Close Call on Black Moshannon Creek
by Alden Henrie
November 11, 2020
Right, I am going to attempt a brief summarization of the events of Wednesday evening with as much visual context I can provide. When I use the term “attempt a brief summarization,” I am just being hopeful. It almost definitely will not be, so buckle up.
The incident I had was with a river-wide strainer on my local run, Black Moshannon Creek. I was with four other local paddlers who also know this creek like the back of their hand - Robbie Fulton, Aaron Roos, David Shirey and Mark Lawrence. We put on sometime around 4:20 PM, with just under an hour of usable daylight to complete a 4 mile run. We knew there was a risk for new wood as the Black Moshannon had not run since early May. The strainer was around a couple hundred yards downstream of the rapid called Crackintherock, on the final straight stretch before Black Moshannon Creek meets with the roadside of Route 53. It was still light enough that we could easily see the strainer, but we could not easily tell how bad it was unless we got closer. Robbie and I waited until the last possible opportunity to eddy out above the strainer on river right to see if we could possibly paddle over top of it while the others took out sooner. There was a lack of decently sized eddies to fit multiple boats in, so we all tried our best to just get to shore and climb out for the portage.
The first video clip shows me running a rapid much further upstream. As I eddy out on the left, you will notice that my GoPro comes into contact with low-lying branches. While I was fine here, my GoPro getting caught in low-lying branches was the catalyst for the scariest swim I have ever experienced. My head was yanked to the upstream side by the branch catching my GoPro and the next thing I knew, I was upside down. I immediately went into panic mode. I tried rolling up on my right side, the upstream side, but I lacked the patience needed to nail the first attempt. I tried rolling on that side a few more times before I switched to my left side, my onside in C1, only to keep panicking and continue failing to roll up. This flailing about upside down eventually brought my boat back into the main current, and straight towards the strainer. I had no choice but to bail and hope for the best.
The second video shows a strainer upstream of the rapid called Strainer City, and this video is included only to provide a comparison. The strainer I found myself swimming into was probably around two feet in diameter, much thicker than the one shown, and with similar-looking branches branching away from the main part of the tree. The third video shows the last seconds of video I recorded above the strainer before I turned my GoPro off. Hopefully that video isn’t too dark.
Right, I found myself swimming straight into the strainer. My feet are already pointed downstream and my legs are put together, so there’s no chance of being able to somehow leap up onto the strainer and crawl out on top of it. No matter what, I was going under. I keep my legs together and reach around the top, hoping that I could somehow hold myself there until the others could fetch me a rope. My head sunk underwater and I quickly learned that resistance was always futile. I let go, felt my back scraping against the bottom of the strainer and my torso scraping against the bottom of the creek. The time between my head going under and resurfacing downstream must have been the five longest seconds of my life.
I found myself desperately scrambling to get back to shore, and I encounter a spot that’s shallow and close enough to shore where I felt I could safely stand. As it turned out, I was close to shore and in shallow water, but there was nothing but moving current and slippery rock. Gasping for air and adrenaline fueled, I tried standing up quickly, only to feel a sharp pain in my right knee and immediately fall back down. I resign myself to crawling out of the river, and test my ability to stand and walk on shore. My knee is crying out for help in that moment, but I managed to deal with it while helping to rope my boat out of the strainer.
The fourth video shows the scariest part. During this incident, I lost my paddle. I had a choice - walk out, considering Route 53 was not too far of a walk away, or hand paddle the rest of the way. My right knee complains enough that I decide that hand paddling the rest of the run is probably safer than channeling my inner mountain goat. I borrow Robbie’s spare hand paddles and I carefully navigate my way to the takeout by instinct above all else. At this point, sunlight had all but completely disappeared.
There are a few of lessons I want to share.
1) Even if you are an expert paddler on a local run, the possibility that something stupid can happen is always present. Therefore, the choices we make should attempt to minimize the possibility of stupid shit happening. Yes, the five of us on Black Moshannon Creek Wednesday evening know the creek incredibly well. That being said, running it for the first time since early May with no knowledge of new wood with just under an hour of proper sunlight to go was pushing our luck, to say the very least. I do not believe my incident is the result of one major mistake we made, but is instead the result of multiple ingredients that brewed together into a near-perfect lethal cocktail.
2) Always try your best to be aware of your situation. In hindsight, the best thing I could have done would have been to swim immediately as I flipped in the eddy above the strainer. I could have kept myself, boat and paddle from floating into the strainer had I just bailed immediately instead of panicking and flailing around upside down; it is an action that, while understandable, only gave the current the opportunity to help show me whether or not a higher deity truly exists.
3) Learn from your mistakes, but do not be too harsh on yourself. I am my own biggest self-critic. Self-criticism is the name of the game I am best at. That being said, if I allowed engagement in pointed critiques of myself in any fashion reminiscent of my slalom racing days in relatively safe concrete ditches, I probably would never be able to live with myself and perhaps would never step into a boat again. Whitewater is the only thing in life I actually enjoy. I cannot allow myself to ruin the only thing I enjoy doing just because of one bad experience. I am trying my best simply to look at this whole incident in as objective a fashion as possible, learn from it and move forward.
That’s all folks. Hopefully some of these words actually meant something.