Author is Sandra?
Incident Report: January 16, 2021
It was a great day on the Russell Fork Gorge. We had a stellar crew; myself, Michael, Dakota, Storzee, Andrew, and Will. It was Will’s first time on this river, so we’d be taking our time and getting out to scout several of the rapids, which I was happy about because the level was around 400 cubic feet per second, and I had never done the Russell Fork below release level, which is about double that amount of flow. The low water run would be creeky and technical class V moves, but less “pushy” than what I was used to on this river.
The weather couldn’t seem to make up it’s mind while we were paddling, alternating between overcast, patches of sun, and brief but intense precipitation. The high temperature for the day was going to be 35 degrees. Big, puffy snowflakes floated down on us at one point…the kind of thing that makes the river looks magical and made me think, “This is why I boat in the winter.” Two minutes later, the wind shifted and suddenly small icy pellets were bouncing off our kayaks and blasting us in the face, leaving a sharp stinging sensation on my exposed skin and reversing all the warm fuzzy feelings I had had a moment before about the river winter wonderland.
Towers rapid was the most intimidating to me at this water level. The line was different at this low flow, and we’d be executing a double boof next to an undercut boulder. Everyone in the crew had smooth lines. When we got out to scout El Horrendo (possibly the most well-known rapid on this run), the winter weather kicked into high gear. Wind, driving icy snow, and fog kicked up out of nowhere, decreasing visibility considerably. As we discussed the line and how we’d approach the entrance to the rapid at this level, we heard hooping and hollering as another crew of kayakers emerged from the mist and sent it. It was our friends who put on later in the afternoon, including Gerald, Evan, and Adam. They had a much larger crew of probably 10 or so kayakers. I don’t know if it was the low flow or the high stoke, but I had my cleanest line on El Horrendo to date, and the rest of the run was over in no time.
After we finished at Climax (the last big rapid of the Gorge), Michael asked if anyone wanted to hike the railroad tracks back up to Towers for a second lap. Storzee, Andrew, and I declined. My fingers, even inside my pogies, were like little popsicles. I decided putting on warm dry clothes and hanging out at the take-out sounded better than another lap, especially since we were staying overnight and boating again the next day. Will was game to go again, and after hemming and hawing Dakota decided he’d be down for lap #2 as well.
At the take-out (Ratliff Hole) I changed into warm clothes, cracked open a beer, and hung out with all of the kayakers we’d seen on the river that day as they all loaded boats on their vehicles and did the same. Storzee was the only one of our crew of six who wasn’t spending the night and boating again tomorrow, so after shooting the shit for a while Andrew took him back to his shuttle vehicle so he could head home, and Andrew continued on to the campsite we had reserved for the night. One by one everyone said their goodbyes and pulled out of the parking lot, until it was just me left. I climbed into the van and turned on the heater, getting it nice and toasty for when Michael got back and thawing out my toes. Once I was plenty warm I bundled up again and wandered out to take pictures of the beautiful, snow-covered place we were able to enjoy that day while I waited for the crew of three to return from their second lap..
Before long, I saw Michael and Will come around the corner, paddling toward me standing on the shore. Not seeing Dakota, I almost shouted upstream to them “What’d you do with Dakota?” as a joke, assuming he was just around the bend throwing stern squirts on his way down. Before I had the chance, Michael said, “Dakota cracked his boat at the put-in, he never got on the water!” “What?” I laughed. “What happened?” Michael explained that the put-in from the railroad tracks was a steep slope, so rather than try to carry their boats down they tied them to a rope and were lowering the boats down the bank one by one. When it was Dakota’s turn the rope slipped out of his hands and his kayak slipped down the embankment at high speed and slammed into a boulder, cracking his stern and leaving a large hole in the back of his boat. There was no way he could paddle down the river at that point.
The railroad side of the river is defined by steep cliffs, dense forest, and not much else. There are no roads that are easily accessible, so Michael and Will told Dakota to walk back downstream along the railroad tracks, the way they had just come from, and keep going until he crossed over the railroad bridge. At that point he’d be on the opposite side of the river and could climb the steep hill up to the road, and Michael and Will told him they’d meet him there as soon as they got off the water.
