The left side of our yellow raft is in the river and the right side is pointed towards the sky. All of my friends have been ejected from the raft and are swimming for their lives. And in a few moments I’ll be joining them. I’ll never forget this last image before our raft flipped in a rapid called Joe’s Diner.
At the time the accident happened, I didn’t think I was going to die, but then again maybe I should have been more worried. I can think of several defining moments in my life that have shaped me into who I am. The story I’ll share today is perhaps the most defining. It’s at least the most exciting.
In July 2005, six friends, my dad, brother, and I spent the weekend whitewater rafting in Kernville, CA, a small town on the Kern River 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield. Our confidence was high after several other successful trips, so we planned to challenge ourselves with difficult rapids. We didn’t think much about it — bigger rapids meant more fun!
We arrived at our campsite Thursday night with a plan to raft the following three days. Seven of us manned one raft — my brother, five very close friends, and me. My dad and another friend were each in their own kayak.
Rapids are classified according to their difficulty and danger. Classifications start at 2 and go up to 6, where a class 2 is a small, harmless rapid, and a class 6 is likely to kill you. Most guided recreational rafting trips do class 3 and 4 rapids.
We started off our trip on Friday by rafting the Lower Kern, an 11-mile stretch lasting all day. It’s a perfect first day, because it has easy, large rapids that are tons of fun and not too dangerous. Plus most of the stretch is whitewater, with only a few calm, lazy sections.
The last rapid of the Lower Kern is called Pinball, a difficult class 4 with lots of obstacles. Our previous trips down the Lower Kern always ended with a bad run through Pinball — we’d get stuck on rocks, bounced around, etc. This time we ran it flawlessly. This was a perfect end to the day, and a huge boost to our confidence.
I captained the raft from the rear, where I’d yell commands to maneuver us down the river. Each person in the raft had their own paddle. The commands I yelled were simple: an instruction to either paddle backwards or forwards. For example, I may have yelled “right forward,” signifying that the right side of the raft should paddle forward. “All back” meant that everyone should paddle backwards. And so on and so forth.
We started the second day with more confidence and a knack to challenge ourselves further. We ran several different sections, all consisting of difficult class 4 rapids. We were on fire all day — this was the best we had ever rafted. We wanted to go bigger before the day was over — we wanted to do a class 5.
For the last run of the day, we brought our raft down the hillside above a class 5 rapid called Bombs Away. The rapid is short, but it’s big. It has a 15ft drop followed by a huge wave. In all fairness, it’s relatively easy to run on a raft compared to a kayak. Nonetheless, we were scared and pumped up. Only six of us got in the raft — everyone else was too scared or too tired.
Normally when we approach a rapid, we hoot and holler with excitement, anticipating a fun and exciting ride. This time, we were silent except for my yell of “ALL FORWARD!” — a signal to paddle like hell. We entered the rapid perfectly, dropping for what seemed like forever. Jon, sitting at the front, noticed that all of a sudden he was paddling air — water was no longer below him. Finally we slammed into the huge wave waiting at the bottom. My dad, who was sitting at the rear with me, flew forward and hit my brother in the back of the head with his paddle. I was launched sideways into the well of the raft, where I was unable to see what was happening. After a few seconds I found my footing and got up to observe the damage. Pure chaos. No one was in their paddling position. Everyone had been pushed into the middle of the raft. My dad was making feeble attempts at paddling from his low, awkward position in the raft. His paddle was barely touching the water. Everyone else was stumbling to sit back up.
Eventually we all recovered, got into our positions, and screamed with excitement. Chaos is the source fun in whitewater, and we found plenty of it on Bombs Away. We finished the rapid, which after the drop was relatively calm. We had run Bombs Away flawlessly. Our confidence was at a new high. We slapped all our paddles together in celebration and exited the river to end the day.
We returned to our campsite that night with high spirits. We had finished two epic days of rafting. We ran several difficult class 4 rapids without problems. And we ran a big class 5 flawlessly. We could raft anything, or so we thought … until the next day.
We all woke up slowly Sunday morning, hazy from the evening celebration. We took our time preparing breakfast and lazed around the campsite. We decided to do one more run before packing our bags and heading home. We picked a short run near our campsite, which just so happened to be our favorite stretch: the Limestone Run.
The Limestone Run has two large class 4 rapids: Limestone Rapid and Joe’s Diner, along with a few easy class 3 rapids. The whole run takes less than an hour. The day before we ran the Limestone Run two or three times. And we had rafted the Limestone Run several times before this trip, too.
My dad and two friends dropped the rest of us off with the raft at the start of the run. They were tired from the previous two days and decided to sit the final day out. After they dropped us off, they drove to the end of the run and waited for our arrival.
The six of us started by inflating the raft. The process took about 20 minutes and started on land. Once the raft was pumped up, we put it in the river and left it to sit for a few minutes. The cold water cools the air inside the raft, which causes it to contract, hence deflating the raft slightly. Once the raft was cool, we used the pump to inflate the raft further. A partially-inflated raft is sluggish and less maneuverable.
