The Kern River: Search and Rescue volunteers speak out on drownings, rescue missions

Posted at 1:02 PM, Jul 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-31 16:03:37-04

Beautiful, but underneath the surface -- dangerous.

“The last time we had water like this was in 2011," Search and Rescue volunteer Tony Talbott said. He has been a volunteer for almost three decades.

“I know what the power of this river is," Gary Ananian with the Kern River Conservancy said. "You get in this water and its really turbulent."

SAR volunteers are all too familiar with drownings in the Kern River this year.

As of late July 2017, there have been 11 confirmed Kern River deaths. The record was set in 1986 with 15 deaths.

One of the first responders for these river rescues and searches are the SAR unit -- a volunteer unit funded in part by donations and in part by the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

These volunteers are always on call -- on top of their full time jobs.

“We immediately jump up. We go," Brian Baskin, a Search and Rescue volunteer, said.

“My full time job is a paramedic which I’ve been doing for 20," Baskin said. “Every day off, every hour I’m off from my normal job I’m essentially doing some sort of SAR mission or SAR work.”

He has been with the team for 17 years.

“Just in the same way that a fireman would leave a fire house, we leave our houses.”

Due to the rushing waters this year caused by heavy rainfall and the snowpack, SAR volunteers have had over 150 call-outs as of late July. This set a new record for the agency.

“We spend every minute that we can looking for someone who’s missing," Talbott said.

The average number of call-outs per year is 73. The previous record was set in 2011.

In 2011 the agency received 120 call-outs. There were 11 confirmed deaths in the river that year.

Sargent Steven Williams with SAR said people's lack of preparation is almost always a factor in most call-outs.

No one has drowned this year while rafting with a professional rafting company.

All of these missions take a toll on the minds of these volunteers.

“You go into a mindset," Talbott said. "As soon as you get a call and you’re going to it you get in that mode.”

Talbott and Baskin said they are motivated by the success of a mission -- the reason they come back year after year and put in long hours.

“When you hand somebody a child who was just rescued and you hand it to their mother it’s the best feeling in the world," Talbott said.

Gary Ananian, an advocate for the river, once almost lost his life in it.

“I almost drown," Ananian said. His boat flipped while on a whitewater rafting trip.

“It was like being stuck in a laundry machine," he said. “I’m alive for one reason and that’s being I was wearing a life jacket.”

Moments like this are why volunteers continue to do what they do.

“It’s been the best experience of my life," Baskin said. "All of the other jobs that I’ve worked it hasn’t affected me in such a positive way as this team.”

A team committed to respecting the river.

“We have a healthy respect for the river," Baskin said.


This is part of the week-long “The Kern River: An Inside Look” series.