Dakota’s vehicle was at Ratliff Hole, so I volunteered to drive his car to the rendezvous point to pick up Dakota while Michael and Will loaded boats on our van. “Great!” Michael said, “He should be there waiting for you.” Since I wasn’t sure how to get to the campground we were staying at that night, Michael and Will said they’d meet me and Dakota up there a few minutes later and we’d drive to the campground together.
When I arrived at the pull-off where the guys had arranged to meet up, Dakota wasn’t there. The railroad tracks he would have to traverse to get to this rendezvous point were about 2.6 miles, but the river was longer, so Michael and Will had assumed he’d be quicker than them to reach that point. But carrying a kayak the whole way could definitely put a damper on speed of travel, so after waiting around a few minutes, I decided to hike the path down to the railroad bridge to see if I could see him. The path from the pull-off quickly turned steep, and the fresh snow made everything muddy. I was slipping and sliding through the woods most of the way down, and I thought to myself: Damn, he’s going to have a helluva time carrying his boat up this way.
At the end of the trail the path turned sharply right and I scrambled down a short rocky set of steps to the railroad tracks. Looking back up at it, it didn’t look like a trail so much as a cliff. It would be really hard to know that a path lead from there up to the road if you weren’t familiar with the area. I surveyed my surroundings. In front of me was the long, tall railroad bridge, hundreds of feet above the river, and behind me going into the mountainside was a dark train tunnel. Fresh snow covered the bridge, and there were no footprints. Dakota definitely wasn’t here yet. It was starting to get dark. I felt a twinge of worry for the first time.
I checked my phone. I had plenty of service and battery, so I called Michael. He didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail: “Hey, I got to the rendezvous point and Dakota’s not here, so I hiked down the trail to the bridge, and there’s no footprints in the snow. I’m going to start walking down the tracks looking for him since I have cell service.” I started walking. The railroad bridge was nearly 350 feet across and (luckily) had a metal grate floor on the downstream side and a railing made of posts and metal cables to allow for pedestrian access (although I’m sure it’s for railroad employees and not for kayakers). I’m admittedly not normally scared of heights but being suspended that high above the water as I crossed and seeing the river below my feet definitely made me nervous.
When I reached the other side, I started shouting. “DAKOTA!!” More walking. “DAKOTA!!” Rinse, repeat. Michael called me back and let me know they were at the rendezvous point, and I updated him on my whereabouts and status. I had probably already been walking about twenty minutes. Surely I’d see him soon. Daylight was fading fast. “Okay,” Michael said, “Keep walking another ten minutes, and then you probably need to turn around. Call me back in ten.” I had had cell phone service the whole time up until now, but I considered that to be lucky. “Alright,” I responded, “If I still have cell service, I’ll call you back in ten. If not, just assume I’ve turned around after ten minutes and I’ll call you as soon as I have service again.”
As each minute ticked by, my worry rose. Come on Dakota, where the hell are you? After about eight minutes, I reached the first train tunnel. “DAKOTA!!” I shouted into the dark. No response. I checked the time again. Okay, I told myself, I’ll walk all the way through the tunnel and surely I’ll see him on the other side. I turned on the flashlight on my phone and stepped into the dark. The tunnel was long, but the air was slightly warmer inside. I could hear dripping water. After several minutes of walking I still couldn’t see the other side. About halfway through there was a large hole in the tunnel facing the river which dimly lit that section of tunnel, but the dusk was fading. I kept going into the dark, and eventually came out the other side. “DAKOTA!!” Nothing. I could see down the tracks a ways. Just more snow, no footprints. Fuck!
I checked my phone, and surprisingly, outside of the tunnel, I had service again. It had been about 20 minutes since I’d last talked to Michael. I called him. The relief to hear from me was apparent in his voice. (I found out the next morning when we were all swapping tales that Michael and Will had started to panic when I didn’t call back after ten minutes, and had begun to think maybe some crazy person was down on the tracks murdering people with two of us now disappeared.) “Okay. I think I’m going to kick off search and rescue. Turn around and come back.” Michael said. The last time the two of them had seen Dakota and told him to start walking to the designated meet-up point was at 4:30pm. Two hours had passed. With no sign of him on the tracks, I told him I agreed and thought it was time to do so as well.
After re-emerging from the tunnel on my way back, night had fully settled in. I was just able to make out the train tracks because of the bright snow, but my surroundings were shrouded in darkness. All I could think about was Dakota, out here somewhere without a light source or communication device, wet from kayaking and still wearing his paddling gear. He must be freezing.
