Accident Database

Report ID# 513

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Inadequate Equipment
  • Inexperience
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

The Chamise Gorge section of California ’s Kern River contains some solid Class IV-V drops separated by easier Class II-III whitewater. On August 1, 1998 it was running at a low 850 cfs. A paddle raft carrying 9 people from Edwards Air Force base blundered into Salmon Falls , a Class V+. They flipped in a nasty undercut chute on the left, and everyone swam.  Seven made it through, but  Ralph Chevarine, 26, and Michael Lopez, 27, did not. They probably became pinned in a boulder sieve somewhere in the rapid. The missing paddlers’ life vests appeared later, fully zipped and tied, floating in the pool below. A massive search involving divers and a helicopter failed to find any trace of the missing men.

SOURCE: John Gangemi, AW Conservation Chair; Bakersfield Californian; Fresno Bee

ANALYSIS (Walbridge) The group was not wearing helmets despite the difficulty of the rapids and did not scout a drop that many experienced paddlers carry. Commercial outfitters do not run this stretch. All this suggests that the group lacked the experience needed for this run. They should have chosen an easier stretch; there are several nearby

Sender: calboaters@siolib-155.UCSD.EDU Reply-To: calboaters@siolib-155.UCSD.EDU Date: Mon, 03 Aug 98 14:35:13 -0800 From: To: Multiple recipients of Subject: Re: [Fwd: 1 dead and 1 missing on the Kern] These people were in a paddle raft with 8-9 people and apparently were only a few minutes behind us as we (Lynne Siodmak, John Gangemi of American Whitewater, Ken Bender of Oregon, Rob ? from San Jose, and myself)were paddling from the top of chamise to the park. Apparently they were a group of friends on a private trip who were camped at fairview and apparently didn't know the river well, so basically they blundered into Salmon falls. my understanding is that they flipped at the entrance to that nasty slot on the left (which is pretty undercut on the right at lowish flows) and they all went in. All but 2 people popped up. then two zipped, tied pfds popped up including at least one of the woman's shoes. we speculated that a possible foot entrapment could have caused the pfd's to be torn off. since this all happened behind us we were unaware of it until 2 of our party who were hitching our shuttle from Cable were picked up by the other occupants of the raft, including the wife of the guy who was missing. They apparently were quite frustrated at the response of the local authorities, who did not jump on it as fast as the survivors felt they should have. Keith Dinger and Gary Valle came upon them later during their run or shuttle (can't remember which) - they know the details of the next couple of hours better than I. A helicopter came in for unknown (at least to us) reasons, and tho we heard there were divers there no recovery was made before dark. Sun the search resumed and they recovered the body of the guy, but by night the woman was still missing. given the extraordinary number of people along the bank with tubes and little PVC rafts I'm amazed that other accidents due to a lack of knowledge/respect don't happen more often. Right above squashed paddler a guy's little caravelle thing got swept into the current right near us, he leaped in after it and would almost certainly have been swept down if we hadn't been right there to save his raft and tell him to get back into shore. Below is the article in the Fresno Bee: LOCAL NEWS | TODAY'S BEE One dead, one missing in latest Valley rafting accident (Published August 3, 1998) The body of a Southern California man was retrieved early Sunday, but the search for a friend continued along a treacherous stretch of the Kern River where their raft overturned Saturday in extreme white water. Tulare County sheriff's officials recovered the body of Ralph Cheverine, 26, of Rosemond about 9 a.m. Sunday, 19 hours after he was thrown from the private raft that reportedly was carrying as many as 10 people. At dusk Sunday, Michelle Lopez, 27, also of Rosemond, was still missing and presumed drowned, sheriff's officials said. Lopez and Cheverine had been rafting Saturday afternoon with a group of friends in the Kern River Canyon near Johnsondale. The trip turned deadly about three miles south of Fairview in a section of the river known as Salmon Falls. Witnesses reported seeing two life jackets floating down the river after the accident. One veteran rafting guide, Tom Moore, said commercial river runners avoid that section of the river because the rapids are too violent. It is a run "that virtually no one does," Moore said. Members of the ill-fated group reportedly had no professional guide with them. Moore, who owns Sierra South Paddle Sports in nearby Kernville, said Salmon Falls is a Class 6 rapid, the worst. Rivers are classified from 1 to 6, with Class 1 amounting to a gentle stream and Class 6 a near waterfall. The river there is dotted with large boulders, he said. Even though the water level has gone down from earlier this summer, someone losing control of a raft in that area would