Accident Database

Report ID# 1042

  • Other
  • Does not Apply
  • Other
  • High Water

Accident Description


The story begins on a rainy Saturday night just after Thanksgiving. For a day and a half, rain had fallen steadily. When we gathered at the put-in for Whites Creek in Tennessee , we counted nine boats. That morning, the gauge had read 2.5 feet, a “perfect” level. And the rain continued. By the time we’d run the shuttle and put on, the water had risen, but our excitement also had risen and nothing could stop us. The stream was a muddy rampage of boils and holes ranging up into the tree line. Eddies were rare. The tops of ragged standing waves brushed the overhanging branches. The creek twisted down over rocks like a crazy liquid staircase. 

At the first eddy, one member of our group took off and started walking back to the put-in. We couldn’t hear what he shouted; the water raged too loudly. The group was till pumped; so we went on. Randolph got out at the first tricky place to show us where to run, but the water was so fast that accurate maneuvering was a matter of chance. Holes loomed up everywhere, and two or three of the group surfed a little longer than fun required. There was no such thing as eddy-hopping this stream. One simply rushed full-force around each bend and prayed. I was too stupid to think of danger – this was heady and marvelous. But then I heard Smilin’ Jack say, “Be careful,” in a worried voice. Smilin’ Jack never uses a worried voice, so I realized the situation was serious.  

All at once, I rushed over a drop and saw Jack pinned in a strainer not five yards ahead of me. It took every ounce of adrenalin to get to the shore and grab a tree. I popped off my sprayskirt and fumbled for the rope. His kayak was wedged under a man-sized log. His arms were flung over the top of it, and the water boiled up to his chin. Just as Ed and I got to him, Jack’s boat ripped from his body and sailed free. When he saw there was a clear path under the log, he let go and washed under it himself. He was able to pull himself to shore way downstream, but the boat was out of sight.  

While I stumbled through boulders and mountain laurel to get to him, the other boats arrived at the spot and were quickly pulled into the trees. Jack was fine. His first words were about his truck keys, still clipped in his boat. “I meant to hide an extra key in the truck just yesterday, “ he said. We worked our way half a mile farther downstream looking for his boat; no luck.  

By the time we got back to the strainer, the water was rolling over the log—arise of at leave half a foot in less than half an hour Four kayakers, including myself, decided to walk out. But the gorge was deep, the banks rocky and over grown.  No one knew for certain how far the walk would be. This was “probably” the only strainer, so the canoes and one kayak elected to run on down. 

Hauling our kayaks up to the ridge line was exhausting, but soon after we reached the top we came to a field, a house, and a road. The put-in bridge was just around the bend. That part was easy. Finding the key to the vehicle there also was easy. The four hours of waiting and wondering what happened to our friends wasn’t so easy.  

By the time we drove to the takeout, the gauge that had read 2.5 feet that morning was reading 6 feet. No one we knew had ever run even run the easy lower section at that level, much less the tight upper section. Two of us drove the back roads along the upper section hoping to see someone walking out. The other three waited under the take-out bridge, poking sticks at a fire and speculating the possibilities.  

It wasn’t until dark had fallen that the story ends.  Our friends went only a little farther; after two or three pins and losing some equipment, they walked. Their walk was miles longer. They found Jack’s boat but they had to abandon all their gear in order to get out before night. They brought Jack’s keys back to him, but that was after he had broken a window to get dry clothes. Already the story was beginning to grow with embellishments. By the time you hear it who know what wild adventures we will have had on Upper Whites Creek.  

SOURCE: Mary Buckner, Tennessee Valley Canoe Club Newsletter  

EDITOR’S NOTE: High water can increase substantially the difficulty of a river. Boaters should be particularly wary of rapid rises in river level, which may make it hard to anticipate the difficulty.



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