Mishap on the MeadowRiver
On May 6, 1988, a group of three experienced kayakers (John Poindevant, Will Smith, and Paul Cantarini) set out to run the upper section of the MeadowRiver . A local whitewater shop was consulted since we had no previous experience on the river. At 9 AM we were informed that the river was running approximately 1600 cfs, a level considered optimal, although somewhat high.
We encountered a locked gate on the road to the put-in of the upper section. As an alternative, we elected to run the middle section of the Meadow, a reportedly more sedate (class III-IV) section of the river. The change in plan prompted us to add a sold intermediate-level kayaker (Tom Potter) to our group. As it turned out, the blocked access proved quite fortuitous. The gauge reading at 8 AM was either inaccurate or the past few days of rain were increasing the flow of the river at a greater rate than we had anticipated. The actual flow by the time we put on at 1:30 PM was 3500 cfs (as we learned later), more than double the recommended level for boating. Access to the upper section may have proved disastrous.
The day of our trip . . . air temperature was in the 50-60 degree rant with the water temperature being slightly colder. Being a native Floridian, I prepared for the chill with the appropriate multiple levels of neoprene. The additional bulk required me to modify the interior of my Dancer. I removed my entire left thigh pad instead of removing spacers from both sets of pads. The end result was a less than ideal fit which I did not feel would have a negative effect since I have a solid roll. I wore my glasses . . . but after ten minutes on the river, the fogging obscured my vision to the point that I removed them.
We agreed that Tom would paddle in the third position. As we began our trip, he seemed to be coping well with the river. We were all challenged by the large waves and monster holes which developed. Will assumed the lead position . . . eddies were few and far between and we were maintaining a reasonably close distance between each other in the event that someone in our party swam.
At the halfway point we began to question the actual flow of the river. Large trees and logs started floating by and the river was well over its banks. In fact, there were actually rapids created by trees which were normally well up on the bank.
I momentarily assumed the lead position and proceeded to skirt a pillow rock in the middle of the river. Unfortunately, I misjudged the flow of the river and dropped sideways off the nearly square rock directly into a pourover. I was flipped immediately and as I proceeded to roll up, I was struck by Tom who had been paddling close behind. The impact knocked the paddle from my hands leaving me upside down in the hold. I reached out and was able to grasp the rear grab loop of Tom’s Dancer in the hopes of pulling myself free from the hold [but] it appeared that I was only drawing Tom into the hole with me. I relinquished my grip and he paddled free.
What happened next is somewhat of a blur. I was unable to right my boat and ended up pulling my skirt. The boat and paddle floated free as I was drawn into the hole. Direct rescue was impossible due to the central location of the pourover and the fast flow of the water. Paul and Tom rescued my boat and paddle while Will worked his way toward shore in the hope of reaching me with a rope or possibly floating back down for a boat-hole extraction. Meanwhile, I was trapped under water in a violet recirculation for 1 to 1-1/2 minutes. I used a tremendous amount of energy attempting to escape by swimming out both sides of the hold. However, the force of the water prevented me from getting any air and I began to question whether I would wash free from the pourover.
As a last resort I contemplated removing my life jacket and swimming downward. But just prior to losing consciousness I washed out. Fortunately, Will had abandoned the possibility of a rope rescue and was ferrying in my direction . I was able to grab the rear loop of his boat. I was then able to draw myself onto the back of his boat. Will paddled us to a large eddy behind a boulder in the left-center part of the river. My eyes rolled back and I came close to collapsing back into the water.
Will assisted me up onto the rock where I was treated for a moderate case of shock. I had a severe headache, hacking cough, reddish extremities, bloodshot eyes and impaired cognition. Will placed his pile jacket over me and kept me alert while I recuperated for about 30 minutes. Later, we received some additional assistance from a group of paddlers we had encountered earlier. They ferried me to shore where I was able to put dry clothes on. My condition had improved considerably and I was able carry my Dancer out on the railroad tracks with the assistance of Tom and Paul.
John Poidevant Will Smith Paul Cantarini Tom Potter
What did I learn from my experience?
First, water levels must be investigated fully and potential increases in flow anticipated.
Second, one must always maintain appropriate distances between boats on the river.
Third, paddler skills of all members in a party must be commensurate with the difficulty of the river, especially on an initial run at high water.
Fourth, maintaining optimal vision is essential. I might have avoided the pourover altogether if my vision had not been impaired.
Fifth, always make sure your boat and equipment are in the best possible condition. A more secure fit may have enabled me to roll and eventual to work free of the pourover.
Finally, clear communication between boaters is essential in order to effect a safe and expedient rescue. The roar of the river made verbal communication nearly impossible. A previously agreed upon course of action would have facilitated rescue.