Willie Kern

With Chuck Kern's kayak and paddle.

Willie Kern near Lake Tahoe     Photo: Photo by Bryce Duffy

Fourteen years later, what did I keep? That squirt boat and paddle—those are the things I couldn't get rid of. They're like museum pieces, a testament to the time when kayaking went through its greatest revolution. My brother was at the forefront of that. Most of the squirt boats of that era were custom-made. On the inside, there's a label that says made for chuck kern with his weight and the performance he wanted. He was my older brother, and we shared tens of thousands of river miles. The Black Canyon, where he drowned, had been paddled a long time, and there's a very traditional portage route. But the way things had been done historically was not necessarily how we wanted to do them. We wanted to stay at river level and paddle as many rapids as we could. If there was a road next to where he died—if I could have taken out of the water right there—I may have quit paddling altogether. But we had to get out of the canyon, and I went through the whole range of emotions on the seven-mile paddle out. By the time I'd made it to the takeout, I realized that his death was just the ultimate consequence of what we were doing. I could accept that. If I had stopped kayaking after he died, I would have been disrespecting his legacy.

In 1997, Chuck Kern, 27, was pinned in a sieve and drowned while attempting a section of Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison River with his brothers, Willie and Johnnie. His boat and body were recovered two days later. Willie Kern, 39, is a professional kayaker.

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