It probably took me about 40 minutes to get back to the pull-off where Michael and Will were waiting. By that time, the first responder was on the scene, a park ranger from Breaks Interstate Park named Austin. He was sitting in his vehicle talking to Michael, asking questions and making phone calls. Will had the smart idea to get his camp stove out of his car and start making food. It was going to be a long night. He gave Michael and I a mason jar full of warm ramen noodle soup, which we split.
Michael contacted everyone we had boated with that day, including the other boating crew we ran into (Storzee, Evan, Gerald, etc). I asked if he had gotten ahold of Andrew, down at our campsite, but he replied that he had tried twice but it went straight to voicemail, meaning that either there was no service there or his phone was dead. I asked Austin what we could do to be helpful, and he told me to hold tight until more people were on scene, but that they would definitely need our help. Before long a few police cars and firefighters showed up. I tried to stay out of the way and let the professionals coordinate, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping. Austin tried to contact CSX (the railway company) and ask if they could halt the trains between Haysi, VA and Elkhorn City, KY until the missing person was found. They weren’t able to stop the train service, but they did say they would go slow through the area and have their conductors keep a lookout for Dakota. There would be two trains coming through that evening, one from each direction.
A million scenarios were going through our minds. Did Dakota give up on hiking his boat down the tracks and try to ferry across the river in his busted boat? If he did, did he make it to the opposite shore? Did he fall or trip and injure himself? Did he have an encounter with a bear, wildcat, or unfriendly locals? Did he get lost in the woods? As the night went on and Dakota continued to fail to appear and several logical explanations were eliminated, the scenarios we dreamed up became more and more outlandish and illogical. Walk the tracks downstream until you cross the bridge, then hike uphill to the road. It seemed so simple. Nothing about his failure to appear at the rendezvous point made sense.
Evan and Adam showed up shortly after the first responders, and had two other kayakers with them who had come from Pikeville. Storzee showed back up not long after, having turned around after receiving the news. More local kayakers were on standby.
A police officer asked me if I could provide him with Dakota’s info. I knew his phone and wallet should be in his car, and I had the keys, so I went back to the vehicle and started searching. I felt weird going through his coat pockets, backpack, and console. His car was full of camping gear. The police officer opened the passenger door to try to help me look. After a moment, he asked, “He’s not a drug user is he? I’d hate to find something I shouldn’t.” I was a little dumbfounded by the preposterousness of his question at a moment like this. “Honestly, sir, I’m not sure, but if you do find something can you just pretend you didn’t?” He chuckled, “Yeah, I guess there’s more important things to worry about right now.” Dakota’s glove compartment was locked and we weren’t able to find anything (wallet or drug-related) outside of it, so we gave up.
In a short amount of time, the plan was in place. Volunteers with ATVs were going to traverse the tracks from Haysi, VA to the railroad bridge, stopping frequently to shut off their motors and shout for Dakota. Will and a police officer would go to Elkhorn City and talk to every open business in town (there were four) to see if perhaps Dakota had missed the entrance to the steep and slippery hiking path after the bridge and kept walking through the next tunnel and continued on into town. (This scenario seemed unlikely since we hadn’t seen his footprints on the bridge, but there was some debate as to when that snowfall had actually happened and the possibility was open that he could have been through before it had snowed.) After talking to people in town, Will and the officer would walk from Elkhorn City to the railroad bridge, searching along the way. Austin, the park ranger, called the campground host, and asked them to see if Dakota had turned up. Perhaps he had hiked out somewhere and hitchhiked to the campsite. (Surely he would have tried to hitchhike to where he knew his vehicle with camping gear was located, but all possibilities had to be taken into consideration.) I really wanted to believe that Dakota and Andrew were just chilling at camp wondering why we hadn’t shown up yet. The campground host wasn’t there at the time but said they could be there in twenty minutes and would report back. Evan and his crew would go down to Ratliff Hole and search along the banks and trails in case Dakota had attempted to cross the river. Michael, as the primary point of contact for the first responders and organizer of the kayaker volunteers, would stay at the rendezvous point where he had ample cell service and relay information as needed. I estimated we must have had about 40 people on the case.
