Did the Real-Life Tarzan Dive Off Burney Falls?

The story was well known to me, but we at Active NorCal always check our sources.

If you Google “Tarzan, Burney Falls” or anything similar, you’re bound to find numerous entries claiming that actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller dove off of Burney Falls in one of the first Tarzan films in the 1930s.

Here’s an excerpt of the film at Burney Falls

This old yarn had always bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, the water in Burney Creek is frigid. I don’t care if its a hundred degrees outside, I couldn’t see a pampered Hollywood movie star leaping from a 129-foot waterfall into 22-feet of ice water. I put some excellent Shasta County historical bloodhounds on the trail, but no one has been able to document the story. I did, however, discover a few interesting tidbits about Johnny Weissmuller, our favorite Tarzan.

That famous Tarzan yell (Ahhhh-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-iaaaaaaa!) was actually produced in the studio partly by playing a tape of someone yodeling, backwards. Weissmuller, however, always told his fans he made it up, and he did learn to imitate it very well.

In 1958 he was playing golf with some friends in Cuba. His group was suddenly surrounded by a band of armed rebel fighters, and their prospects did not look good. Weissmuller leaned back, cupped his hands around his mouth and let fly, Ahhhh-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-iaaaaaaa! The fighters recognized the yell and started yelling “Tarzan! Tarzan!” Weissmuller and his friends were escorted to safety.

If it turns out there is any truth to the story of Weissmuller diving from Burney Falls, you will read about it in Active NorCal and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. On the other hand, if I ever dove into 40-degree water, I know exactly what the first thing out of my mouth would be, Ahhhh-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-iaaaaaaa!

P.S. If you’re wondering if it’s possible to jump off Burney Falls, check out this video:

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.
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