On January 16, photographer Barry Tessman disappeared in California's Lake Isabella during his regular kayaking workout. Two days later, sitting at Tessman's desk, Jon Bowermaster recorded his impressions of his close friend, who had accompanied him on his Birthplace of the Winds expedition and several others.
Over the past 20 years, I figure I have written more than a million words, most often in some semblance of order and meaning, yet these that follow are
the most difficult I've ever written. My friendour friendBarry Tessman
It was a beautiful winter day here in the Sierra of Californiasunny, blue, 55 degrees [13 degrees Celsius]. I knew as I drove up through the canyon toward Lake Isabella that this place I know so well would look different this time around.
The reality of Barry's disappearance didn't set in until I drove over the hill and saw the big reservoir spread before me, surrounded by pinkish sand hills and scrub. I knew that somewhere in that big, calm lake, he rests.
Details of his disappearance are still unconfirmed, and maybe they always will be. At about 8 a.m., he went out for a typical morning exercise, putting his superlight racing kayak in the water near the marina for an hour's worth of sprinting. All alone.
Barry dressed lightly, considering the cold air and cold water, in a blue polypro shirt and shorts. It was a routine he had done a thousand times over the past 15 years. It was his backyard, for Christ's sake, just a workout. No worries.
We may never know what exactly transpired, but somehow it appears he ended up out of his boat, in 45-degree [7-degree Celsius] water. He's not yet been found, despite the tireless efforts of paddlers, searchers in helicopters and motorboats, and scores of friends scouring the shorelines on foot.
I went back out to the lake late this day with Barry's father, to a high point above the reservoir, and we stood quietly as the sun tinted the surrounding hills in shades of rose. No words could describe either the beauty of the place, nor the profound sadness of the moment.
I don't mean, nor want, this to be a eulogy. Closure will come only when Barry is found, whenever that is. At a time like this, there is such a rush of emotions it is tempting to try to turn each of them into a metaphor, a rationale, an excuse. I'm not going to attempt any of them, none of them really matters just now anyway.
In the past 48 hours, I have rewalked every step of my decade of travels with Barry, from a muddy end-of-the-road in Nicaragua to the shores of China's Great Bend of the Yangtze, from the middle of the Bering Sea to the high desert of Bolivia. And, for a moment, based on our bond, I thought about describing him as my best friend. Until I realized that this was a guy, unlike anyone I've ever known, who was literally best friend to hundreds.
I am thankful that we spent last week together, in Washington, D.C.thankful for this reason: When I met Barry, 11 years ago, by happenstance, in the middle of the southernmost airport in the world, at Punta Arenas, Chile, he was a river guide trying to become a photographer.
Last week, in the halls of the National Geographic Society, it was apparent to all that after a decade of hard work, Barry was now, simply, a photographer. Almost nothing pleased him more, and I was proud of his accomplishment.
I say almost nothing pleased him more. The other thing I witnessed last week, the thing that most impressed me as we walked the streets of D.C. on cool, January nightsBarry arm in arm with his wife, Joy, and three-year-old daughter, Elliewas a man truly satisfied with his life. Content with a capital C. A man truly, truly in love. That is a rare thing to experience, or to see,
and I was moved by witnessing it.
At that moment, and now, as I sit at his
desk, typing, I'm happy that that was my last image, my final impression, of this gentle man.
Donations are being accepted to help provide for Barry Tessman's daughter and baby yet to be born:
Tessman Children's Fund
Kernville, California 93238