On the last Sunday in April 1983, Denis and George McLane and I decided to finish our paddling day with a quick run on the Chichester Creek, a tributary of the Esopus Creek at , NY. We had run the tight, steep (80 feet per mile), rock-choked stream two weeks before on a sunny snow-melt day at about the same level, but this run was to take place during a rainstorm on a raw, 50° day. We’d been unable to run the Chichester since the fall of 1979, when a flood left a great deal of wood in the stream.
We were paddling C-1’s; mine was a new, low volume racing boat. I had torn one of the thigh strap carriers out earlier in the day, but was still confident that I’d be able to roll if need be since my lower thighs were jammed solidly under the cockpit rim. The boat also was not air-bagged, but it was walled from bow to stern with ethafoam, the saddle having been formed from the wall. I was convinced that I was sufficiently well equipped to undertake this final run of the day.
At one of the more exciting points along the Chichester the creek makes a slightly left-hand turn, bordered by a straight wall of shale on the river right. The first of two large holes form on the left at this spot, leaving as the desired running line the pillow extending along the right-hand wall. The second of the two holes occurs on river right about two boat lengths downstream and obstructs approximately two-thirds of the thirty-foot-wide stream. The trick to running this particular rapid is to bypass the first hold by maneuvering to the right along the wall, and then to cut left into the slower water after the hole in order to buy the necessary time to proceed hard left around the second hold. The next 100 yards downstream are narrow and fast, with the smooth was continuing along the right.
I was, perhaps, a bit lazy in making my left-hand move after the first hole and found myself back-endering into the second. After flushing out of the hole, I had to pull my knees into the boat to begin my roll. It worked, but my skirt had opened; and I was running sideways, paddle side downstream (luckily) and approaching a large flat rock that looked inviting at the time.
As I hit the rock, I attempted to lurch myself up onto it, boat and all, with the intention of putting back in on the downstream side. Suddenly, the boat turned its cockpit downstream and slid down the face of the rock with my right foot still trapped inside. This left me precariously sandwiched between my boat and the rock, my knees against the deck and my right armpit leaning against the thin top edge of that once-inviting ledge. The boat was riding against my ribs, and breathing was exceedingly difficult, so I pushed with my left arm, still thinking in terms of hauling everything up onto the rock. But the boat went down instead of up, easing up my breathing, but leaving me trapped.
Flexing my leg muscles did nothing to dislodge the boat from my foot, but the situation was stable-both the McLanes are rescue oriented, and I was heads-up pinned. I knew that there were steel pry bars in Denis’ shop back in and that Bobbie and Drew Reynolds were sitting in their van up on Route 214, watching our run. Ropes were in the van, and I had the confidence in the abilities of my rescue team.
My hopes sank a little as I watched Denis get caught in the upper hole and then swim past me. Turning my upper body to my right permitted the river to hold me a bit more upright, but the cold water was beginning to take its toll. George was alert to my situation and eddied out after the first hole. He then swam to the eddy behind my rock by staring about 50 feet upstream of me. I described my position to him, and George verified it by feeling my ankle and boat with one hand. We both knew that I only needed an inch leeway to get free, but he could not move the boat with his legs. We discussed suing a safety rope tied under my arms, but I only wanted such a precaution if the recue was going to take a long time since my position presented the possibility that the rope could become caught around the base of the rock should I become free of my boat. I suggested trying the steel bars back home, but we decided to try a log first to save time.
Drew, who by then appeared on the scene, overthrew George when he tossed the log, but Denis was now approaching the eddy behind the rock and was able to retrieve the makeshift tool. The log worked on the second attempt, although the maneuver I made to free myself scared my rescuers because they thought I had completely lot it. I felt my foot come free, and fearing the boat might break, untwisted my body to get out. This put me entirely under water, but I swam out cleanly. The heater in the van helped my early stage of hypothermia, and after about 15 minutes I finally stopped shivering. The total amount of time that had elapsed with me in the water had probably been no more than 10 minutes.
The aftermath of this incident involved recovery of my boat on Wednesday. By that time it had folded, but was repairable.
An examination of the rock at low water revealed a flat platform perched upon a number of smaller rocks. A tree stump also wedged under it had saved my life.
ANALYSIS: The single most contributory factor to my mishap was lack of proper outfitting. A C-1 cannot possibly be rolled if you can’t stay in it. My failure to read an identify a badly undercut rock compounded my error, although all I could have done was bail out earlier. A safety rope secured under my arms might have been prudent if it could have extended from the right-hand bank; but from where my land-based rescuers were operating, a rope might have snagged under the rock when I attempted to swim free.
Communication between victim and rescuers is vital and was good in this situation; however, I should have informed George what I was going before going underwater to free myself. I was thankful that we had all participated in rescue clinics and that I had gathered some experience voluntarily clearing streams and rescuing pinned equipment in the past. All of these exercises made us more aware of the river’s forces and the possibilities available with the items we had at hand.