Storzee was concerned that search and rescue crew on ATVs may miss crucial clues about Dakota’s whereabouts by driving, and wanted to walk the tracks, and I decided to go with him to make myself useful. We would start at the bridge down the hill from the rendezvous point, which was our base of operations, and begin walking upstream the way I had gone before. This time I grabbed my headlamp and gave Michael’s headlamp to Storzee. (In retrospect, I should’ve taken a lot more, like a backpack with food, water, rain gear, and perhaps extra clothes and a blanket in case we found Dakota.) We slipped and slid down the muddy trail once more and once at the railroad tracks, Storzee let me know he had begun to reach out to a few kayakers back in Lexington. He didn’t want word to hit Facebook because Dakota’s family had not yet been informed he was missing, but he wanted some crew on standby to come help tomorrow morning if needed.
After a few minutes, I saw a light appear in the tunnel behind us. My heart fluttered for a moment thinking it might be Dakota, but more realistically I thought it was probably Will and the police officer who should have been coming from that direction. “Will?!” I shouted into the tunnel. “Yep, it’s me!” My stomach dropped. Will showing up here meant that Dakota wasn’t in Elkhorn City. Luckily, Will had thought ahead and had his backpack with a sleeping bag and camp stove in case we found Dakota. Now a party of three, we set off down the tracks.
Storzee told us to keep an eye out for tiny scraps of blue plastic along the railroad tracks and surrounding rocks, as it was very likely that Dakota would have been dragging his boat behind him for at least part of the way, and knowing where he had been would help us narrow the search. Storzee was open to the possibility as well that Dakota (who is apparently notoriously bad with directions) may have gotten confused and gone upstream on the railroad tracks instead of downstream. That seemed unlikely, but as the night dragged on, anything became possible. The fact that some of the search crew were starting in Haysi meant that that scenario was still being covered by the search party.
Eyes downcast and headlamps on bright, we looked for any clues along the tracks. We saw none. After the first tunnel, we ran into two members of the search party on an ATV. They hadn’t found anything yet, but let us know the first train was coming, from the direction of Haysi. We waited on the side of the tracks with them as we heard it approaching. While we were there we got the news: Dakota’s kayak had been found! The train conductor had called it in and let the crew know it was seen in the second railroad tunnel up from our location, which the locals call the Towers tunnel. That’s not far from where Will and Michael last saw him. At the time, I had conflicting emotions. Why wasn’t Dakota still with his kayak? What could’ve happened that would’ve made him abandon it? Why is it in a train tunnel, of all places? But at the same time, I was heartened. It was nearly 9:30pm at that point, Dakota had last been seen five hours ago. This was the first news we had had of any kind, and the fact that he hadn’t tried to paddle his busted kayak across the river in the dark buoyed my hope that we were still likely to find him on this side of the river.
Storzee wanted to do a more thorough search along the banks of the river, in case Dakota had gotten injured and went off the tracks. Will and I, at that point, wanted to hustle down the tracks to where Dakota’s boat was found, thinking he was likely to be near where he had abandoned his boat. We relayed our plans to Michael so he could inform the other parties. Michael told us we would likely be the first ones to reach it, but that an officer was also headed that way on foot from Haysi and would likely be there shortly after we arrived. He also relayed that a bloodhound was on it’s way to assist in the efforts, and not to touch Dakota’s kayak when we found it so that the dog could get a good scent on it.
Will and I continued down the tracks for a long time, shouting for Dakota along the way. We had all agreed not to blow whistles, so as to not confuse any other members of the search party. We hoped that Dakota had his paddling whistle on hand and would blow it if he was conscious and able. So we walked, and shouted, and searched, until our feet and our throats hurt. And then we did it some more.
When we got to the second tunnel, I was excited. It had taken us what seemed like an eternity to get there, but this is where the railroad employee told us he had spotted Dakota’s kayak. We walked in. Even though it was dark outside, the dark inside the tunnel enveloped us, pressing in on all sides. I was glad we had headlamps, and wondered about Dakota trying to walk through here without one. Even in the daytime it’s pitch black inside, and seems to go on forever. After a few minutes, I heard a rumbling. It took a second to sink in, “Shit, it’s the second train!!” We had been told there would be two, one coming from Haysi and one from Elkhorn City. The first one that had gone past earlier had been coming from Haysi (upstream). Which means this one would be coming from behind us. I took off running, and heard Will pounding the ground behind me. I ran for about 20 seconds when all of the sudden I saw a light up ahead and the train was getting louder. The train was coming from in front of us. We were running right at it. “FUCK! Wrong way wrong way!!” I screamed as I pivoted and took off in the opposite direction.
