Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My Scariest Day on the River

February, 2007

Now I have had some scary times on the river, but I was not prepared for this day. Last winter, I had the scariest swim of my life on the Molalla river at flood stage. (This is in Testing the Waters) I swam for over a half mile and thought I was going to die. Still, what happened the other day has changed my perspective on kayaking forever.

It was a rather uneventful day, and I got a call to go and run upper Butte creek. This is a section of creek I have looked at on several occasions and it ends with a 25-30' waterfall. We got our gear together and headed up. We hit snow which meant low water, but the falls should still be good. We put on lower than we had hoped, but all was well, we were kayaking and we still had the falls to run. Not all was lost.

We got to the falls and jumped out to scout. The creek bed leading into the falls was bedrock and the best line over the falls was blocked by a pothole just upstream of the lip. This gave me pause and I began to study other lines. The center looked like a cleaner line off the lip, but a harder hit at the bottom. This didn't concern me too much, I was more interested in my entry angle than the surface tension of the water upon landing anyway. However, I still had doubts given that I hadn't ran anything this big. My buddy volunteered to go first, so I went below, camera in hand , to shoot video and set safety.

This is the falls taken on scouting trip earlier this year. If you look closely on river left, you can barely make out the pothole.

To my dismay, my camera did not fire up as fast as I needed, so the following was not caught on film.

The line that my friend took over the falls was through the pot hole. This held him up more than either of us wanted and caused an awkward line off the lip of the falls. He subsequently corkscrewed a little to the left and over rotated slightly onto his head. He still managed to mostly pencil the drop, which given the pool depth and small pile, was preferred. Thankfully he surfaced upright and I immediately could see something was seriously wrong. He drifted over towards the edge of the pool where I grabbed his boat and began to assess what the situation was. He said there was incredible pain in his back and he couldn't sit up. He had broken his back. So here we are, miles from anyone, just the two of us and one serious injury. After some careful consideration, I worked him out of his boat in the pool and floated him to shore. I got him as much out of the water as I could without moving his spine too much. We then reassessed and it was clear I was going to have to go for help. I quickly ran back up to my boat and grabbed a length of webbing and a space blanket from my pin kit. I tied the webbing to some roots so as to keep him from sliding back into the creek and used the blanket to keep him as warm as possible as it was only 37 degrees. I quickly made it down the hill to the first house I could find and made a call to 911. (Thanks Camp Dakota) I then went back to comfort and give assistance to my buddy while we waited for help. All told, from time of injury to first response was 90 minutes which I felt was outstanding given our location. By two hours, my buddy was headed to the hospital and I was packing up to head home.

A lot has gone through my mind since the accident. My awareness for safety is now ever present and I have thoroughly reassessed the gear I choose to bring. Kayaking is a gift and one that I will treasure more from now on.

As for my friend, he is expecting a full recovery without surgery in 6-12 weeks.

Scouting the falls.

Just after resurfacing


riverbird said...

hey, just fyi for the lower section of butte creek. on the run from the scout camp to the city park @ scotts mills, there is a snag that should be scouted in the 'S-turn' about halfway down the run, maybe 3 river miles from put in. please pass along and be advised. a large maple fell across the river and a snag in the drop immediately below, can be scouted from the bank as you float down. more info contact sal[at]localroots.net

Jeremy L said...

Hey, thanks for the detailed account of the problems associated with the falls. I know of someone else hurt up there as well. That said, I just ran the left line at a 175 cfs. Doable, but don't do it any lower. The hit is hard even if tucked but very hard if you come untucked...at these lower flows. Even at this lower flow, I was able to plug into a good boil on the left, but the boil is only about 5 feet wide at low flow and green water all around. I think a fair minimum of maybe 300 cfs might be better. Anywhere from 300-800 or more. The pot hole was not problematic at 200 cfs and driving right thru it was ideal.


p.s. don't get there at dusk planning to possibly run it and get so excited you forget your PFD at the car back up top, only to realize your error as you're in your boat getting ready to launch and know that if you go back to get it, the sun will be gone and the mission aborted and decide to fire off the falls anyway...it'll probably be fine, but not something you need bouncing around in your brain at the lip of the drop, especially if it's the largest drop you've run yet...just a thought.