An Untimely End

A photographer turned up dead in placid Isabella Lake, and there's no explanation

Oct 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER Barry Tessman survived a lot during his ten-year career behind the lens—two years in Siberia; ventures in Tibet, India, and Pakistan; and Class V torrents from China to northern Canada. But it was on a cold, calm day, on a glassy lake he'd paddled hundreds of times, that Tessman met his fate.

At 7:30 a.m. on January 16, 2001, Tessman, 41, a Class V river guide, backcountry ski patroller, and trained EMT, loaded his 19-foot Phantom racing kayak onto his truck and set out for the North Fork Marina for an hourlong flatwater workout on Isabella Lake, near his home in Kernville, California. By 10:30 a.m. he had not returned, and his wife, Joy, seven months pregnant with their second child, called Tom Moore, Tessman's friend of 20 years, to find out if he'd seen him. Moore had not, but promised to check the marina. Using binoculars, he spotted Tessman's kayak floating in the middle of the lake with its paddle stowed, but Barry was nowhere in sight. A 50-person sweep of the lake turned up no sign of the missing paddler. Then, on February 18, a Kern County park ranger discovered Tessman's body floating near Boulder Gulch, three-quarters of a mile from where his kayak had been found. The official cause of death was drowning, but a second autopsy showed that Tessman had also suffered blunt-force trauma to the head, raising the disturbing specter of foul play, and prompting his family to post a $20,000 reward for information about the case.

No one has stepped forward, and investigators at the Kern County Sheriff's Department have deemed Tessman's death an accident, while admitting to a lack of evidence. "We are no closer than we were the day his body was discovered," says Moore. "All the different theories we've come up with have gaping holes in them."

It's possible that Tessman flipped his boat and somehow cracked his head on an exposed rock, but that wouldn't explain why his paddle was stowed. He may have gone ashore to scout photo locations on Rocky Point, fallen, hit his head, and then slipped into the water. And then there is the more troubling scenario: Was he a victim of a random act of violence?

Tessman's death may never be fully explained, leaving his loved ones to grapple with the mystery. "Maybe they needed a photographer up in heaven," says Moore. "That's the only peace I can make of it."