The Gunnison River through Colorado's Black Canyon National Monument is a Class V run through one of the most spectacular gorges in the West. The run includes some difficult drops and several very long portages. On August 14, 1997 the water level was 1200 cfs, a medium level. Chuck Kern, 27, was an internationally known rodeo competitor and river runner. He was part of a very strong group of six. It included his brothers, John and Willie, both internationally-known paddlers themselves. They started their multi-day trip early in the morning of August 14, 1997.
By noon the group arrived at a mile-long section of river that is normally portaged. They decided that the high water would allow them to stay at river level and attempt the “easier” drops. They soon encountered what looked like an 8 foot high sloping ledge into a pool below. Willie Kern got out to scout as Chuck grabbed the last small eddy. Willie gave a “thumbs up” signal, and Chuck began his run. But what appeared to be a ledge was, in reality, a table rock, with a broad, flat rock forming a bridge and two stout rocks at the bottom creating the legs. As Chuck reached the lip, his bow was pulled under the table rock, leaving his stern sticking out. His head was free for 4-5 seconds, then his kayak was pulled deeper.
The other members of the party were there in seconds. They were able to tie a line to the stern of Chuck’s kayak, but they could mot move it. They broke several Z-drags before giving up. They paddled the remainder of the river and reported the accident to the National Park Service. River levels were lowered to 600 cfs, and NPS Rangers and The Vail Mountain Rescue Team were brought in by helicopter. They were able to reach and remove Kern's body and his kayak.
SOURCE: John Kern, Willie Kern, and Buffy Bailey; Paddler Magazine
ANALYSIS: (Walbridge) Sieves are common on steep, boulder filled runs, and are extremely difficult to spot! Other members of this team scouted the drop and did not see the hazard. Several team members said that they saw no telltale signs even after the accident. One paddler said that if Kern’s run had been successful, she was sitting in an upstream eddy and would have followed without hesitation. See Dougald Bremmer’s drowning on June 3, 1997, for a similar situation.
97-478 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison NM (CO) - Drowning
Charles Kern, 27, a member of the U.S. kayak team from Stowe, Vermont, drowned on August 14th when he became pinned against a boulder while attempting to run a treacherous portion of the Gunnison River. Kern was in a party of six, including two of his brothers, who were kayaking the river when he attempted to kayak a section of the river that is normally portaged. The bow of his kayak became pinned beneath a boulder as he lost momentum while passing through a short falls.
The other members of the party were able to tie a line to the stern, but the river flow of 1200 cubic feet per second (cfs) prevented them from dislodging the kayak. The incident was reported, river levels were lowered to 600 cfs, and rangers and members of two local rescue teams were able to reach and remove Kern's body and his kayak. During the investigation, one member of the party said that he still thought the rapid could be run.
Rocky Mountain News today (8/20/97):
"A Vermont man was killed last week when his kayak got stuck underwater. Charles Kern, 27, of Stowe, Vermont, died Friday (8/15) in a narrow rock passageway in the Black Canyon of the rain-swollen Gunnison, National Park Service officials said."