What started out as an epic father-son outing turned into tragedy when Jon Burnham, 63, father of Macy, was killed paddling on California’s Kern River Friday, April 17.
Friday morning before the Kern River Festival, a group of about 14 hiked into the Seven Teacups on Dry Meadow Creek, a tributary to the Kern River. The hike is about two miles. After running the seven drops an arduous portage is required around a set of unrunnable falls to reach the Kern, a section referred to as the bottom part of the Forks of the Kern run, or Upper Tombstone.
Apparently, Burnham had run into trouble and swam above the notchy waterfall on the Teacups earlier in the day–a drop known as Super Freak. Once the group finished portaging down to the Kern River proper, the team became spread out. Burnham and two other paddlers were ahead when they reached Carson Falls, the last significant rapid on the Forks of the Kern River before the takeout. Carson features a ledgy entrance into a Class III-IV runout. There are several theories about the cause of Burnham’s accident: some members of the trip theorize he might have been exhausted by this point. His son Macy thinks he may have forgotten to replace a drain plug when he re-entered the Kern as it was missing when the boat was recovered, which would have made the boat tough to maneuver. According to witnesses, he was caught in a non-descript hole well above the rapid, rolling several times before exiting his boat and swimming through Carson Falls. “I felt him grab my throw rope and then it went limp,” said 18-year-old Spencer Joseph, who happened to paddle ahead to set up safety at Carson.
Burnham disappeared in the rapid, presumably caught in a sieve or pinned against a rock. “He was a bit ahead of us. I was about 10 feet away from him when he went over the falls,”Macy told the Register Guard . Other boaters began to show up as the group came together and continued the search for the missing paddler. Still no word on whether Burnham’s body had been recovered.
Macy Burnham is an accomplished whitewater paddler, having been a major player on the national freestyle scene as well as a solid exploratory creek boater. Jon Burnham–from Eugene, Oregon–leaves behind a wife and two sons.
– Joe Carberry
This story was last updated April 29, 2009.