It’s officially summer, and for lots of Californians — particularly those who live many miles inland from the beach — that usually means it’s river season: a time for seeking relief from the heat in cool water, wading in shallows or floating in inner tubes.
But as I reported last week, the procession of epic winter storms that transformed the state has also turned the rivers fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada into deadly, raging torrents.
And while people can be swept away in California’s rivers even in normal years, the fast-moving flows this year have been deemed so dangerous that some local officials have restricted access to the water, barring anyone except commercial rafting companies from getting in.
“There is a historic amount of water right now: faster, colder and more deadly than we’ve seen in recent years,” Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, told me. “There is no amount of training or exercise that prepares a human body.”
According to a tally by The Mercury News, at least 18 people have died or been lost in rivers so far this year.
I visited the banks of the Kern River, northeast of Bakersfield. Local residents know well the river’s beauty and its dangers, but many campers seeking an affordable escape from Los Angeles or other cities across Southern California are unprepared for the powerful currents beneath its often glittering surface. (This year, at least, campers told me that seeing foaming white-water rapids on the way to their campsites has been something of a deterrent for those considering a swim.)
Local public safety agencies and other groups have put out public service announcements on social media and have posted signs in English and Spanish to warn visitors before they get to the water, which can be beguiling on a hot day.
Once people are pulled in to the current, they can quickly be swept out of the reach of even the most experienced rescuers. Their bodies can become caught against underwater thickets of tree branches and debris, called strainers, which can make it difficult to find them until the waters recede.
So what do firefighters and swift-water rescue experts tell visitors about how to stay safe? Here are some tips:
No matter how strong a swimmer you are, do not try to swim in any Sierra-fed rivers this summer. Imagine the force of relentless speeding traffic. Now imagine that it’s made up of water cold enough to stun a human body within seconds. That’s what the rivers are like right now, as the snow melts and runs down from the mountains. As the weather gets warmer, the flows are likely to increase.
Wear a life jacket — and make sure your children are wearing them, too — anywhere near the river. Rescuers say they have often been called to help save people from the Kern River who never meant to get in it — people who lost their footing while climbing around on the giant granite boulders, polished smooth by flowing currents, that line the riverbank. If you do fall in, a life vest can help keep you from being sucked under.
Never tether yourself or a pool toy to trees or other stationary objects on the shore. While it may seem like a good plan, if you are swept away, a tether can pull you under the water, or get caught on debris in the river.
Watch children closely, and do not let them wade into the water. Children can be carried away in an instant.
Know where you can get a cellphone signal. Many campgrounds and river beaches are in remote areas where cell service may be patchy or nonexistent. If something goes wrong, you’ll want to call for help as quickly as possible, so spend a little time at the beginning of your trip figuring out where to go if you need to place an emergency call.
Still want to cool off? Consider a lake. The record-breaking snowpack in the Sierra Nevada has not only transformed rivers, but it has also replenished lakes and reservoirs that had dipped to low, often unhealthy levels during the past few years of drought. For instance, Isabella Lake, a reservoir on the Kern River, was almost down to just a stagnant dead pool last summer. But in October, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a dam repair project at the lake, allowing the reservoir to refill again, just in time for the winter storms. Now, the water level is higher than it has been in 15 years — perfect for fishing or swimming.
Jill Cowan is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering California for The Times.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Don Wise, who lives in Villa Park:
“My favorite tourist destination in California, where I have lived for nearly 36 years, is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. You go from the ground station just north of Palm Springs to the summit of Mount San Jacinto, which is nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. The ride is breathtaking and the views at the top are spectacular.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
We’re almost halfway through 2023! What are the best things that have happened to you so far this year? What have been your wins? Or your unexpected joys, big or small?
Tell me at CAToday@nytimes.com. Please include your full name and the city where you live.
And before you go, some good news
The San Francisco Gay Softball League, which has provided a fun safe haven for generations of queer athletes, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
“They kind of started the gay sports thing back in the day,” Sherry Schneider, a board member in the league, told the news outlet. “Now you have gay kickball, gay dodgeball, other sports. Gay softball in San Francisco was the start of the L.G.B.T.Q. community being able to come out and say, ‘I’m gay, and I can play sports, and I have a safe place to play.’”
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.