As we pushed off the rock to start our run, I noticed immediately that our raft still wasn’t fully inflated. The thought crossed my mind to stop and add more air, but I decided against it — we were good, and I knew it.
The first rapid was Limestone Rapid, an easy, big class 4. We stumbled our way through it, making sloppy mistakes here and there. We hadn’t fully woken up yet, and our sluggish raft wasn’t helping.
The next rapid was Joe’s Diner, also an easy, big class 4, with a large sweeping left turn and two large holes on the right side of the turn. A hole is an obstacle that recirculates water behind an underwater rock, as seen here. Holes can be dangerous for kayakers, but rafts typically go right through them. Furthermore, we often go through holes on purpose just for the wild ride. We had gone through both large holes on Joe’s Diner the day before, enjoying ourselves the whole time.
We entered the rapid correctly and started making our way around the left turn. I wanted to avoid the two large holes because I wanted our final day to go smoothly. I shouted “right forward” to turn the raft slightly left. Then “ALL FORWARD” to move us down the rapid and away from the holes. As we paddled we moved forward but not left — our raft wasn’t maneuvering as it had the day before. We were headed strait for the first large hole. And we were sideways. Once I knew we wouldn’t avoid the hole, I made a call for “RIGHT BACK, LEFT FORWARD” to quickly point the raft into the hole. The move was executed in time and we entered the hole strait.
All of a sudden we were sideways, our left side up river and our right side down river. We had entered the hole strait and left it moments later sideways. We were going strait for the second hole and we were still sideways. We didn’t have time to correct ourselves. A thought crossed my mind, “OH SHIT!”
We entered the second hole sideways and were immediately flipped, right side over left. Everyone was ejected from the raft instantly including me.
I struggled underwater for what seemed like an eternity. At first I saw nothing — the blackness of the river bottom. Then I saw white bubbles everywhere as I moved towards the surface with the help of my life vest. I surfaced and took a quick look around. Pure chaos. I saw my friends and brother swimming for their lives. I saw paddles, life vests, shoes, kicking hands and legs. And I saw the raft, upside down, racing downriver.
One thought popped into my head: I need to get to the raft. I knew this run eventually led into a fatal dam, and I knew the raft was our only way to get down and exit the river safely. I still had my paddle in my hand, so I threw it away and started swimming.
My view of the raft was constantly interrupted by waves and other holes. As I was swimming I was sucked underwater over and over again by waves and holes. I swam through debris — shirts and shoes — ignoring all of it. I needed to get to the raft.
I swam and swam and finally reached the raft. When I got to it, I found Jon (aka Zoo) holding on to one end. In one hand was the raft, in the other was two paddles. What a champion! I yelled to him with all my might, “ZOO, LET’S GET THIS FUCKER OVER!” He nodded. I grabbed the end of the raft with Zoo and we started kicking our way to the left side of the river.
We made slow progress, but eventually the raft was on the bank and we were standing on solid ground. I turned towards the river to see what others were doing. Dustin and Andrew had swam safely to the raft as well and were climbing onto the bank. My brother, who at the time was fourteen, and Nico were floating down river slowly making their way over. I yelled as loud as I could — as if it wasn’t already clear — to have them swim to the left side. With some struggle they eventually got over, but much below where I and the raft were. They hiked upriver to meet us. We were together again. And we were safe. No one was injured.
Although the six of us had survived, much of our gear hadn’t. Only one other person held onto their paddle, which meant we had three paddles plus a spare, totaling four paddles. Great. Six people, four paddles, a partially inflated raft, and several more class 3 rapids to get through. We rested a few moments, flipped the raft right-side up, and got ready for the rest of the run.
We bumped and stumbled our way through the class 3 rapids to the end of the run. My dad was waiting for us and was obviously worried. We had taken far longer than expected to get to the bottom. But we made it. We joked as college students do, “We all got sucked off at Joe’s Diner.” Very funny.
We all recounted the event and shared stories. Andrew, after being ejected from the raft, was held under for a few seconds and resurfaced under the raft. He dove under water trying to free himself, only to come up still under the raft. He did this several more times and eventually came up to daylight. Nico hit his head hard on a rock but was OK. Everyone else suffered the same journey as me: lots of turbulence, swimming, and episodes of being held underwater.
I was inspired to write this story after reading about the Tunnel Creek avalanche, an avalanche that claimed three lives in Washington. My friends, brother, and I are lucky that we’re alive to tell the tale of Joe’s Diner. Other adventure seekers aren’t always so lucky.
I’ve enjoyed adrenaline sports for as long as I can remember. My parents started me on skis when I was three. Today I enjoy mountain biking, road biking, snowboarding, snowmobiling, whitewater rafting, skateboarding, and surfing. These sports are dangerous. But my fondest memories are those similar to Joe’s Diner, where friends and I push our limits and find our edges. The risk is worth the excitement. I’ll continue with adrenaline sports for as long as my body lets me. I won’t let fear control me.
Since flipping our raft on Joe’s Diner, we’ve run the rapid successfully several times. We’re more careful, and we always inflate the raft fully.