BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Colorful awnings and tents lined the shores of the Kern River on a Saturday afternoon at Riverside Park in the small town of Kernville in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Even in town, the otherwise dark blue-green river churned white over and around the rocks and tree branches within the choppy waves. Despite the swift currents, families played in the water to beat the muggy August heat, some splashing near the shore, others floating on rafts and inner tubes near the middle.
Then disaster struck.
"People were just hanging out when these two inner tubes that were lashed together came floating down the river upside down," said a witness at the scene, who declined to give his name.
"Their legs were in the air. We weren't sure if they were okay. Then someone screamed, 'Help them!'" he added.
From what he could tell the people were rescued, but he wasn't certain since they had floated too far downriver for him to see what happened.
"It spooked a lot of people," he said. Indeed, many people were packing up their towels, picnic gear and water toys and heading for the parking lot as he spoke with a Courthouse News reporter.
Others continued to play in the water, most of them without life vests — a bold thing to do, since this river is nicknamed "the Killer Kern."
It's unfortunately an appropriate moniker. According to two signs in English and Spanish that stand at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon, 325 people have died in the river since 1968. That's an average of about six people a year over a 55-year period. More than 100 of those deaths have happened since 2000.
Drowning is the leading cause of death on the river, and "falling in is as dangerous as swimming," the U.S. Forest Service says.
Since most of the victims are from out of town, Kern County spent about $100,000 on an ad campaign in the Los Angeles area to warn about the river's dangers. County park rangers are also handing out flyers and speaking face-to-face with people this summer. There are signs in both English and Spanish at various river access points.
Though the Kern County Sheriff's Department updated the death toll signs in May, around the same time the PSAs hit the airwaves, they're already out of date.
One of the latest victims was a professional kayaker who drowned in mid-June. A Guatemalan man visiting family in the Los Angeles area who went camping at the river died in early July. Yet another was a 38-year-old Anaheim man who drowned during a baptism.
Another body was retrieved from the river on Aug. 13, but there was no relation between the victim and the inner tube incident on Aug. 12, according to a release from the sheriff's department.
But what makes the Killer Kern so dangerous?
It's a combination of several factors, according to WX Research, a weather and climate research group.
One of the river's defining features is its swift currents, which often reach over 8,000 cubic feet per second. Spring and summer are the most dangerous times, as snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains adds speed and lowers the water temperature — sometimes to 38 F.
Swimmers are at risk of hypothermia or drowning by inhaling water in an instinctive gasp response to the cold. They can also get trapped by underwater hazards or caught in hydraulics, holes that form when the current turns back on itself as it meets an obstacle.
Even the legendary Merle Haggard, Bakersfield native and pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound, wrote a song about the river that peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1985. Simply titled "Kern River," it recounts the fictional story of the singer's girlfriend drowning during a moonlight swim.