It’s hard to walk on railroad tracks. The ties are spaced in such a way that you can’t get a good gait on them. The large chunks of gravel that fill in the space between and make up the foundation of the tracks are uneven and shift with every step. I’ve heard that railroad companies make them hard to traverse on purpose, to discourage people from walking on them. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But walking on them is certainly easier than running on them. I was going full tilt. I don’t remember the last time I ran that fast. If worst came to worst, I could dive off the tracks and try to flatten myself up against the blasted rock wall of the tunnel, but the train would be dangerously close, and a million nightmare scenarios were flashing through my brain like a Final Destination movie and getting decapitated by a random chunk of train metal. Pound pound pound my feet hit the ground with the intensity of a gazelle trying to outrun a cheetah. I could feel the train barreling toward us, it’s light getting larger and more ominous as I heard the squeal of its brakes start to kick in. It wouldn’t be enough. The entrance of the tunnel came into view and Will and I kicked it into high gear. I leapt diagonally off the tracks and out of the tunnel, and Will was on my heels. We cleared it with seconds to spare and the train whizzed out behind us.
Will and I laughed and high fived each other, both feeling like we had just escaped death. The train conductor reached a hand out the window to wave at us as it pulled away and picked up speed once more. I bet he got a good laugh out of us. We waited for the train to pass, and waited. The reality that we might have been trapped inside during those 15-20 minutes waiting for the full train to get through the tunnel sunk in, and the initial rush of adrenaline wore off. Will and I both had a bit of a thousand-yard stare as the hulking metal beast lumbered on. I called Michael to let him know of our near-death experience, and to tell him we were almost to Dakota’s kayak. Michael had apparently been trying to call us, because he had received word from the ranger that the train was on it’s way and coming the opposite direction from the earlier info we had been given. But unfortunately we were already inside the tunnel when the call was made, and couldn’t receive it. We laughed again at the timing and our luck. Laughing felt good after hours of stress and worry. But it was short lived.
As the end of the train finally emerged, we entered the tunnel once more. Our headlamps lit up with millions of bits of dusty metal particulate matter floating around in the air that the train had stirred up. Seeing it swirling around in our lights made me even more glad we hadn’t been squished against the wall in the tunnel breathing it all in for the last 20 minutes. We walked in the tunnel for several minutes, and then we saw it.
His blue Ripper, upside down, right next to the tracks. I could see the large hole in the stern where it had busted on the rock. Although when we first got word that Dakota’s boat was found I was heartened that he was likely still on our side of the river, at this point, all of my hopes vanished. ATVs had already searched the entire length of track Dakota could have possibly covered before reaching civilization. Seeing his boat now, like this, felt eerie. What in the hell happened? Why did he leave his boat in the middle of a train tunnel? And so close to the tracks? If he got tired of carrying it, seems like he would have at least set it against the wall of the tunnel, further out of harm’s way. If he was trying to hide the boat to come back for it later, why not at the edge of the tunnel? Why here in the middle, where it’s darkest? Where is his paddle? Seeing his boat left this way reignited my fears that something truly terrible had happened. I shined my light around on the tracks, looking for blood. But no trains had come through until after the search and rescue began, he couldn’t have been hit by a train. No hypotheticals I came up with made any sense at this point. Dakota had simply vanished. I wanted to flip his boat right-side up and search the inside for clues, but knew not to so the bloodhound would have a better chance of getting a scent when it arrived. While we were standing there looking at it, we saw another beam of light swinging up ahead in the tunnel. It was the police officer (Bobby) who walked the tracks from Haysi.
The three of us emerged from the tunnel on the upstream side, and for the first time all day, I didn’t have cell service. As we discussed what to do next, Storzee came through the tunnel behind us, having thoroughly checked the riverbanks on the way. I borrowed the officer’s phone to call Michael and give him the news. Yes, the boat is where the rail employee said it was. No, no signs of Dakota. Yes, the tracks have been walked and ATV’d fully in both directions now. Michael let us know the bloodhound was on it’s way, and would be stopping by the rendezvous point to sniff items in Dakota’s car, and then the dog would be ferried across the river in a canoe from Garden Hole. We should keep going up the tracks until we were across the river from Garden Hole, and wait there to meet the dog. It could sniff us for scent-elimination. At that point, there was not much more we could do. It was 11:30pm. The four of us hiked until we were across from Garden Hole, and then waited. Occasionally, we would yell out for Dakota, just in case. But it felt pretty hopeless. He had been out there on his own in a drysuit for seven hours. Even if he wasn’t injured and hadn’t attempted to re-enter the water, he was likely to be hypothermic.
