Incident on the ShenandoahRiver Staircase
Near Confluence of Shenandoah and PotomacRivers
At about 4 PM, Saturday, May 24, I was descending the Lower Staircase on the ShenandoahRiver just below the Route 340 Bridge with my scout troop. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two tandem paddlers flip. They were not in my group and were paddling a Mohawk canoe without flotation. All the other adults in my group and all the boys (except one tandem boat behind me) were below me and safely nearing the end of this descent.
I checked the last boat of kids behind me and began to descend a vigorous Class II rapids midway through the staircase in the center of the river. Suddenly, I saw a man standing near the bottom of this rapid with a boat full of water barely discernible in front of him. He frantically waved for me to stop. I did so in the eddy created by the filled canoe.
I was horrified to find the man’s paddling partner pinned underneath this canoe full of water. The filled canoe was perpendicular to the flow of the current, upright and squarely on the chest of the man beneath. The pinned man (who looked about 20 years old) was on his back parallel with the flow of the current. Only his head and upper chest were visible downstream of the boat. Water was flowing over the downstream gunwale and splashing into his face.
I jumped out of my boat and attempted to help his partner move the full canoe either left or right. It would not budge. Meanwhile, the boat with two scouts had descended just after me and bumped into the stuck boat. The scouts jumped out and immediately pulled their boat around the boat full of water.
While trying to move the boat, I worked to keep the pinned man’s head above water and to prevent water flowing over the gunwale from splashing into his face. I also talked to him to see if he were conscious. At first, there were flickers of movement and recognition, but these soon stopped. His partner and I then concluded that we had to pull the boat downstream over the pinned man’s head since he had now lost consciousness and since the situation was becoming desperate. This we promptly did without too much difficulty. This entire sequence of events took perhaps two or three minutes.
However, once freed, the man was now unconscious and floated on his back without movement. I immediately decided we had to get downstream – at least to a dry flat rock. Keeping the water away from his face, I got behind the man, and we floated on our backs downstream. He was cradled in my arms on top of me, and our feet were pointed downriver. About 50 feet downstream, we reached a dry flat rock. We stopped there, and I partially pulled the man onto the rock.
After a few seconds, I could see he was barely breathing and so did not start artificial respiration or CPR. At this time I responded positively to an adult downstream on a rock who asked if the unconscious man was breathing. Another minute passed. The unconscious man moaned and began to breathe more deeply. I pulled him further out of the water, and he slowly regained consciousness. He rested for about five minutes, and I kept talking to him – asking if he hurt anywhere. The man said no.
I then asked him if he felt well enough to lie down in a canoe. At first he was too weak, but after several minutes was strong enough (with assistance from his partner and myself) to climb in the canoe the two scouts had brought down with them. We put him on the flotation – facing me and on his stomach. Then we paddled to the Harper’s FerryPark a couple of hundred yards downstream.
I immediately sent one of the other adults for a park ranger and propped the rescued man against a tree. Shortly thereafter a ranger came and began talking to the man. The man was reasonably lucid but could not remember what happened after he came out of the boat. A second ranger with more medical knowledge arrived and asked further questions. A blanket was brought and wrapped around the man. Both the rangers and I told the man (and his canoeing partner) that a doctor should examine him immediately.
Meanwhile, Larry Stone, who had joined our troop for the day, had taken charge of my two scouts who had given their boat to me. Under his direction and watchful eye, they floated down the rest of the rapids in the proper safe position without incident.
My scouts were getting tired and cold. So, seeing that the rescued man was in good hands, we left for our Sandy Hook take-out. The rangers took my name and address. I believe the rescued man’s name was Arnold Shafer and that he was in the military.
Upon arriving at Sandy Hook , we saw two other men looking for Shafer’s tandem boat. They were the second boat of this twp-boat party but had gone downstream far ahead of their companions. I told them briefly what had happened, and they quickly went to Harper’s Ferry. I assume Mr. Shafer fully recovered.
The two scouts who assisted in the rescue, Andrew Bowers and Stephen Foerster, should be commended.
SOURCE: Ed Grove