Accident Database

Report ID# 3802

  • Flush Drowning
  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • High Water

Accident Description

John Wilburn's wife Erin has written movingly about the accident and the aftermath. She believes that a worn sprayskirt may have been a contributing factor. Here is a link to her blog:

Accident Report from Joe Hatcher:

On Sunday, March 9th, John Wilburn, 30 years old passed away on the Upper South Fork of the Smith in California.  John was originally from Virginia and in the last six months had recently moved to Grants Pass, Oregon.  The area had received considerable amount of rain and the rivers were swollen.  John, a friend and his wife were going to paddle the Middle Fork of the Smith (class III).  Upon inspection, his wife determined the water too high for her comfort.  John and companion decided to alter their plans over to the more challenging Upper South Fork. 

His wife drove them to the put-in and hiked down with them.  She then ran shuttle and was waiting at the take-out.  This section is short only ~4.5 miles long.  There are a few gorges and the water was moving swiftly. 
In one of the rapids, John went right and his friend went left.  At the bottom of the rapid he saw John’s boat upside down.  He gave chase to the boat and determined John was not in it.  He then began searching for John.  He caught the first eddy he could which, with the high water and canyon, was downstream a ways.  He waited for a while then determined that it was more likely with the swift water that John was in front of him and headed downstream.  After paddling downstream a ways and catching back up to his boat without locating John, he spotted a cabin along the river. 
He decided to stop and there was a couple at the cabin.  The man said he would drive the friend out to get help and the woman would walk upstream to look.  They met John’s wife at the bridge around 1:30pm and called 911.  Rescue personnel showed up and started searching. They requested a helicopter but it could not fly in due to bad weather. The friend hiked back in to the gorge looking for John till dark.  After dark he and John’s wife drove around the dirt roads on the rim in hopes that he was able to walk out.
That night they contacted the paddling community for assistance.  On Monday morning at daylight.  Paddlers from the Arcata, CA, Medford, OR and vistors from Porland, OR met at the take-out bridge. The water was still high and no one wanted to paddle that section. Since this stretch was short, only 4.5 miles long the plan was to send one group to the put-in to hike down and one group to hike up from the Cabin with the goal being to try to stay as close to the water as possible and meeting in the middle. There was the possibility that John was able to get out on his own and had attempted to hike out. All hiking was done on river left.
John's wife decided to stay back and let the search and rescue know the plan and then she was going to hike/drive on the upper roads on the ridge looking for John. The group debated waiting for search and rescue to obtain radios but was not sure what time they were going to show and was concerned that if John was injured time would be important.
Hiking along the river was extremely difficult due to the thick underbrush, bramble and canyons. The group hiking up from the cabin traveled about 1.5 miles and encountered John's body lodged about 10-12 feet from shore. It was trapped by a submerged rock or log around his mid section. The river made a sweeping right turn and thus created a small island. The water was swift and access to the island was difficult due to the build up of logs in the channel.
Shortly after discovery, a search and rescue helicopter arrived flying up the river. The party signaled the helicopter using a space blanket. All parties in the group pointed to the body, it was just barely visible in hopes that the helicopter would understand. It hoovered for a long time and then made one pass up the river then flew out. The hope was that they would convey GPS coordinates and information to the base search and rescue so they could send in assistance.
One person in the group was able to shim across a precarious log and obtain access to the island. A vector pull and z-drag was attempted without success. The z-drag was was then moved to a different location creating a better angle with success. Due to the high water, there was lots of available trees to choose and thus aided in the different z-drag set ups.
After the body was secured on shore, the group decided to walk out and get a backboard and assistance from search and rescue. As they were leaving, search and rescue showed up on the river right side (opposite the recovery group). Communication was difficult due to the roar and width of the high water. The group tried to convey their intent and continued hiking out.
Upon arriving back at their vehicle a search and rescue vehicle arrived with radios. They were able to contact the others that were on the wrong side of the river. After waiting for them to arrive they hiked back in with a backboard and extracted the body.
The upper hiking group had continued hiking downstream as far as they could until they were exhausted and it was to thick to continue. At certain points they were literally crawling on their hands and knees and barely making progress.
Thanks for the assistance from the Del Norte search and rescue and the local paddling community.

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