On Friday, September 17th, I was kayaking on the Upper Gauley River. I was approaching the end of the run and the last bigger rapid, Sweets Falls at ~11 am.
As I was approaching the entrance rapid above the falls, I saw a commercial raft 100 yards in front of me go over the horizon at what looked to be sideways angle. I hear the crowd cheer which I noted as to me it meant I would likely have flipped boats and swimmers in the pool when I arrived. I then paddled through the entrance and over the falls myself. When I came through the rapid, I saw what I assume was the same commercial raft (same company) with swimmers hanging onto the side of the boat and gear strewn about. I decided to earn some river karma points and help them by collecting some paddles as well as a shoe I found floating nearby. As I tried to enter the eddy behind the Postage Due rock, the load of gear I had caused me some issues and I lost most of the gear. I continued down another eddy, behind a line of boulders, recollecting the gear. I was bringing it all to the left shore, below where the rafts were all eddied out, when I saw a commercial raft guest float through a small channel against the left shore.
(It was later confirmed he had fallen out of the raft, swum through “The Box” channel to the left of the Postage Due Rock and then somehow went unnoticed as he floated through and out of the 50 foot long eddy below, through the small channel and into the eddy I was trying to drop the gear I collected in.)
His breathing was loud, forced, and coarse, the latter stuck in my mind as it seemed he had swallowed some water. I directed him to swim left into the eddy he was a few feet away from, he grunted and did not attempt to swim. I then paddled over to him and asked him to grab the back of my boat so I could pull him to shore, assuming he was just too exhausted/scared to swim himself. He slapped his hand onto the back of my boat but made no attempt to hold on. I then swung back around to him as the eddy was taking him back out to the main flow. As I approached him this time however, I noticed he was turning blue, and the breathing was more struggled. I asked him if he was ok and he did not respond. He then went limp, floating, and no longer making eye contact. I noted that his life vest was very loose and his mouth was at water level. I grabbed both sides of his life jacket and lifted him in the water so that his head was above the waterline. I began calling for help. I noted his color turning bluer, his breathing becoming quieter. I had the gentleman lifted and pressed against a rock, in an attempt to keep my balance against the eddy line and keep us both from being pulled into the current. This positioning prevented me from blasting my whistle as both my hands were on him keeping him afloat and us balanced. Finally, what felt like a minute or so, the raft came through the same small channel against the shore, now 20-30 feet from me. I called to the raft guide that we had an emergency and I needed help. The raft guide made no communication back that she understood. I called again. This time they looked at me, still smiling. Not understanding the severity of the situation. I explained that he was losing consciousness and we needed to get him out of the water “now.” The guide began to understand the issue. I continued to talk to the gentleman to try to get a response, and encouraging him to stay awake as his eyes looked to be drooping. At this time he appeared to fully lose consciousness as his eyes rolled back and his breathing got quiet. The raft was still working to cross the short distance to me. I communicated to the raft that they needed to hurry as he had lost consciousness. It took what felt like another minute from this point before the guide was able to maneuver the raft close to me. As the raft approached, I directed the two guests in the front of the boat to both grab a side of the large gentleman’s life jacket and to “pull hard and flop him in the boat like a fish.” I then paddled around the corner to call up to the other rafters for help. I then paddled to shore and the raft followed me. The rest of his friends in his raft were nurses and paramedics, so they began to monitor breathing. I heard them call out he was breathing but do not recall the rate of breath that they stated. As the raft guide and I pulled the boat to shore, the gentleman began to have a seizure and convulse in the arms of his friends. As the seizure ended, another raft guide showed up who had heard my calls for help, and soon after that the lead (I assume) guide for the trip also arrived with the med kit. At this time, the gentleman began to regain consciousness and became responsive to the lead guide and his friends’ medical questions and inspection. I gave my account of what transpired prior to the raft’s appearance in the eddy, and as the situation was now in control of medical personnel (his friends) and the lead guide, I left.
At take-out I saw a company bus, they had a radio and confirmed he was ok and that they were sending a truck to fetch him out from Sweets. I called the company that evening to confirm that he had continued to do well and they said he had. But, worryingly seemed to dismiss it a bit as “just a seizure, he is fine.” I wanted to ensure that the company knew it was a close call and that some lessons learned from the incident should be applied. I was then forwarded to a lead guide who listened to my account, but assured me that the staff’s training was adequate, that the account was fully documented, and that private boaters should not hit Postage Due one after the other nor line their rafts off of it making it hard for commercial rafters, and that he thanked me for helping them because he hates paperwork.
So, my thought on this near accident is. It was a near drowning induced seizure. I do not know the gentleman’s seizure history; however, he was non-responsive and with his mouth below the waterline. Which leads me to conclude that had I not happened upon him by chance, with certainty he would have been without air for at least an additional 2-3 minutes and the outcome likely fatal.
My take-aways are that many times the “audience” at rapids like Pillow and Sweets often disregard the common practices of safety and precaution that we carry on the river. The private boaters are drinking on the shore or Postage Due, people are cheering the flips, and often not looking downstream to identify the location or wellbeing of swimmers. The commercial boaters seem often to not work as a team to rescue swimmers in these spots and instead leave it to the raft guide that was responsible for the swims. There are video boaters but not safety kayakers. There is a “not my company” or “not my boat” or “I am private, they are commercial” or “I am commercial, and they are private” or "not my group"… so “not my problem” mentality
I spoke with a veteran guide back at camp about it and he said they have always thought someone would eventually drown in the Box. And thanks to luck, and nothing more, Friday the 17th was not that day.