Accident Database

Report ID# 1039

  • Impact/Trauma
  • Physical Trauma
  • Other

Accident Description

Injury on the South Fork Yuba

On April 27, a kayaker sustained a severed ankle fracture requiring surgery, bone grafting, and a prolonged period of rehabilitation. Mike Leonard, an experience paddler and kayak instructor, and Howard Schmitz, a fearless Class III to IV boater with one year of experience, set out to do their first descent of the Washington to Edwards run on the South Fork of the Yuba River. The flow was about 700 cfs on a sunny, warm day. The first ten miles of the run were uneventful with both paddlers paddling strong and having a great time.

At 10.5 miles there is a portage around a 12-foot waterfall. As described in Holbeck and Stanley’s A Guide to the Best Whitewater in the State of California (pg. 103), the falls can be portaged on the right to a “safe” rock launch that is about 15 feet high. There is also a portage on the left to a put-in at river level. They chose the right portage. The pool just above the rock launch was deep, clear and green, but the paddlers couldn’t see the bottom just below the rock. 

There is room for only one boater to launch at a time, so Howard, (the type who loves to parachute or jump off high bridges into rivers) went first in his new (only used once!) Prijon T-Slalom. Howard pushed off and his kayak entered the water vertically, striking a submerged rock that was four feet below the surface. The impact sprained his left ankle, shattered his right ankle, and dented the nose of his boat.

Mike saw Howard snap forward on impact and smack his face on the deck of his boat. Howard wet-exited and floated in the pool briefly to take stock of his injuries. Mike immediately jumped into the pool to help Howard to the side. They splinted the ankle crudely by leaving his bootie on and zipping his wetsuit leg down over it snugly. Howard was pale and light-headed from severe pain. He couldn’t bear any weight on the right leg and the left ankle was sprained and painful. They were in a gorge three miles from the take-out with nightfall approaching and several Class IV rapids – challenging for Howard when uninjured – ahead. They elected to try to get out together, the only other option being for Mike to finish the run and summon help. The second option would have meant Howard waiting until after dark for help to arrive.

They pushed the footplate of the Prijon forward so that it wouldn’t be against the injured foot. Howard couldn’t brace his leg at all because of the pain, and so his loose fit in the boat and terrible pain made the next three miles a nightmare.

Just below the rock launch pool Howard followed Mike into a solid Class IV drop with two big holes. Howard struggled through and successfully rolled twice, but the rolls were extremely painful. About one-half mile down he slammed the nose of his boat into a rock, causing his injured ankle to jam against the footplate. Another Class IV drop with a wrap rock had to be negotiated before the take-out. Mike considered a portage, but negotiated the rugged gorge would have been impossible with Howard’s injuries. They ran the first drop into a hole and Howard’s weak brace didn’t keep him up. He was too spent to roll, so he exited his boat and swam to the pool below. After a rest, Howard eased back into the boat and they completed the run to the take-out. There Mike found a miner to help carry Howard to the truck and they made the drive to the hospital where Howard had surgery that night. Mike was shaken by the ordeal of nursing his injured friend through the difficult rapids, seeing the pain etched on his face, and wondering if he would have the strength to punch through the holes. Howard is already anxious to kayak again, but he’s facing a long convalescence.

The obvious lessons to be gleaned from this accident are:

  1. Don’t take unnecessary risks. If you don’t know the depth of the pool, don’t jump in.
  2. This previously “safe” rock launch is no longer safe. The waterfall should be portaged on the left to a river-level entry.
  3. Ideally, have a minimum of three in your part. It’s a lot easier to carry out a friend if there are two of you.
  4. Carry a first aid kit that includes bandages, ace wraps, and slings. You may need to splint a fractured ankle or immobilize a dislocated shoulder on any river trip.


Source: Terry Williams; Paddlers News Bulletin 

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