Accident Database

Report ID# 3057

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Non-Witness Narrative by (name not provided) on 2009-05-04 (okay to publish):

Kern Fatality What started out as an epic father/son outing turned into tragedy when John Burhnam, 63, father of Macy, was killed paddling on the 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. 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 River, classified as the bottom part of the Forks of the Kern run, or Upper Tombstone.

Apparently, Burnham had run into trouble and swam above the notch on the Teacups earlier in the day. The group was spread out and Burnham and two other paddlers were ahead when they reached Carson Falls, the last significant rapid on the Forks of the Kern before the takeout. Burnham, who was said to be exhausted by this point, 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,” says 18-year-old Spencer Joseph, who happened to have paddled ahead to set up safety at Carson. Burnham disappeared in the rapid, presumably caught in a sieve.

Paddlers began to show up, including John’s son Macy, as the group came together and continued the search for the missing paddler. As this story went to print, it was not known if Burnham’s body had been recovered. Efforts ran throughout the weekend to do so. John’s son, Macy, is an accomplished whitewater paddler, having been a major player on the national freestyle scene as well as a solid exploratory creek boater. John Burnham leaves behind a wife and two sons.

Joe Carberry


Son recounts father’s kayaking tragedy

Jon Burnham of Eugene was an experienced paddler who got separated from his boat in rapids and swept over a waterfall


By Edward Russo

The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR

April 24, 2009,

An experienced kayaker, Jon Burnham of Eugene couldn’t overcome “an unfortunate series of events” on California’s Kern River, a son said Thursday.Burnham, 63, remains missing and is presumed drowned one week after capsizing and floating over a waterfall in the south-central California river, Macy Burnham said.

A northeast Eugene resident and father of two, Jon Burnham was a longtime agent with the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. “He was a wonderful human being with a good sense of humor,” Macy Burnham, 29, said. “He was very easygoing, very special.”

Macy’s brother Jake, 32, a Eugene contractor, has spent the past few days calling about 300 friends and colleagues of their father to let them know what happened. “Everyone has reacted with shock, disbelief and tears. It’s been a really difficult week,” Macy Burnham said.

Jon and Macy Burnham were among a group of 14 people who were kayaking the Kern, east of Bakersfield, on April 17 when the accident occurred. Their father capsized going through a rapids that are “intermediate in difficulty,” Macy Burham said.

Jon Burnham, who was wearing a life jacket, swam away from his hardshell kayak and was trying to swim to shore when he was swept downstream and over Carson Falls, a 6-foot waterfall, Macy Burnham said. The younger Burnham was in his kayak trying to reach his father. “He was a bit ahead of us. I was about 10 feet away from him” when he went over the falls, Macy Burnham said.


Jon Burnham had kayaked with his son for 15 years, taking it up when he was 48. Macy Burnham, a commercial loan officer in Reno, Nev., said he is a professional kayaker who has competed in national events. His father was “a good intermediate paddler and the (rapids) he had run was within his abilities, and this (rapids) was well within his abilities,” Macy Burnham said. “This was just an unfortunate series of events.”

He suspects that his father forgot to replace a drain plug in the kayak before he put the craft in the Kern. In that case, the kayak would have taken on water and been more difficult to control in the rapids, Macy Burnham said. The plug was missing from the kayak when it was recovered after the accident, he said.

The elder Burnham went over the left side of the falls which was “probably the worst possible spot you could swim off the ledge,” he said. “We assume that he went in deep water and then he went back under the falls instead of going downstream. That was the last time anyone saw him.”

Members of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team believe Jon Burnham’s body remains in the water under the falls, Macy Burnham said. Authorities continue searching for Burnham, but they are in “recovery mode,” he said. Rafting groups on the Kern are being asked to help find Burnham’s body.  However, it may take several weeks or a couple of months for his father’s body to be recovered, Macy Burnham said.

Besides his two sons, Burnham is survived by his wife, Norma, and two grand­children. “I couldn’t have asked for a better father,” Macy Burnham said. “Not only was he a very good role model and a good influence, he also was a best friend. He did everything with my brother and I.”



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