Accident Database

Report ID# 1080

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

In a message dated 6/13/2006 (Paul Delaney) writes:

Woman drowns in rafting accident

By the Missoulian

An 18-year-old freshman from Eastern Washington University drowned in the Alberton Gorge on Saturday while on a school-sponsored whitewater rafting trip. Her body was recovered Sunday afternoon. The young woman, whose name was not immediately released, was among a group that included three rafts of students and a rescue boat from the Cheney, Wash., school, said Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin. "They were doing everything right," McMeekin said late Sunday. "They were wearing helmets, had good PFDs (personal flotation devices) and good wet suits."

But a log had lodged in the Clark Fork River overnight Friday at right angles to the shore, creating a dangerous underwater trap called a "strainer" by rafters. Commercial rafters spotted the hazard early Saturday and canceled some trips through the Alberton Gorge that day. But the group from EWU did not know of the hazard, McMeekin said, and the state of Montana posted its warning after they took to the water. "Whether she got flipped out or fell out, we don't know," McMeekin said. "But she was immediately pulled under the log and pinned."

The group's rescue craft immediately began searching for the young woman, Lifeflight helicopter helped as well, and all were quickly joined by Frenchtown Rural Fire, Mineral County and Missoula County rescue crews. The woman's parents and brother arrived at the river late Saturday and were there when her body was recovered from the water, McMeekin said. The accident occurred just below Tumbleweed rapids. "The log lodged one end up against the bank and the other against a rock," the sheriff said."It was at right angles to the current, submerged just a little bit - a very dangerous deal. It was a sad weekend," the sheriff said, "very tough."

Woman who drowned in Clark Fork identified

By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian

An 18-year-old woman who drowned Saturday during a whitewater rafting trip through the Alberton Gorge was identified Monday as Sara Varnum, a freshman at Eastern Washington University. Varnum was on a school-sponsored trip, and was among a group that included three rafts of students and a rescue boat from the university, which is located in Cheney, Wash. And while rescuers and law enforcement said the group took every safety precaution, a log had lodged in the Clark Fork River on Friday afternoon at a right angle to the riverbank, creating a dangerous and elusive underwater hazard called a "strainer" by rafters, said Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin. * R.J. Nelsen, of Missoula County Search and Rescue, helped lead the weekend's rescue efforts, and described the obstruction as a "perfect" hazard. "If you were going to create a perfect scenario for someone to get pinned underwater, you couldn't have set it up any better than this strainer," Nelsen said.

The strainer was located just below Tumbleweed rapids, a chunk of whitewater notorious for dumping rafters into the Clark Fork. "If you're going to get tossed, it's going to be right after Tumbleweed," Nelsen said. After rescuers recovered Varnum's body from beneath the obstruction early Sunday, the Missoula County Bomb Squad exploded the log, Nelsen said. "If they hadn't blown up that obstruction, I bet we'd be right back there in another week." A group of rafters from Montana River Guides spotted the strainer on Friday afternoon, and worked until dark to remove the tree, said Mike Johnston, owner and lead instructor of the guide service. "Our lead guides spent all Friday night with saws and ropes, and when they couldn't remove it, we canceled our trips for the next day," Johnston said. And although the guides posted signs cautioning rafters of the hazard, the group of students either didn't notice the warnings or took to the water before the state of Montana posted an official warning.

Johnston said the Clark Fork River isn't known for its hazards, and has no reputation for strainers. "In 15 years, we haven't seen a hazard like that crop up," Johnston said. "The amount of water on the Clark Fork tends to flush out most of the wood and other obstructions. Typically, we think of the Bitterroot as having the most hazards, and the Clark Fork as a family-friendly river during the summer months." Saturday's search was led by the Mineral County Sheriff's Department, but Frenchtown Rural Fire, Missoula County, Life Flight helicopter and the Montana River Guides did most of the heavy lifting in what Nelsen called a "technical and dangerous mission."

Saturday's tragedy marks at least the third time in recent months that Missoula County Search and Rescue has assisted Mineral County in an emergency rescue, and is the third fatality since the April deaths of Niki and Nick Thomas, the Minnesota mother and son who died of hypothermia near DeBorgia. Mineral County Sheriff Hugh Hopwood did not return the Missoulian's phone calls on Monday.

Johnston arrived on the scene late Saturday afternoon, after Missoula County Search and Rescue decided conditions were too dangerous for rescue divers. Wearing fins, Johnston hopped from eddy to eddy until he was beside the strainer, which had lodged between a rock and the riverbank. Standing atop the rock, Johnston stuck his head underwater and reached beneath the tree until he found what he expected was the victim. Rescuers threw Johnston a rope and carabineer from shore, and he attached the line to what turned out to be Varnum's life vest. Rescuers decided to return Sunday morning with heavy earth-moving equipment, but the body came dislodged on its own overnight.