While we were waiting, Storzee commented that he had left the emergency flashers on in his truck, and it would probably be dead by the time we got back. Although I was wearing a considerable number of layers and had been warm up until then, sitting around and waiting gave a chance for the cold to creep in. My toes started to go numb. For a few moments, it started to sprinkle. Great, I thought to myself. Just what I need. I’m hungry, cold, tired, my feet hurt, and now I’m going to get wet. Then I felt guilty for worrying about myself, when Dakota was out here somewhere, in a much more dire situation. I thought about the fact that Dakota is a single dad with a cute little kid who is only about five years old, and then tried to bury those thoughts.
After an hour and a half of waiting, we saw lights drive into Garden Hole across the river. The officer we were with radioed over to them. Apparently the bloodhound wouldn’t be able to do the canoe plan, so it’s handler and Austin decided it was best to hike it in along the tracks from Haysi instead. It would take a couple more hours to get here. Nonetheless, park employees canoed across the river to shuttle us across and give us a ride back to our vehicles. We scrambled down the steep embankment to try to find a flat spot where we could get into the canoe without tipping it over. Will and I got in first, and after thanking the park employee profusely, sat there quietly while we were paddled across. The canoeist made two more trips across the river to get Storzee and Officer Bobby.
At Garden Hole, we climbed into an ATV, which took us to Breaks Interstate Park, where we were loaded into a van, and then finally made it back to the rendezvous point where Michael and our vehicles were waiting. (Michael had courteously turned off Storzee’s emergency flashers after realizing they had been left on for so long, so his truck was not dead after all.) At this point, it was 1:30am. Michael called Austin to let them know we were back safely, and I asked him if it was time to contact Dakota’s family. Austin said it was, and asked if we had contact info for them. We didn’t, but Storzee was friends with Dakota’s twin sister on Facebook. We said we’d try to get contact info and get back to him.
Michael told Storzee he had one more place he wanted to check out before calling it a night. Will and I went to the campground to try to get some sleep while the two of them went off to check out a forest service road in the middle of nowhere. Dakota only could’ve gotten there if he’d gone completely the wrong direction and then traipsed through the woods, but at that point it made as much sense as any other option. Michael got back to the van around 3:30am, but he didn’t have cell service in the campground. As the primary point of contact for the search crew, we knew we couldn’t stay there. So we drove back to the rendezvous point and slept on the side of the road, finally going to bed at 4am. Austin said he’d call if the bloodhound found anything. There was nothing more to be done until daylight.
We woke up with a pit of dread in our stomachs around 6:30am and waited for the sun to rise. Dakota had officially been out on his own all night. It was below freezing. The bloodhound hadn’t turned up anything, and the fresh snow made conditions for such a dog-lead search dismal. The prospects felt grim. Our only glimmer of hope was that Dakota had been wearing a brand new Kokatat drysuit, and maybe that had helped him survive the night. The park ranger seemed to think that was a possibility, and told Michael he’d be getting a much larger search party together (and possibly a helicopter, depending on weather conditions) for the day. Michael, Storzee and I hiked down to the railroad bridge, and Michael started flying our drone along the river, looking for Dakota’s bright blue drysuit. Storzee was coordinating with a crew of four kayakers who were coming in from Lexington to help, as well as the local kayakers and Evan’s crew. Rob, Sarah, and Floyd would arrive a little after 8am.
The plan was to split all available kayakers into two crews; one to boat the Russell Fork Gorge (the section Dakota was supposed to have hiked along the tracks), and one to boat the Lower Russell Fork, a less technical section of water immediately downstream that leads into Elkhorn City. As a best case scenario, the kayakers would be searching the banks for an encampment. As a worse case scenario, the kayakers were prepared to search the river for a body. There are so many boulders and splits in the river, it would take a large team to search every nook and cranny of the river that could trap a body. But on the chance Dakota was still alive, everyone needed to start paddling as early as could be safely organized. Rob, Sarah, Will, Andrew, and Floyd began preparing to paddle. The next crew of kayakers would be coming in to paddle around 10am.
