Accident Database

Report ID# 103382

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Cheoah River Fatality - Incident Report

Compiled by: Jamie O’Donnell (ACA L5 Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor)
with supporting details from Phil C., Marc M., Aaron P., and various on-water rescuers

Original Post from Jamie:

(Please note: My post originally theorized that Phil followed other kayakers down the West Prong line after losing sight of Chris. This statement was incorrect and has been removed. Phil actually followed those kayakers down the left hand side of Python rapid, which is the river right channel below Bear Creek Falls.) 

I had finished my laps for the day and was sitting on river left near the stairs down to the river, a few hundred yards upstream of the Tapoco Lodge boof rock/rapid. 

At approximately 2:50 PM, I observed a paddle floating downstream toward the eddy we were next to. My boyfriend, Aaron, carefully grabbed the paddle from the water, and a moment later a kayaker (Phil C.) pulled into the eddy. Phil asked if we had seen a swimmer go by. We had not. Phil said that his friend, Chris Clark, had swum out of his kayak at Bear Creek Falls. Chris had been showing Phil down the Cheoah River for Phil’s first time, so Phil was not familiar with the lines or rapid names. I told Phil that a trail ran from my lunch spot upstream to Bear Creek Falls, so Phil walked along the trail to look for Chris.

A minute or so after Phil went up the trail, I saw two other kayakers paddle downstream and eddy out on river right with haste. Due to the foliage, I could not see them once they headed toward the eddy. Phil returned, stating that there were ~4 kayakers performing CPR on Chris. Aaron immediately sprinted to Tapoco Lodge, and contacted 911. He provided the details we knew to the dispatcher: a middle-aged man was unconscious on the river right bank, between Bear Creek Falls and Tapoco Lodge, and other kayakers were performing CPR. I estimate that the incident likely happened between 2:30-2:45 PM. 

Phil ferried across the river, scrambled up the bank, and ran to the scene. Aaron and I then drove my vehicle up the road to help block traffic. Tapoco Lodge employees were also assisting in directing traffic while we waited for emergency services to arrive. When we arrived at the road above the scene, I noticed that my paddling group from earlier in the day was among the kayakers performing CPR. Knowing my friends’ CPR/Wilderness First Responder training, as well as observing the high quality of CPR being administered by the 8-10 kayakers who were on the scene at that point, I chose to remain at the road to assist. I cleared kudzu and communicated with other kayakers concerned about their friends by confirming the identity of the victim and the presence of specific rescuers who I could see from my roadside vantage point.

EMS arrived, and approximately 15-20 minutes later Chris was brought from the river bank up to the road via a backboard. I estimate that kayakers had been performing CPR for approximately 30-45 minutes at this point. Chris was brought into the ambulance, where the EMS responders attempted to revive him. EMS pronounced Chris dead at the scene at 3:44 PM, as he did not respond to their drugs or other lifesaving efforts. EMS obtained information from Phil, and I assisted Phil while retrieving Chris’s gear and vehicle. 

Upon debriefing the incident with Phil and my friends who paddled onto the CPR scene, we estimated the following: Chris was showing Phil down, when Chris swam out of his kayak below Bear Creek Falls. Since Phil was unfamiliar with the river, we are not 100% certain where exactly Chris exited his boat. From Phil’s recounting, we know that Chris drifted over the center/right side of the river, through Python rapid. Another group of paddlers came down, and Phil was able to follow them down Python. 

Phil, believing that Chris was still swimming ahead of him, continued kayaking until he met my group eating lunch on the river left bank above Tapoco Lodge. Another group of kayakers found Chris pinned against a rock a few hundred yards downstream of Python, and they extracted him from the river and began CPR. 

Additional Information from Kayakers at the Scene:

(Please note: Some of the responders preferred to remain anonymous, thus I will not include any of the kayakers’ names for this section of the report.) 

Three experienced kayakers came down Bear Creek right after Chris and Phil had gone down. No one witnessed Chris pull his skirt, but everyone observed Chris swimming in the entrance/top section of Python. Kayakers 1 and 2 were quickly chasing after Chris and his boat, so they were already at least halfway through the Python sequence of ledge holes. Phil asked Kayaker 3 where to go, but since she had not run that channel of the Cheoah before, Phil chased after Kayakers 1 and 2, and Kayaker 3 followed. 

