Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

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.


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.


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.


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.

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