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Tanque Verde Falls tragedy: Anton Bakker’s loved ones still cherish outdoors, with ‘healthy sense of safety’

Former UArizona student drowned while trying to rescue a dog in 1998
Anton Bakker and Tanque Verde Falls.jpg
Posted at 9:00 AM, Jun 05, 2023

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — University of Arizona student Anton Bakker went hiking with friends on Feb. 15, 1998, two days shy of his 22nd birthday.

Trevor Buck was part of that group, which arrived at Tanque Verde Falls. The hiking area, which sits along Redington Pass between the Rincon and Santa Catalina Mountains, is both beautiful and dangerous.

“There was another mutual friend who had a dog, a black lab,” Buck recalled. “The dog jumped in the water. And Anton didn’t think twice, jumped in the water to save the dog… We were unable to get to [Anton]… Couldn’t save him. Couldn’t get him out. He went over the [water]fall.

“It was just really hard on everybody. Everyone was in shock.”

Buck says the dog’s body was found that day, but it took a few days to find Anton’s body further downstream.

“His body was actually quite well-preserved, because he had been in cold water,” Anton’s sister, Kimberly, said. “He had deep gashes in his head. And most of his clothes had been torn off.

“I was really really grateful, because I was able to say goodbye to him,” she said. “And I was able to kiss him and hold him one last time. Which the search and rescue people had told us that that might never happen… I’m incredibly proud of him that he would risk his life to save an animal. Even though it took his life from us, that’s the kind of person that he was.”

Kimberly and Trevor spoke glowingly about Anton when asked about his personality.

“He was the best,” said Trevor. “He always had a big smile on his face. He was sort of a tall guy, super handsome. Everyone liked him… Everybody looked up to him.”

“I remember the day he was born like it was yesterday,” said Kimberly. "He was my baby brother, my only sibling… He was my best friend.

“He had a really huge heart that was even much bigger than we ever knew. We received so many letters and heard stories from people in person about what a good person he was and what a strong character he had.”

Several friends and community members joined the searches for Anton’s body. The creek was surging that week due to recent rains.

“I guess we should’ve known better, but… I’d never been there before,” said Buck. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”

“I feel extreme anxiety that I had never felt before, especially next to rushing water and waterfalls,” Kimberly added.

Yet Anton’s friends and family continue to hike and spend time outdoors, especially around his birthday, in order to honor him and what he loved to do.

In Northern California where Anton grew up, one frequent hiking and recreation spot for his loved ones is Mt. Tamalpais, also known as Mt. Tam.

“[Nature] is so much greater and bigger than ourselves,” said Kimberly. “Despite the fact that he was taken by forces of nature… We all continue to really worship, you know, the outdoors and Mother Nature, but with a healthy sense of safety.”

They hope Tucsonans will carry that sense of safety, too, to avoid another tragedy like this.

“Always hike in a buddy system… have an exit plan, and to just be respectful and safe of Mother Nature,” said Kimberly.

Trevor says his son was born on Anton’s birthday, Feb. 17.

“Every year that my son turns a year older, we remember Anton… You gotta remember him for who he was. Like they say, they take the special ones early. And they certainly did that in this case.”

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Ryan Fish is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9 and comes to the Sonoran Desert from California’s Central Coast after working as a reporter, sports anchor and weather forecaster in Santa Barbara. Ryan grew up in the Chicago suburbs, frequently visiting family in Tucson. Share your story ideas and important issues with Ryan by emailing ryan.fish@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.

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