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Whitewater rafting is roaring back to life in California after years of drought

Kern River Outfitters guide Miles Curtis leads a group of rafters through Powerhouse, a Class III rapid on the upper Kern River.

UPPER KERN RIVER, CA – On a recent bright afternoon, a group of boaters hurries onto a raft in the Upper Kern River. Almost as soon as the boat launches, the directions start coming in a cascade as swift as the water.

"Forward two! Forward Two! Keep going!" yells Miles Curtis.

He's the guide on this particular excursion down a six-mile stretch of the upper Kern, about an hour above Bakersfield.

His instructions keep the group on track through eddies and waves and the millions of gallons of churning, fast-flowing whitewater.

He continues: "Dig it in! Dig it in! Wahoo! Yeah, baby!"

Suddenly, the group has to shift its weight inside the raft so the rushing water doesn't pull them overboard. Icy waves crashing above soak through protective wetsuits.

 Rafters complete a "paddle high-five" after successfully navigating a Class IV rapid on the upper Kern River on April 28, 2023.
Miles Curtis
Kern River Outfitters
Rafters complete a "paddle high-five" after successfully navigating a Class IV rapid on the upper Kern River on April 28, 2023.

The rapid is called “Powerhouse,” named after a century-old hydroelectric plant that towers overhead. California poppies and lupin splash the hills in vibrant hues of purple and gold as the full display of spring is on.

On the river, the Class III rapid is over after about 45 seconds of adrenaline-pumping paddling – it ended almost as quickly as it began.

A few miles down the road, Matt Volpert, who owns Kern River Outfitters, says moments like these don’t come often.

“We’re having what we call a big water year,” he says outside his Wofford Heights shop. “We’re seeing water flows that we’ve never seen before, since 1983.”

Storms bring surprises

The deluge from torrents of water surging down the Sierra Nevada mountains has caused billions of dollars in damages to farms and communities in parts of central California.

But the whitewater rafting industry is thriving.

After years of drought, rapids are roaring back to life on the upper Kern River, where flows are topping 50-year highs.

The snowpack in the southern Sierra is 300% of average.

“And when that starts melting, we have high water,” Volpert explains. “People love highwater. Think of the best powder day you’ve ever had.”

But the highwater also brings risk. Authorities have been urging people to be extra safe on surging, freezing rivers.

Already this year, several people have been swept away, including two men on the nearby Kaweah and Tule rivers. Dramatic rescues prompted the Tulare County sheriff to close the waterways to the public.

Volpert’s business is beefing up safety measures to keep patrons safe. Customers have to show that they’re fit enough to raft, and guides are doing extra training, he says.

“To make sure that a guide is ready, they have to see the river repeatedly,” he says. “They have to know every rock, every wave, every hole near the river like the back of their hand.”

Adapting to climate

The potential danger hasn’t deterred customers from enjoying the massive flows.

In fact, here on the Kern River, a big water year means big business. Volpert opened his shop on April 1 and expects to stay open until mid-September.

“It means we’re going to be really busy,” Volpert says.

That’s months longer than most recent seasons – if you could even call them that. The Kern was barely a trickle, before a dozen-plus atmospheric rivers drenched California this winter.

Drought conditions have been so severe at times that they’ve forced Volpert to close his business.

At one point, he considered quitting for good.

“We actually talk about it all the time, like, man, what are we doing here?” Volpert asked.

It’s a question outfitters throughout the western U.S. ask with increasing frequency.

That’s according to Aaron Bannon, director of America Outdoors, which represents 300 whitewater companies nationwide.

He says many outfitters in California are working hard to adapt to the state’s extreme weather whiplash, worsened by human-caused climate change.

Some have modified trips when flows are piddly.

“Maybe you do two half-day trips instead of one full-day trip,” he says.

Despite biblical-seeming challenges – the pandemic, wildfires, drought, flooding – Bannon and others say outfitters are a resilient bunch.

“These outfitters are gonna be there, and these trips are gonna be available,” he says.

Riding the waves for now

Back on the river, evidence of the March floods still litters the shore.

Torrential storms sent 20 million gallons per minute gushing down the river, and threatened to wash away the town of Kernville.

“It ripped full-grown trees out of the water, you can see over there. It devastated the park,” says Curtis, the river guide. “It was a pretty brutal flood.”

He has his fingers crossed that the so-called “Big Melt” of the record snowpack doesn’t happen too fast and make the river too dangerous.

In the meantime, he says rafters should make the most of a banner season.

“A lot of people want to go once a year; I recommend while it’s good, get a taste for it,” he says after clearing a final rapid. “This is the season to raft.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.