Varnum's parents and brother arrived at the river late Saturday and were there when her body was recovered from the water, McMeekin said. According to Barb Richey, director of university relations at EWU, Varnum's family arrived at the campus Monday. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Sara," Richey said. "Our counseling center is available to students who were on the trip. We're all still kind of in shock mode."

It's finals week at EWU, and many students are just now moving out of the dormitories, or preparing for Saturday's graduation, Richey said. Varnum lived in one of the school's residence halls, and Richey said counseling is also available to students who lived near her. Johnston, who teaches swift-water rescue classes to law enforcement, said the situation could have been even worse. "We were all kind of helpless out there," Johnston said. "I feel bad for the guide and the people on the trip. But at least no one else was hurt trying to help her. There are probably some very lucky people on that trip who don't even realize it."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at

Non-Witness Narrative by Cody Harris on 2007-03-08 (okay to publish): I am a guide on the Alberton Gorge. The day of the accident my company had canceled its trips due to the strainer in question. I was contacted by Mineral County Search and Rescue at about 1pm. They had a report of a lost kayaker at Tumbleweed rapid and needed directions to the location. Myself and two other guides grabbed our gear and immediately left for the trailhead. SAR had, by this time (about 15 min), found the access point

When we reached the river, Mineral County was on shore. They have little to no resources for river rescue and were waiting for Missoula County to arrive with their jet boat. After talking to the members of Sara's crew, it became clear that Sara had fallen out of the boat 50 yds above the strainer. At this level there is a large lateral wave that forms at the bottom of Tumbleweed rapid on the river right side. It was in this wave that Sara, who was sitting in the front left side, washed out of the boat.

She and her guides knew about the strainer (they had run the river the day before). Sara was in the second boat. The lead guide described his attempt to get a throwbag to Sara before the strainer and how she had tried to swim around the strainer. The strainer was on the river left and the majority of water was pushing into it. After missing the throwbag and realizing she was not going to make it around the strainer, the guide told me that she immediately began swimming towards the strainer. The guide described that when Sara went into the strainer, she was immediately pulled under. The last thing he saw was her hand reaching up.

At this point I asked if they had seen Sara flush through. Looking at the strainer from shore, there was no sign of Sara. Sara's crew said that they had not seen here flush through. We decided to do a search for Sara, hoping that she had flushed through unnoticed. I paddled the river from the strainer to Tarkio, the raft take out, and the other guides I was with took the old railroad grade road down to Tarkio. We did not find any sign of Sara.

We returned to the scene, at least an hour later, and Missoula County had arrived with their jet boat. Again, Missoula county was limited on resources and unable to access the strainer. Myself and my employer, offered to search the strainer. About ten feet from shore, there was a rock that the strainer was lodged on. We were able to access this rock and search a limited region of the log. The log was probably 50 feet long and extended a considerable distance out into the river. The volume of water limited our ability to search the distal ends of the strainer, so we searched the area we could.

It happened that Sara became lodged between the rock and log. Once we were certain we had found her (at least four hours after incident) we tried to dislodge her. This was not possible. Sara was not moving. After much effort, and the approaching night, we successfully attached a rope to Sara. It was decided that we should tie the rope off and try again the following day. During the night, Sara flushed through on her own. The log was then blown up by Missoula SAR.

In many ways I am still dealing with this event. I did not know Sara. My only contact with her was reaching through the water and attaching a carabiner to her life jacket. At times I feel responsible for her death. I live at the gorge in the summers and spend everyday on the water. Our company had done a trip on the Gorge the night before and had a close call with the very same strainer. That same night, a group of guides and myself went to the river to try and remove the strainer. There were four of us, and after an hour or two of varied attempts we gave up. Did we try hard enough, though? The next day we canceled our trips, posted signs and called as many outfitters as possible. Still, Sara died. I almost feel like I should have just sat at the put in and warned everyone. This could have been something. I was shaken a little by the lack of community.

It was told to me that two other companies had passed the strainer shortly after Sara had gone into it. Why didn't they stop? I have not talked directly to these outfitters to hear their side of the story, but I have always believed that the river community would always be there in an emergency. Now I am not so certain. I do hope that Sara's family knows that we tried to help her. I can't even imagine the loss they feel.

Last Saturday, a woman on a rafting trip with her school drowned in the Alberton Gorge, an 11 mile stretch of class III+ whitewater on the Clark Fork River, in western Montana. The stretch is a classic canyon run, with stunning scenery and exciting rapids. It’s one of the most floated stretches of river in the region and is considered to be relatively safe. I'd almost ended up floating the Gorge that day myself, and this accident hit very close to home. What happened out there? And what would I have done?

What Went Wrong on Montana’s Alberton Gorge?

Last Saturday, a woman on a rafting trip with her school drowned in the Alberton Gorge, an 11 mile stretch of class III+ whitewater on the Clark Fork River, in western Montana. The Gorge is a classic canyon run, with stunning scenery and exciting rapids. It’s one of the most floated stretches of river in the region and is considered to be relatively safe.

Earlier that day, I called some friends to see if anyone wanted to join my friend John and me on an afternoon float down the Blackfoot River. The original plan was to row our rafts solo down the Alberton Gorge, but the river had come back up, and I was a bit uneasy about rowing boats with no other paddlers in them through the heaviest rapids in the middle of the Gorge, where a flip meant a long swim and likely a lost raft. The occasional swim while whitewater rafting is part of the fun – if you’re prepared and conditions are safe. This was John’s first float of the season, though, and we had no other boaters to join us, so I made the call to switch trips to the Blackfoot. It’s a gift, really, that we even have such options.

Several hours and a sore shoulder later, John and I were back in town, happy and tired. While we were gone, two of the people I called, Matt and Chuck, had called back. Matt asked about a float down the Gorge tomorrow. Chuck’s message said that he had heard that a nasty log had jammed between a rock and the bank at the bottom of Tumbleweed rapid, creating a “strainer” in the middle part of the Gorge, and that the float might be un-runnable. Spread the word, he said.

I called Matt back to share the news of the strainer. He had heard nothing.

An hour later, Matt called back. That strainer you told me about, he said, someone got caught in it this afternoon. Mike and Cody are out there right now, trying to retrieve the body.

Matt’s voice was sullen, even more so than his normal tone. My heart sank as my head filled with the questions that Matt was trying to answer with the limited details he had.


The woman who drowned last Saturday was swept under the log Chuck told me about, after she fell out of her boat in Tumbleweed rapid. She was an 18-year-old freshman from Eastern Washington University (EWU), on a trip with the school’s outdoor program.

The classic line down Tumbleweed rapid is to start by paddling through the waves on the right side of the river, and then make your way to the left side, to avoid a large wave and recirculating hole about half way down the rapid. Once you miss the big feature, you must work against the current a bit, and move back to the center of the river, to avoid the pulsating currents along the left canyon wall. Executed properly, the ride is thrilling. A mishap, though, can end up with one or more people falling into the water. A swim can result in any number of possibilities, but most likely, banged knees and ankles, and maybe some swallowed water. On my hundreds of trips down that stretch, I’ve seen plenty of flips, swims and dumps there that turned out fine. In most cases, the swimmers actually enjoyed the thrill of the experience, but Tumblewed rapid is still a place that you really want to keep everyone in the boat.

Matt and I guide for a Missoula whitewater outfitter, owned by Mike Johnston and his wife Bernice, and which runs trips on the Alberton Gorge. Cody works for them, too. The day before the accident, Mike, Cody and some guides in Mike’s swiftwater rescue class saw the log lodged in the river in the pulsating currents at the bottom left side of the rapid. The three-foot diameter log sat just at the surface, making it all but impossible to see until you were almost on top of it. One of the guides, who was purposefully swimming the rapid with a riverboard, actually floated into it, and stuck just long enough to give Mike pause about taking customers down the river. After a group of guides worked unsuccessfully to pull the log out of the current later that evening, Mike made the call to cancel Saturday’s trips, and he and Cody alerted all of the other companies and Fish, Wildlife and Parks about the hazard.

According to David Lawrence, the owner of a different outfitting company, he and the guides with EWU each hiked in and looked at Tumbleweed and the strainer before making their own calls as to whether to float the river that day. Both David and the school decided to go. (When I called the EWU outdoor program for more details, I was told no one there could speak to me, but that I could get a statement from the media relation’s office.)

David’s three-boat group was ahead of the EWU group. Sometime around noon on Saturday, he and his other two boats pulled into the calm water above Tumbleweed to warn their clients about the hazard. David took his boat through first. As he was heading down the river, the EWU crew came up from behind, and the other two guides decided to let them float by.

From below the rapid, where he and his crew were waiting and watching safely, David saw two of EWU’s boats come through the rapid, along with one swimmer. The swimmer immediately went into the defensive swim position, in which you float belly up, feet first, so you can see what’s ahead and steer with your arms. Several guides yelled at her, and one threw a rope to her, but missed. As she floated closer to the strainer, she tried to swim to the right of it, and then at the last moment, either turned to swim right at it — the correct move — or went back into the defensive swim position. Those that I talked to recall what happened differently. Regardless, it was too late. Twenty thousand cubic feet of water moving per second through a narrow canyon is too much power. The strong current had flushed her under until all that was visible was her hand. And then that was gone.

