CLOSE CALL ON GULF HAGAS
On Saturday, May 25, 1996, five expert kayakers put in on the Gulf Hagas section of the West Branch of the PleasantRiver in Central Maine . The level was moderate: one inch below the bridge abutment platform at the put-in. The group was very familiar with Gulf Hagas; two of the paddlers in the group had run it 25-30 times!
Gulf Hagas is an incredibly beautiful river carving its way through a remote section of the Maine woods. The overall gradient is 95 feet/mile; the steepest section averages 255 feet/mile. It’s a Class III-V run with one Class VI drop. Starting as a meandering quickwater stream, it drops over a series of spectacular runnable ledges. Then it narrows, dropping through a series of constricted, overhanging gorges. The rapids here are tight, technical, and steep. It is a river which deserves respect.
When we got to Jaws, we scouted. This is a serious multi-stage drop (Class V) with many tight places. The final chute of Jaws in an eight- or nine-foot drop through a narrow slot between a cliff on river left and a sieve rock to the right. The top chute is partly obstructed at the top left by another rock.
Bill Hildreth was having a good run, right on line. He entered the final slot in great shape, in the center after coming around the right side of the obstruction at the top. Then–boom—he hit his bow and totally disappeared. I have never seen a pin that serious, but I have been present during other emergencies and was able to perform. It was a very different story when the person trapped was my husband. I lost it and started screaming. This alerted Rich, who was still upstream, that something serious was going on. He started running down to where we were over boulders and cliffs. At some point early in the pin a muffled voice emerged from the chute and cried “help” twice. It was heart wrenching to not be able to help, but also a relief to know that Bill had an air pocket. He briefly stuck his paddle up through the water to let us know where he was.
Jack jumped into the chute from the rock, hoping to somehow grab a hold of Bill or his boat and dislodge him. It didn’t work, and Jack washed through the chute and swam into the eddy just below the drop. He tried this again, with no luck. But in the summer of 1995 Rick, Glenn, Bill and I had all taken an ACA river rescue course taught by Charlie Walbridge. One of the techniques we learned was vertical pin extraction .We knew what to try in order to get Bill out. We didn’t have to discuss it-we knew.
While Rich was running down from upstream and Jack was attempting to get to Bill by jumping into the chute, Glenn flew out of his boat on river right and swam into an eddy on river left. He somehow managed to climb up the slippery rock face to get onto the cliff above where Bill was pinned, across from where I stood. I threw a rope to him, and the rope spanned the chute. We (mainly Glenn) scooped the rope down through the water where we though Bill was, sweeping it from downstream to upstream. Nothing caught on the first sweep. Afterward, Bill said that he saw a flash of yellow go by. He knew what was happening, and was ready to grab the rope when it came by again. The line passed through the water, with Glenn forcing it even deeper. This time Bill was able to grab it. He let go of his paddle so he could hold on with both hands. Rich arrived and took the end of the rope I’d been holding, then Jack joined Rich in holding that end of the rope. Glenn, Rich and Jack then moved upstream and pulled the rope taut.
Bill later described pulling the rope to his chest as soon as he grabbed it. As the line tightened, he let it raise his arms over his head in order to get leverage to lift himself out. He needed to let go of the rope with one hand so he could push off the boat with the other. As he worked into a sitting position, his sprayskirt popped and water poured into the boat. He knew he had to move quickly, before the boat destabilized.
As Bill slid part way out of the boat, his head broke the surface and he was able to shout instructions. He told the guys to step back upstream and pull tighter. The rope slipped a little, and he was back under water again. He worried that if the rope went slack, he would be forced forward. Since his legs were partially out of the boat, his knees could be hyper-extended or his legs broken. The pull on the guys holding the rope was incredible. They were hauling with all their might and still Bill had to use all of his strength to escape. Glenn, by himself on river left, had little room to move on the narrow, slippery shelf, but somehow managed to hold on. The three maintained steady pressure on the rope, and Bill freed first one leg, then the other.
Bill later reported that when he first hit and stopped, he tried to wiggle off but could not. He tried to push off the left wall of the chute with his paddle without success. He attempted to pry with the paddle, but nothing happened. The water on his back was forcing him forward so he couldn’t sit up. He felt there was little chance of getting out by himself. He felt that, because he was stable and had air, he should wait for help. If we didn’t do something within a few minutes, he would try to get out of the boat by himself.
