Detailed Report on 12/9/2012 Clear Creek Accident

posted April 16, 2013
by Charlie Walbridge

article photo 2
Shelbi Arno and I ran the Clear Creek river from Whiskeytown Reservoir NEED camp bridge on Sunday, December 9, 2012.  This section is about 8 miles, and CA Creeks rates it as class IV with one class V- rapid at nominal flows (http://cacreeks.com/clear-wh.htm).  The weather was warm and clear; it had recently rained, and the flow was about 260 cfs, mostly from dam release; it picked up a little from side creeks during the run, but not much.
 
Shelbi had run this river once before; I had not.  She expressed confidence in her ability -- said that her previous run with a group had been very smooth, that the rapids seemed easier than their ratings.  We were a group of two boaters; we had expected another boater, but that was our misunderstanding of email communications.
 
We started at around 11:30 am, with plenty of time to do the 8 mile run.  Most of the run is fairly flat, punctuated by five significant rapids, all of them scoutable and portageable.
 
About the middle of the run is Ski Jump rapid, the class V-.  We pulled out just above on river left, and scouted on the rocks about midway down.  Shelbi remembered the run as river right: boofing the ski jump rock, then staying right and picking one of the right chutes at the bottom of the rapid.  She said she would take this line,  and decided to run first, while I stayed on the rocks for perimeter safety near the obvious broach rocks on river left.
 
Shelbi boofed the ski jump rock without a problem, then went down a small constriction slide on the right into the second flat section of the rapid.  Just after, she turned over, for no obvious reason.  She rolled up quickly, but she was almost at the large center-right rock at the bottom of the rapid.  She washed sideways and upright into this rock, facing river right; the flow there wasn't that strong, and she was able to move towards river right across the rock.
 
Just as her boat was moving off the rock, she flipped again, upstream. As her boat moved upside-down towards the far right channel, I didn't see her paddle or any attempt at a setup or roll.  The boat floated bow-first and upside-down into the far-right channel, which is one of the normal routes.  It went over the drop bow-first, and immediately stuck in a vertical pin, with the top deck of the boat against the far rock forming the chute.  I could see only the bottom of the boat,about 1/3 out of the water, but no sign of Shelbi or her paddle.
 
By moving along the left bank, jumping into and crossing the river below the rapid to reach the right side, I was able to access the boat from the chute rock.  Reaching far down, I could feel Shelbi's arm but not see her; she was pinned solidly between the front deck of her boat and the chute rock.  To free her, I would have to free the whole boat from the pin.  After some time, I was able to free the boat, which plunged the rest of the way down the drop.  When I looked over the rock, Shelbi was out of the boat, floating face down, with the boat behind her.
 
Below the rapid is a short flat section with current, followed by another class IV drop that has entrapment potential on the left side. Shelbi and the boat were in a current from the drop of the pin that moved them quickly towards this side, and into the next drop.  I went along the right-hand bank to where I could see the end of the next drop, and did a quick scan.  I saw the boat circulating in an eddy against the cliff on river left, but no sign of Shelbi.  The left side of the river was inaccessible from the left bank, with a large overhanging cliff.  I waited some time to see if Shelbi would emerge, then moved down the right bank to see if there was anything further downstream.  I saw nothing, and came back and scanned again for awhile.  Finally, I climbed and swam downstream until I could get out on the left side, climbed a steep slope to a house by the road, and summoned help.
 
When the rescue team arrived, we went down the slope near the top of the cliff above the lower rapid on river left, but weren't able to descend further without more technical equipment.  A helicopter was also present, searching the river.  Shelbi's boat stayed in the eddy on river left.  We could not spot any definitive sign of Shelbi, although we might have seen a faint glimmer of an orange patch somewhere in the left side of the drop.  At that point, the sun was going down, and the search was called off until the next day.  A full search-and-rescue team came in the morning and did discover and dislodge her body; I was not present, but have heard second-hand that it was in that drop.
 

Kurt Konolige

Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV