Lower Yough Safety Report On Dimple Rock

posted November 14, 2000
by Jason Robertson

Dimple Rock Safety Meeting Summary (November 2000):

Ohiopyle State Park manager Doug Hoehn asked a group of river managers, outfitters, and experienced whitewater paddlers to come together with him on November 11th at the park office. Our purpose was to take a close look at safety on the Lower Yough and issues at Dimple Rock in particular. The group met in an advisory capacity, and gave park managers the benefit of their experience.

Following three deaths at Dimple this past summer, the Fayertte County Coroner decided to hold an inquest into all three deaths. The coroner has taken special interest in other drownings on the Yough. This meeting was part of efforts by Mr. Hoehn to prepare in preparation for the inquest, now scheduled for November 28th.

Present at the meeting:

Doug Hoehn, Park Manager at Ohiopyle
Gene Hart, Doug's boss from DCNR
Dan Bickel, Assistant Park manager at Ohiopyle
Brian Culp, Chief Ranger at Ohiopyle
Clyde Braun, from the U.S. Corps of Engineers
Gary Hartley, Chief Ranger, New River Gorge NRA
Rick Brown, Asst. Chief Ranger, New River Gorge NRA
Charlie Walbridge, for the ACA and American Whitewater
Jeff Prycl, for Three Rivers Paddling Club
Lynn Martin, from Wilderness Voyageurs
Scott Downs, A veteran river guide on the Yough and elsewhere

Mr. Hoehn and his staff presented an overview of current safety program, including:

1) Their new safety video
2) Waivers
3) Boat sizes vs river level
4) The current allocation system
5) Outfitter contracts with the state that specify:


Guide requirements (numbers & training)
Equipment requirements
The talk-up for rented and guided guests
Communications: 1 radio per trip; trips that run at half-hour intervals, plus a radio with the photographer at Cucumber Rapid
6) The group also visited Dimple Rock during the afternoon

Education efforts were discussed at length, and it is clear that these cannot be 100% effective. Some people are simply not receptive.

Accidents on the Lower Yough

The group then looked at the history of boating accidents at Ohiopyle State Park. Since 1977 roughly 2,000,000 river runners have run the Lower Yough, and there have been 17 deaths. This is .85 per 100,000 users, which is a pretty good record. In 11 of the past 23 years there were no fatalities, including the ''80, '81, '83-'86; '88, '91, '97, '98, and '99 seasons. Historical use is roughly 50% guided, 25% rentals, and 25% private.

DROWNINGS AT DIMPLE RAPID

Locations.........Thru 1999.........Thru 2000

Entrance.........3..............3
Cucumber............3..............3
Dimple..............6..............9
(Includes the 1983 death of Bob Henk not listed in park summary)
Rivers End..........2..............2

Of the 9 drownings at Dimple, two involved swimmers who were not held under the rock and two involved people who became caught in gear attached to pinned rafts. The other 5 were held under water for a time, and while we suspect Dimple Rock, the actual site where they were held is uncertain.

DROWNINGS AT DIMPLE RAPID

Type of Craft...........Thru 1999.......Thru 2000

Guided Fatals..............4..............5
Rental Fatals..............4..............6
Private Hard Boat Fatals...2..............2
Private Inflatable Fatals..3..............3

Prior to 2000, Dimple was considered just one of several dangerous places on the river. The three recent fatalities make the 2000 season the worst year in the history of the Yough and increased the total number killed at Dimple by 50%. The number of guided fatals and unguided fatals are close, but because total unguided numbers are roughly 50% of guided, rentals are probably about twice as dangerous. Rangers and guides present at the meeting feel that rental guests are in better physical condition and more self reliant, and there was no consensus on curtailing this activity. Duckes have been rented for over ten years, and therefore the two duckie fatalities this past summer appear to be an anomaly.

A group of rangers, guides, and paddlers inspected the upstream face of Dimple Rock at low water a few weeks ago. The Corps of Engineers had cut back flows as much as possible. Mr. Hoehn and others examined the undercut using a mask The area upstream of Dimple is badly undercut. The area under the upstream face of the rock is irregular, but roughly the size of the cargo area of a minivan.