Once free, Bill flushed downstream and swam into the eddy on river right. His sprayskirt was gone, and his pants were inside out and around his ankles. He was okay except for a sore ankle and thigh. Seven to ten minutes had elapsed from the moment Bill first pinned until he got out of the boat. We were all emotionally and physically drained. After Bill was safely on shore the next step was to free the boat. That wasn’t easy. The bow was lodged on the left and the stern was wedged under a large rock to the right of the chute. It was solidly pinned, but Bill, Glenn, Rich and Jack eventually got it out.
SOURCE: Condensed from an article in American Whitewater by Joan Hildreth.
ANALYSIS: (Joan Hildreth) This incident highlights a number of important issues. It’s not my intentions to try to tell others what to do. The following is simply my perspective:
1. Paddle with good people. Although paddling is an individual sport, there are elements which require teamwork. I really value the friendships of my close paddling buddies, and the events of May 25 reinforced the reasons I enjoy boating with them. We have fun on rivers but are always looking out for one another. I know that Glenn, Rich, and Jack would do everything they could for a stranger. But I’m also sure that the adrenaline surge that helped them pull off the rescue was enhanced by the fact that Bill is their buddy. I will always be grateful to them for what they did.
2. Significant others boating together add a new twist to group dynamics. If a couple is paddling together and one of them has an accident, it’s bound to have a great emotional impact on their mate. I’m sure my emotional response made it more stressful for Glenn, Rich, and Jack to deal with the situation.
3. Knowledge of river rescue techniques (and practicing them) is invaluable. Some people are naturally mechanical and can come up with effective rescue techniques quickly in emergency situations. I’m not one of them, and wouldn’t have known what to do if I hadn’t taken a river rescue course. I strongly encourage all boaters, even experts, to take a river rescue course, or read books, or study a video. I believe it made the difference between life and death for Bill.
4. Carry rescue equipment and make sure it works. Fortunately, Bill’s kayak was equipped with a bulkhead so that his feet didn’t slip off, causing him to slip further into the boat. It had strong walls to prevent collapse and a keyhole cockpit to allow easier exit. There was a rope available, however, it was a new rope. Had I checked it out with a practice throw I would have found that it had been packed wrong, causing it to tangle when thrown. Fortunately, we did not need the entire length of the rope, but a tangles rope could have caused problems. Rope color might not usually be a factor, but given a choice of color I’d pick the brightest one. The yellow color of the rope we used alerted Bill to its presence.
5. We had a spare paddle (which was only need for a brief time because Bill’s paddle had conveniently eddied out on its own not far downstream). We were considering a spare sprayskirt; it could come in handy if one were badly torn. In this situation, Bill’s sprayskirt was ripped off by the water. Our solution was to switch boats and sprayskirts around. I ended up paddling the rest of the river in a full-sized Freefall without a skirt. Fortunately, we were already through the hardest drops.
6. Rivers constantly change. We returned to Gulf Hagas a few weeks later at low water (eight inches below the platform) in Thrillseekers and got a closer look at the rocks in Jaws. The left side of the final chute is formed by a cliff. The bottom portion juts out into the slot about ten inches. There are two distinct deep cracks at the top of the outcropping, each of which could fit the bow of a kayak. Perhaps the cliff changed, or maybe it’s been that way for years. Many people have banged into the left wall and kept going. We’d never heard of a pin in the chute until this year. Another paddler was caught there a couple of weeks before Bill, but he wiggled off fairly easily.
7. It’s dangerous to assume that a drop is clean just because others have run it safely. As people run steeper rapids, the risks increase. Even though Bill looked like he was on the same line as everyone else, he ended up caught in an obstruction. Perhaps he went deeper because he’s a big man and weighs more than most people.
8. No matter how careful you are, things can still go wrong. As I said earlier, we are a reasonable, cautious group of people. None of us expected a serious pin in a chute where hundreds of runs had been made without incident. No one ever thinks that something bad can happen to them, but here are no guarantees in life and there are certainly none in whitewater!