired teacher, photographer and fly fisherman from the Kern River locale