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Kayaker dies on Smith’s S. Fork

Body found day after two men set out on high-water trip

A 30-year-old kayaker from Grants Pass died after being pinned underwater on the Upper South Fork Smith River during a high-water trip that started Sunday afternoon.

The body of John D. Wilburn was recovered from the river by Del Norte Search and Rescue late Monday morning after being discovered around 10 a.m. stuck on an underwater structure near Blackhawk Bar, according to Search and Rescue coordinator Terry McNamara.

Wilburn, a forester who worked out of Merlin, was kayaking a rarely run, Class V section of the South Fork Smith River with Jared Sandeen, also of Grants Pass, starting from a spur trail that leads to the river from the South Kelsey Trail near Big Flat.

The pair started paddling the river around noon. At some point, Sandeen was waiting in an eddie to allow Wilburn to catch up when he saw Wilburn’s kayak float by upside-down with no sign of Wilburn, McNamara said.

Sandeen arrived to meet Wilburn’s wife at the designated take-out near the GO Road, saying that he could not find Wilburn, according to McNamara.

Sandeen called authorities, and Search and Rescue was notified of a missing person around 1:30 p.m.

McNamara said 14 people responded Sunday and the team approached the Upper South Fork from every access road and trail possible, searching the banks until dark.

Search and Rescue requested helicopter assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard around 4 p.m. Sunday, but the helicopter did not make it past Crescent City, unable to fly inland due to low clouds and low visibility, according to Lt. Brian Ward, public affairs officer for Group/Air Station Humboldt Bay.

Another Coast Guard helicopter was deployed Monday morning once the weather cleared for the search, but Wilburn was ultimately found by one of the crews on the ground.

Del Norte Search and Rescue resumed the search early Monday morning with 17 people, including some local expert Class V kayakers who were on hand to search for Wilburn by boat. At least one local kayaker said that the conditions were too dangerous, McNamara said.

Other kayakers were in the process of scouting the river conditions to evaluate the safety of searching by kayak when they spotted Wilburn underwater.

“They found him early enough that they didn’t have to put anyone in the water,” McNamara said.  “This is just really tragic.”

An SAR team member tied a rope to Wilburn and then a rope system was used to recover his body around 11:30 a.m., McNamara said.

The main stem of the Smith River at the Jed Smith gauge was around 18 feet with a flow of 33,000 cfs Sunday afternoon about the time that the pair started kayaking.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with (the family) during this time of sorrow,” said Sheriff Dean Wilson.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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