By Shannon Rapose
Kern Valley Sun
Photo courtesy of Facebook: Seth Smith was a rafting guide with Mountain and River Adventures and an avid kayaker. He passed away on Thursday, January 11, while kayaking on the lower Kern River.
A fatal accident on the Kern River last week hit close to home for the Kern Valley Sun staff and local water sports community.
Thursday, Jan. 11, was just another day on the river for friends Gabe Elder and Seth Smith, who decided to paddle the lower Kern River in their kayaks like they had done many times before.
Both lived with the water flowing through them, having been well-seasoned guides with local rafting companies for many years and spending as much of their time on the water as possible, because that is just what they did. Being fully aware of the dangers the river presents, they were well equipped for conditions as they headed out to an area of the lower Kern River called “the Cataracts,” well known among the paddling community for its level of difficulty in some spots.
At approximately 2:30 p.m., multiple Kern County emergency crews responded to reports of a possible drowning in the Kern River Canyon, approximately half a mile inside the western end of the canyon. When they arrived on scene, they found Elder performing CPR on Smith on the river’s edge. According to Kern County Sheriff’s Office, Elder had been performing CPR on Smith for about 45 minutes before emergency crews could get to them.
There had also been conflicting reports of a third victim, a woman that had been involved. Smith’s mother, Natalie Brown, the Kern Valley Sun’s general manager, refers to the unknown woman as “an angel” because she reportedly stopped when she noticed the two men in trouble on the opposite side of the river and then swam across to help Elder bring Smith to the other side. The woman then left the scene before anyone learned her name.
After being rescued, both Elder and Smith were transported to San Joaquin Valley Hospital, where Elder was treated for minor injuries and mild hypothermia while Smith was placeD on life support and was in critical condition. Unfortunately, Smith remained unresponsive and later died at approximately 1:30 a.m. Friday morning.
News of Smith’s passing quickly spread throughout the local, tight-knit paddling and boating community, flooding Facebook with positive praise and memories of Smith and condolences for his family. Friends quickly organized an informal gathering in Smith’s honor and were overwhelmed with the number of people that came to show their support and share stories of Smith, who had touched their lives in one way or another.
The river does not discriminate against age or health, how much safety gear you wear or how many years of experience you have in the water; no one is invincible or immune to the unpredictability that is Mother Nature. This fact is why most are drawn to high adrenaline sports like rafting and kayaking. Accepting the risks and preparing as best as you can comes with the territory, especially when it comes to doing what you love.
Smith’s death is a testament that accidents can still happen even to the best most experienced and knowledgeable. The result is still the same, and now life is forever changed for those left in the wake of this tragedy.
Smith was 27 years old and leaves behind two young sons, James and Jaxson.
Keep on paddling, Seth.