Chuck Kern

August 14, 1997
Black Canyon of the Gunnison

By Veronica Griner, Perception Inc.

On August 14, 1997, Chuck Kern, the western technical rep for Easley, S.C.'s Perception Inc. and member of the 1997 U.S. Rodeo Team, drowned while paddling a narrow section of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in Colorado's Curecanti National Recreation Area.

Paddling with a group of six experienced boaters, including his brothers Willie and John, Kern began his trip at East Portal early that morning. As the group entered a mile-long, generally portaged section of the canyon, they opted to run the more conservative drops.

The accident took place just upstream of "Cruise Gully" on a five-foot sloping ramp of water. After everyone scouted and picked their respective lines, Kern opted for a run down a ramp on river left. What appeared to be a single rock just under the surface, however, turned out to be a rock bridge, creating a sieve not visible from the group's vantage point.

As Kern paddled over the drop, his bow went under the bridge and became vertically pinned in the sieve, with the water pressure pushing his boat out of sight. The rest of the group reached his side of the river within three to five minutes and set up a rope through his stern grab loop.

They set up a Z-drag and attempted to pull the boat out from various directions, breaking several prussiks in the process. After an hour of trying to move the boat with no success, the group paddled the remainder of the river to contact the National Park Service. Through the rescue efforts of a team headed by Vail, Colo.'s Mike Duffy, the Park Service arranged to drop the water level enough to enable rescuers to retrieve Kern and his boat.

Private services were held Aug. 23 in Kern's hometown of Stowe, Vt., with a service for the paddling community held Sept. 3 at the Chutes des Plaisanc near Ottawa, Canada.