At .8 feet this "room" is under 1' of water; at 2.5 feet the top of the pillow reaches the top of the rock and the undercut area is under 7' of water. Most people who flip here are pushed to the right by the pillow. An unlucky few are pushed deep and MAY emerge in the room. The current in the room is not strong, but disorientation certainly results and most people have only 20-30 seconds worth of air if they flip while paddling. Several people have reported being caught under something, then being released at the last minute. In 1996 several large trees were removed from this spot, reducing the size of the pillow somewhat.

Dimple is not the only rock in this area that is undercut. Scott Downs reported that Washover Rock, to the right of Dimple, is badly undercut, as are several other rocks downstream. It is possible that some or all of the victims are were held under by rocks other than Dimple. "Fixing" Dimple may not solve the problem. There are a number of other dangerous rocks just downstream from Dimple. People are washed away from these by water deflected by the rock. removing Dimple Rock would cause people to be washed towards these other rocks with potentially harmful results.

Rapids have been modified for safety on several rivers, with mixed results. Paddlers emphasized to park personnel the difficulty of doing something that works, the possibility of creating an unexpected additional hazard, and the need to do the job right. American Whitewater's White Paper on river modification expresses a strong preference for natural rivers, but modifications for safety can be supported if the river is heavily used, the site has been linked to fatalities, and the work can be done in a way that is not visible. Dimple appears to fit these criteria, but AW has made no decision about supporting this project. Modifying a rapid to make it easier to run, say, by creating a sneak route, is not supported by the White Paper. It may also affect the main chute by lowering the height of the water in the pool with unpredictable results. It is possible that the "room" under Dimple could be filled with concrete, delivered by a tube running down the sides of the gorge from a truck driven the bicycle path on River Left. This would minimize the visual impact of this project on the natural area. The group felt that they did not have the expertise to evaluate this idea, and suggested consultations with experts in this field.

Comments

Emails to Doug Hoehn and myself fall into three categories:

1) People who feel that the area should be undisturbed, saying it is a natural hazard and people should be educated to avoid it, portaging if necessary.

2) People who feel that modification of Dimple Rock is reasonable if it can be done without making a visual impact on the area. This seemed to be a majority view.

3) People who feel that Dimple Rock should be removed, saying that no physical feature is worth a human life.

It should be noted that park rangers have extensive contact with the relatives of victims. There are many phone conversations, and Doug Hoehn has made 2-3 trips following each accident

After discussion, consensus was reached on the following issues:

Improved Education

An improved education program should be initiated, including:

1) Stronger wording of the risks of river running in the park safety video. Possibly building better place for prospective river runners to watch the video than the current site, where there are fewer distractions.

2) Signs warning of danger at dimple at the put in and at the top of the rapid. These would identify the rapid, describe the danger, and recommending scouting and portaging when in doubt. The sign would also indicate that people have died at this location.

3) Handouts on the dangers of Dimple, perhaps based on excellent drawings published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, aimed at the rental customer.

4) Improved safety training, including whether gear can be pre-positioned at known hazardous sites.

Steps to Facilitate Portage

The group supported creation of a portage trail at the top of the rapid on River right. Mr. Hoehn reported that there are issues of land ownership and endangered species at the site of the proposed trail, but that these problems should not be insurmountable.

With Regard to Removing or Modifying Dimple Rock:

1) That the rock should not be removed, both for esthetic reasons and because it may cause people to wash into other dangerous rocks downstream of Dimple. Mr. Hart said, "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has no interest in destroying Dimple Rock." Furthermore, such action would certainly be opposed in court by a number of environmental groups.

2) That the park should study the feasibility of filling the undercut section of Dimple Rock, using contacts from the Corps of Engineers and the Pa. State Highway Department. If a solution is found, the group may reconvene to discuss it further before a decision is made. It should be noted that even if a solution is found, water levels will not allow anything to be done until the fall of 2001. In the meantime, the safety program should go forward.