Storzee had tracked down contact info and called Dakota’s family himself the night before. The conversations were incredibly emotional and difficult. His family was on their way now, and would be arriving at the rendezvous point at 9am. I told Storzee I wasn’t in the mindset to boat such a technical river on so little sleep, and I’d stay with him to help with the emotional trauma and onslaught of questions that would ensue when the family arrived. Michael drove further upriver to fly his drone from a different spot and search where he would have more range.
At nearly exactly 9am, the call came in. Dakota had been found. He was okay. He was at the lodge, eating breakfast at Breaks Interstate Park. That was all the information that was available at first, but it didn’t matter. It’s hard to describe the mix of emotions that flooded all of us in that moment. Deep down, I think we had all thought Dakota was dead, and we were just trying to avoid thinking about it too much. We were elated. We hugged and high fived, and laughed, and cried. “That motherfucker probably spent all night cozied up in the lodge. I’m going to slap him right after I hug him!” “He definitely owes each of us a six-pack of microbrews!” And similar sentiments were tossed around as we laughed.
Dakota’s twin sister and brother-in-law pulled up less than five minutes after we got the news, which had already been relayed to them. She jumped out of the car with tears in her eyes and ran up to hug Storzee, thanking us all. They continued on to the lodge to meet up with Dakota while we waited for more information about what happened.
This part of this story was relayed to me by Dakota and some details later by Austin:
When Michael and Will paddled away, Dakota began walking down the tracks as was the plan. However, without a light source, entering the dark train tunnel was unsettling, with no light or tunnel entrances visible for several minutes while walking. Halfway through the tunnel Dakota got scared, tossed his boat, and ran back the way he had entered. He tried again two more times but each time turned around. He finally decided if he couldn’t make it through the tunnel he should try to hike around. The mountain was tall, steep, and forested, and Dakota was bushwhacking his way through when it got dark. He was disoriented and could no longer see the railroad tracks or the river, and finally decided he should hunker down among some rocks until daylight. He blew his whistle repeatedly throughout the night and tried to keep himself awake, knowing that falling asleep could be deadly. He pulled his arms inside his drysuit to stay warm, and tried to blow warm air into his neck gasket. Every time he felt himself dozing off he got up and threw punches while dancing around to keep warm. As soon as a hint of daylight was available, he found the railroad tracks again and decided to walk upstream. Recognizing Garden Hole across the river, he swam across and made it safely to the other side. He then did the long hike-out of Garden Hole to the main road, where a firefighter from the search and rescue team pulled up alongside him and said, “We’ve been looking for you!” He was taken to the lodge at Breaks Interstate Park and given breakfast and a room where he could take a bath to warm up and recover. Amazingly, his only consequence was mild hypothermia and a broken finger.
The kayaking crew, with permission from his family, invaded Dakota’s room at the lodge shortly after his bath to find out the story and to swap stories of our own. I could tell Dakota was dazed and amazed at the scale of the effort that went into finding him. After laughs and more hugs, we left so he could recover with his family in peace. “Thanks for not being dead man, we love you!” His mom and more family members arrived as we were leaving and they all thanked us profusely.
The lead ranger thanked Michael for the phenomenal job of organizing, communicating, and keeping tabs on what each group was doing. He said he was able to treat us kayakers as an independent responding agency involved in the search and rescue because of our efforts and ability to organize. Dakota’s sister also passed along that their entire family was immensely grateful to all of us involved and they were so impressed with the boating community coming together like a military brotherhood.
I personally want to deeply thank the Dickenson County Sheriff’s Office and dispatch, Wise County Sheriff’s Office, Haysi Police Department, Haysi Fire Department, Elkhorn City Police Department, Elkhorn City Fire Department, Breaks Interstate Park rangers and employees, all of the kayakers (both local and Lexington-based) who helped out or were on standby, and especially Austin, the lead park ranger who gathered all of these groups together and gave us hope through the darkest night of our lives with his professionalism, level-headedness, and kindness. Oh and also, thanks Kokatat for making technical gear that literally saves lives. Our friend is alive because of your drysuit.
There’s a lot more I could say, but this post is long enough. Stay safe out there y’all.