be "like a pinball," he said. Moore said he understood 10 people were in the raft, which would have made it "way overloaded." Tulare County sheriff's officials said the accident occurred a few miles south of where a 13-year-old Idaho girl, Branda Snow, drowned during a guided trip June 16. About Saturday's tragedy, sheriff's officials said the boat capsized after entering "extremely turbulent white water." "Both victims disappeared underneath the white water and were not seen to resurface," said a sheriff's report. Unofficially, the accident may have tied California's annual record for white water fatalities - 12 in 1993. Most of the fatalities in the state this year have involved trips without professional guides. Before Saturday, seven people had died after trying to steer through unusually high and rapid rivers without guides, according to authorities. Moore, who has been a commercial rafter 20 years, urged people to understand what they're getting into before they step into a raft. "People need to know the sport. They need to follow the rules of the sport. It is no different than following the rules and driving your car on the freeway," Moore said. "The first time you go, you should definitely go with a commercial outfitter. After that, if you want to pursue the sport on your own, get the proper equipment, get the proper instruction, the proper safety skills from a number of different river sport sources in the state," he said. ______________________________ Reply Separator Subject: [Fwd: 1 dead and 1 missing on the Kern] Author: at Internet Date: 8/3/98 12:59 PM Just read this on r.b.p. Anyone have any additional info? -- Charles Foster This message was sent to the CalBoaters list, a list for boating information that might be otherwise hard to come by. To subscribe, send a message to with a body of: subscribe calboaters Your_FirstName Your_LastName -John bakersfield paper article Searchers seek 4 presumed lost in Kern Filed: August 3, 1998 By STEVE E. SWENSON Californian staff writer e-mail: A small army of searchers aided by a helicopter failed Monday to find the body of an Edwards Air Force Base employee presumed drowned in the Kern River, Tulare County sheriff's officials said. About 14 searchers and a helicopter combed the area near Fairview, six miles north of the Kern County line. They failed to find the woman identified as Michelle Lopez, 27, a civilian employee at the base, Capt. Mike Scott reported. Senior Airman Ralph J. Cheverine, 26, a member of the Edwards Fire Department, also drowned in the incident. His body was recovered at 9 a.m. Sunday, officials said. A life vest believed to have belonged to Lopez was found near where Cheverine's body was discovered, sheriff's officials said. The two were among nine Edwards employees on a rented raft that overturned Saturday afternoon near Salmon Creek when it went into a stretch of the river that Scott described as "fast, narrow and rocky." He noted that commercial rafting companies take their rafts out of the water and walk around that stretch. Meanwhile, plans were made Monday to continue searching this week for the bodies of Joshua Patton, 18, and Micaela Schafer, 7, who have been missing since July 4. The pickup of Brett Schafer, 33, the father of the girl and an uncle of Patton, was found near the river next to Stockdale Highway. Schafer was also missing for a time. His body was found in the river July 18. An autopsy confirmed he had drowned. Kern County sheriff's Cmdr. Stan Moe said searches have been conducted every week since July 4 not only for the girl and teen-ager, but for Francisco Acuna, 38, of Los Angeles who went into the water July 11 near the Upper Richbar Campground in the Kern River Canyon. Acuna went into the river to help his wife, and while he pushed her to safety, he himself was swept away. Thus far this year, 13 people have drowned or been reported missing in the Kern and Tulare stretches of the Kern River. In Kern County, four people have drowned while three are missing; in Tulare County five bodies have been found and one is missing. Kern County sheriff's officials have reported 195 drownings in the Kern section of the river since 1968On August 1st nine rafters from Edwards Air Force Base made a fatal error while running a Class IV-V stretch of Upper Kern River in Southern California. AW's John Gangemi reported that the river level was moderate, about 1000 cfs. The rented raft was pretty big for the run. Rangers also felt it was overloaded, but the group continued despite warnings. Despite the difficulty of the run they were not wearing helmets. The raft blundered into Salmon Falls, a Class V+ rapid that the rangers warned them about and that outfitters normally portage. The raft flipped, throwing everyone into the river. Remarkably, most of the rafters washed though the big drop. Two people, Ralph Cheverine, 26, and Michelle Lopez, 27, disappeared. Two life vest and a single shoe belonging to Lopez appeared at the bottom, still closed, suggesting an underwater entrapment. Cheverine's body was recovered that day, but a week later Lopez's body was still missing.ANALYSIS: 

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