Below Python, Kayaker 1 opted to follow Chris’s boat, while Kayakers 2 and 3 eddied out on river right, hiked up the bank, and returned to the riverbed below the top drop of the Python section to search for Chris alongside the river right bank (as they had not seen Chris float past them while running the rapid). Kayakers 2 and 3 searched for several minutes before returning to their boats. 

Downstream, Kayaker 1 was securing Chris’s boat on the river left shore, when he saw Chris floating face down in the river, unresponsive. Kayaker 1 then jumped back into his boat to go after Chris, who pinned against a rock via an entangled waist-worn throw rope. Kayaker 1 was able to pull Chris out of the water and onto the rock and cut Chris’s snagged rope. Since four competent boaters had been following Chris during the early portion of his swim, but somehow overtook him, I suspect Chris must have become temporarily entrapped underneath the surface of the water.

1-2 minutes after Kayaker 1 pulled Chris onto the rock, another group of five kayakers paddled onto the scene. They were able to eddy out on river right, throw a rope to Kayaker 1 (who tied the rope to Chris), and then pull Chris onto the river right shore to begin CPR. The group estimated Chris had been unconscious for at least 15 minutes by that time. A separate pair of kayakers arrived on the scene, and they assisted by sending a passing biker to have Tapoco Lodge call 911. I suspect Aaron’s 911 call had already gone out at that point, because EMS arrived approximately 20 minutes after the shore team began CPR. Midway through the CPR efforts, another kayaker who is a paramedic arrived and took control of the scene until EMS arrived.

We lost another boater on Cheoah yesterday . That’s 3 deaths in Python since 2014. All were unwitnessed but I think this is the first incident where the boater swam into it from above. There is a bad hole in the second ledge in right channel and a nasty pothole near the channel dividing boulder. Left channel (West Prong) has plenty of hazards as well. Respect the Cheoah. It’s a tempting step up from the Ocoee but is way more dangerous. 

Observations from Jamie O'Donnell: There are several sticky holes, underwater sieves, occasional wood, and particularly nasty rock formations throughout Python rapid. It is shallow, relatively steep, technical, and rather continuous compared to most other rapids on other class IV creeks in the southeast. It is also immediately below another stretch of continuous creeking (culminating in Bear Creek Falls). Paddlers might be tired by the time they run Bear Creek (especially if they've flipped/rolled during the lead in or at the base of the falls), making it difficult to eddy out above Python.

Furthermore, most of the flow pushes toward the center/ river right channel (Python); ferrying over to the river left channel (the West Prong line) requires strong boat control, and might not even be possible if a paddler needed multiple roll attempts before successfully rolling up below Bear Creek. It is critical to be upright, in your boat, and fully focused through that section. The geology of that rapid demands heightened attention and quick decisions, which tired or less experienced paddlers might not be capable of.

My working theory after all of these recent incidents--of which I have been present for two of the three recoveries--is that paddlers likely either:

1. Swim above or right below Bear Creek and fail to swim into an eddy or onto a large rock before floating into Python, or

2. Swim at the top of Python rapid, most likely out of the first or second ledge hole, or

3. Otherwise swim midway through Python (either out of a hole, or out of a pin, or because shallow rocks combined with fast water make rolling difficult/ impossible), or

4. Flip and become pinned/entrapped in a heads down situation.

It seems probable that swimmers get caught under the water in Python's rocks, which causes their paddling partners to lose sight of and overtake them during the chaos of that stretch. Then, perhaps upon the swimmer losing consciousness, the swimmers eventually flush downstream until they are caught in other rocks/trees.

