Thursday, July 07, 2016

Swimming the Mighty Kern River (Kern River by Merle Haggard)

Years ago, I'm not exactly 100% sure, either the summer of 1979 or 1980, I went on a fishing and camping (and drinking) trip to Kern River with my two friends Ken Robledo and Mike Teran. Kern River was our old stomping grounds.

We fished, and we drank and we ate and we had a good time. At some point during the trip I took a short walk to the bank of the river. I looked across to the other side and there was a wall of granite. From where I stood it seemed to be at enough of a slant for someone to climb up and sit for a while. The water seemed like a sheet of glass with very little movement.

I couldn't tell you how wide it was, maybe as wide as boulevard. Whatever it was it looked manageable. I dove in head first, which if you know anything about Kern River, you know that's a big No-No. I started swimming to the other side and I realized immediately that the current was much stronger than it looked. I can say with all honesty, while I can swim, I am not a great swimmer and I had been drinking. I began to tire. I should have turned back but I figured I would rest on that giant slab of granite before swimming back. It all seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was beyond exhausted when I reached the other side. I tried to climb the rock but it turned out to be steeper than I had thought. I was trying to hold back my panic. I went up and down but there was no place for me to get a grip. On top of that it was all slippery.

As tired and spent as I was, I had no other choice but to swim back. I had nothing in me. I can say with absolute certainty that I had never reached the point of tiredness that I had at that moment. My will was gone. I knew I wasn't going to make it and for a moment I just gave up, I didn't know what else to do. I just gave up and I was letting the river take me.

At that moment a picture of my daughter Meranda popped into my head. She was still a baby The thought of her growing up without a father, without me, was more than I could take and I began praying, “Please God..... Please God..... Please!”.

I could not describe to you how I did it. I have no memory of it but I made it back to the other side. I found myself gasping and heaving on the sand and dirt and rocks. My two friends were standing on either side of me laughing. I was just too damned tired to care. I can't say I blame them though. I must have been a sight and without realizing what actually happened it probably did look funny.

I was lucky I didn't break my neck or crack my skull when I dove into the river. Many people have been seriously injured or worse. Many have drowned swimming Kern River. It is an unkind river. There is a sign posted at the entry way into the canyon letting you know how many people have died. I was almost one of them. God was watching out for me. I swear to God, I will never swim Kern River again!

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