Brooke Lawrence, who was guiding with David on the trip, told me that the guide from the woman’s boat quickly maneuvered over to the strainer, climbed on the bank next to it and readied himself with a rope. David said that the EWU guide then began looking around for the woman. David was unable to get back upstream, but meanwhile, the rest of the EWU boats had safely floated through the rapid and were waiting downstream. David paddled down to them, took their guides aside to explain the severity of the situation, made suggestions on how to hike out and call for help, and then left the scene with his three boats and clients.

(Cody later told me that the EWU guide later told him that he had then made several attempts using ropes and pulleys to move the log, but was unsuccessful.)

At about 3 p.m., Mineral County Search and Rescue called the raft house where Cody was, asking for a boat to help with the emergency. Cody grabbed his gear and kayak and headed right to Tumbleweed. From there, he paddled downstream looking for the lost rafter, still unsure if she had floated out and was stranded somewhere downstream. Another friend tracked down Mike. By the time both Mike and Cody made it back to Tumbleweed, at about 5 p.m., Missoula County Search and Rescue had also arrived by jet boat.

Sometimes an accident, even one in which you were completely uninvolved, can hit so close to home that it makes you rethink decisions and question your judgment. Considering the accident, I ask myself, what would I have done if I were that guide whose passenger fell out above that strainer? What about if I were the company owner or trip leader? Would I have even run the trip? What about once she was under the log? What would I have done?

When I talked to Cody a few days later, he said that he, Mike and a few other guides discussed whether they would have taken the strainer as seriously as they did, had a guide not almost gotten stuck on it the day before. Was that what caused them to make the call that they did? Disregarding hindsight, how much of a risk did it appear to be? David told me that after looking at the log, he decided to make the call once he sized up his clients. He also told me that from the river, the strainer didn’t look like much; in fact, he said, it was rather difficult to see. Up on shore, though, he said the danger was clear, and he acknowledged that, if there was a swimmer in that rapid, there was a pretty good chance they’d have been pushed right into it.

When Mike and Cody and the search and rescue crews all met at the scene around 5 p.m. that afternoon, they still had not confirmed whether the woman was trapped under the log. More complicated mechanical advantage rope and pulleys were set, and eventually they moved the log a little bit. Mike and Cody were willing to swim downstream of the strainer, and Mike eventually felt the body under the water. He couldn’t pull it out, but he could get to it and anchor it with a carabineer and rope to the riverbank.

The next morning, Cody met the search and rescue crews at Tumbleweed and found the body floating, tied to the anchor rope. Someone hiked it out, and the Missoula Bomb Squad followed and dynamited the log and the rock it was pinned on, clearing the hazard.

Being a guide and a frequent river runner on my own, certain safety situations have been branded into my brain. One of the top three is the danger associated with a strainer. Water can pass through one, but a person can’t. The part B of that is what to do if you are heading into one: you roll over on your belly and swim at it, hard, and use that momentum and your arms to propel yourself on top of it. It’s not clear what of that the woman knew.

Even if she had been told what to do, she could have panicked, in which case rational thought and memory aren’t working properly. When people panic — and they often do when they go for an unexpected swim in cold, rushing, frothy water — they don’t always perform the necessary self-rescue skills they were taught, or don’t perform them fast enough.

The risk of death is certainly a part of outdoor sports. But contrary to popular recreation philosophy, the thrill of that possibility is not what keeps you coming back for more — it’s what keeps you from going too far. It’s a guide’s call, always, to take river conditions and client abilities into account before making a decision regarding whether to go. But even when the most careful consideration is paid, unforeseen events can and do occur. Often, it is these events that make a trip so memorable: the hailstorm in July, the water fight with the boat full of senior citizens, the wave that knocked your aunt ass-over-teakettle into the water. Rarely do they take a turn for the worse like what happened last Saturday, but it does happen.

Missoulians know something about unforeseen events and river deaths: we have a beautiful surfing wave right in downtown to memorialize one of our favorite paddlers, who died while running a river in Chile.

When I talked to Cody again the other night, he said about the only upshot of it all was that at least now he knew her name. The woman who died was Sara Varnum. She was a freshman at Eastern Washington University, and was a couple days away from finals week, during her first year of college. She was on a day trip with her roommate and some friends, and was probably just out for some fun, maybe before starting a summer job, or an internship. I don’t know. But she was social, or appeared to be. She has a page on MySpace, with 49 friends, which she last logged onto the day before she dro

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