Boyd Ruppelt shares some useful thoughts on the Bear Creek/ Python Rapid sequence on NC's Cheoah River that has claimed three lives in the past 6 years:
"I've been personally connected to two of the three in one way or another, but not present for any of them. From what I've gathered from those who were present in the first two incidents. The danger seems to be the continuous nature of the section around Bear Creek and below Bear Creek Rapid... Two of the three likely involved a hole on river right, toward the bottom of the Python Rapid. I've attached a picture. It's a significant hole that is backed up by a huge boulder on the downstream side and contains a few sievey rocks immediately behind it... the total is a recipe for a deep swim or flush drowning. The sieves and potholes in Python proper are doubtful to have been an issue as none of the victims were extracted from them... all three were found or retrieved downstream.
In this most recent case, I'm not sure why he swam but waist worn ropes are not a good idea in creeks full of snag hazards. I'm typically against waste worn ropes in advanced whitewater anyway... the snag hazard they present can be significant.
That said, I'm unconvinced that this one hole or even that a single feature is the issue. I hesitate to give the section around Bear Creek Rapid a true class V rating, but it may be worth considering that it is certainly of class V nature and maybe it is class V. Class V feels like class III or IV when you're on line, the true difference in rating is mostly notable when you're off line. My current thinking is that, despite our tendency as a community (myself included) to think of Bear Creek Rapid as a class IV rapid, history is showing that it may, in fact, deserve the class V rating for its consequential and continuous nature... it should at least be treated as such, but all three were solid and seasoned paddlers.
The fact that Maria is unlikely to have been out of her boat above Python, leads me to think she went for the small boof that leads right into the stout hole where she may have drowned... this leads me to think the hole is the likely culprit IF there even is a single culprit.

ELIZABETHTON - Christopher Lee Clark, 46, Elizabethton, a free spirited young man, doing what he loved most, passed away Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Robbinsville, North Carolina in a tragic Kayaking accident.

He was born July 15, 1973 in Johnson City, Tenn.  Chris was a 1991 graduate of Elizabethton High School and Northeast State.  He served in the United States Navy.  Chris was well known for his kind, gentle heart and willingness to help others, which led him to his career as a Registered Nurse.  He loved hiking in Carter & Sullivan Counties with his dog Harv.

Survivors include his father & step-mother: John R. & Janet Clark, his Mother: Vickie Lee Vandeventer Clark. His brother: Mike (Angie) Clark, His Sister: Hailey (Isaiah) Aldridge.  His Grandmother: Geraldine Vandeventer.  His Uncles: Doug Vandeventer, Terry (Vickie) and Dickie (Vista) Clark.  His Niece Presley & nephew Grayson and a special nephew & closest friend, Cannon, several cousins.   In lieu of flowers donations may be made in Chris’s memory to the Carter County Animal Shelter, 253 Sycamore Shoals Drive, Elizabethton, Tenn. 37643. A Celebration of Life Service will be conducted at a later date. 

Cheoah Accident 6/20     

My name is Matt Wright and I was one of the First Responders to yesterday's accident on the Cheoah river. Below you will find my account of the incident. Mid afternoon(3pm???) of 6/20/20 at approx. 1000cfs. I was traveling with a group of two other paddlers through Bear Creek Falls. (Matt Wright, Moriah Heaney, Ben Perrin) At the bottom we regrouped in the river right eddy. A seperate pair of paddlers peeled out in front of us and ran the right side of the "Python" rapid below Bear Creek Falls.

As we came over the horizon line and entered the Python rapid I saw one boater in their boat and another boater swimming towards the large ledges on river right below the Python rocks. He was making an attempt to swim to river right and I could see him recoiling from hitting the river bed. The swimmer quickly disappeared from view as he swam over the ledges. Moriah and myself paddled down stream and immediately got out on the river right bank to assess the situation. Our third paddling partner Ben chased after his kayak and wrangled it to river left, maybe a half mile downstream from Python.

Knowing of the dangerous features there Moriah and I searched the river right bank up to the large, backed up hydraulics and then eventually back down to our kayaks with no sign of the swimmer.  In the meantime we were passed by a group of about five or six: two adults and several young teenagers that were paddling together that we had seen during the day. They gave us the are you okay?  We tried to relay that we were looking for someone in the water.

Moriah and I got back in our kayaks and preceded about a quarter-mile to half mile downstream. On river right our third paddling partner Ben was there with the group of teens and adults. CPR was in progress when we arrived and I used my CPR mask to help manage the situation.

At that point Tapoco Lodge staff showed up and confirmed that they had called 911 and that EMS is on the way. Several other paddlers came up and assisted with CPR until EMS arrived. In my personal opinion the man had a swim similar to the other fatalities here in 2014 and 2018. Looking at the hydraulics below Python on the right the hydraulics are backed up by large boulders and have a very uniform boil line. Immediately below are chunky boulders that may have entrapped the man as well. Once the man disappeared over the ledges we did not see him again. So I believe there was either a long body recirculation or some kind of entrapment in the ledges. 

An excellent article by Kirk Eddlemon that describes the Chaos/ Bear Creek Falls/ Python area. It includes aerial and river level photos:

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