My paddling partner and I were relatively new to white water Packrafting, but a successful and encouraging summer of easy white-water paddling had our confidence high. We were new to the Valdez area rivers, and just got there in the midst of heavy fall rains. However, we hadn't yet developed a good concept of the differences in river character at various water levels. In these high waters we successfully rafted several other creeks, and felt ready to tackle the infamous Keystone Canyon, a ~Class III portion of the Lowe River. This stretch was a bump up in difficulty from the other streams we paddled, however, with a boost in confidence by our recent successes, and by pushing our intimidation aside, and we felt we can handle the river.
We were fairly well equipped with safety gear (helmets, pfds, throw-ropes, drysuits). We had a non-paddling friend that was shuttling us and would watch us from some spots on the road.
We scouted the river from the road, and identified the trickiest areas, a stretch that crossed the road twice in rapid succession, with bridge pilings in the water, and the "14-mile rapid," a large river wide drop at lower waters, but at this high water was a very large wave. We planned to run the "bridge" section, then later eddy out and scout the 14-mile rapid from the opposite shore and decide from there whether we should portage it or find a reasonable line to run it. This rapid is perhaps where the river is most constricted and encounters the tallest and most dramatic of the canyon walls. It features a nice eddy up stream on river left to get out and scout/portage the rapid. It is followed by a straight stretch of continuous waves that lead to Bridalveil falls, known as the "rock garden" and "haystacks." This stretch is capped by a right turn that features 3 holes of Three Bears rapid.
We got in our boats and on the river, where we had a short stretch of braided channels without technical rapids to warm up. We adopted a pattern of catching an eddy before the problem areas in the canyon that we identified from the road. The fast, powerful, and high nature of the river at that time meant eddy catching was a bit more difficult than normal, but we were able to make it work. We worked our way down the river, getting past our "bridge" problem area without incident. However, on a stretch that featured large waves and a powerful hydraulic, my partner capsized his packraft while I was ahead and waiting in a moving eddy around one corner. He was able to quickly get back into his boat and meet me at the eddy without a problem.
We continued and soon, we were approaching the "14-mile" rapid while I was ahead. I noticed the constricted & tall canyon walls, as well as an eddy created by a sharp arete of stone, so I eddied out. My partner joined me in the eddy, and asked why I eddied out, which I responded that the 14-mile rapid was up ahead. My partner pointed out that the eddy we were in was just one eddy ahead of where we previously planned to eddy out, just about 100 ft upstream of said eddy. So we planned to float down and catch it, my partner exiting first. I followed, and noticed a large wave train on river-right of center, that I figured would be good "practice" for the large rapid coming ahead. I rode up onto the crest of the first and largest wave, but was planning to exit the wave train soon after, so I pointed my bow to river left. This means I broached upon the wave crest, and in a seemingly slow fashion, I capsized out of my boat towards the upstream side.
Next, I was in the water, not too far ahead of the 14-mile rapid. I was able to keep a hold of my paddle and boat. My packraft was upside down, the cockpit facing the water. In the fast and turbulent water, I tried to upright my packraft, but was unsuccessful. I knew I had to figure something out quickly, so I attempted to get up onto my boat while it was still upside down. I was unsuccessful at that too. I tried swimming my boat to shore (river left) towards the eddy my partner was waiting at, but the powerful river transported me downstream too quickly before I was able to make appreciable progress across the river. By this time, my partner was on shore in the eddy, out of his boat. I yelled "Rope" and watched his throw from afar as it made its way towards me, but stopped significantly short, as the river was quite wide at this stage and he was at the back of an inset eddy. At this point, I knew I was on my own. I let go of my paddle and raft, and soon I was riding over the lip of the rapid. The next few moments, seemingly quite long, I was carried downstream in the fast, cold, and turbulent water. I plunged in and out of the water, hitting a few rocks with my legs, all while getting some water in my airway. I was quite near the river-right shore, but due to the sharp piled boulder highway levee, I was fearful of trying to make shore contact on that side. At first, I was fighting to swim, trying to get to the river left shore, but as fatigued creeped in I realized that I needed to take a second to relax. It was difficult to breathe adequately with all the waves. I was so exhausted and out of breath that I had thoughts of giving up and letting the river take me wherever it pleased. But I managed to slightly catch some breaths when I noticed a large shore eddy on river left downstream, just below Bridalveil Falls. I knew if I missed this eddy then I would be at the torrent of the features along and below the upcoming sweeping right river bend.
At this time due to my struggle, and the cold, cold water of the Lowe, I felt swimming failure creeping in, it was very hard to activate the muscles in my limbs. In what I feel is the hardest I've tried to physically push my body, I aggressively swam to the moving shore eddy, getting carried most of the way past it but catching it and grabbing a rock just before the eddy rejoined the current. I was so exhausted here that I clung to the rock but rested in the cold water for at least a minute, breathing very heavily. Knowing I should get out of the cold water, I crawled onto shore and continued to lay there, seemingly unable to get up. After another minute or two, I mustered up enough strength to sit upright on a rock. I felt lightheaded upon walking, and still out of breath. I spent a few minutes on shore by the time my partner paddled up to me. Our shuttle driver witnessed the start of my swim, but lost sight of me as I was carried downstream. He drove the road looking for me but eventually saw me and my paddling partner on the opposite shore. In total I swam about 0.3 miles. We had no sight of my paddle but were able to locate my packraft pinned against a rock on the opposite shore, on the roadside of the river.
Next, we made visual contact with our shuttle driver signaling I was okay. With my packraft on the other side of river, we were unsure of how I should get back to the roadside. Our options seemed limited, and my paddling partner suggested I get into the water and hold onto his boat while he ferries us across. I was very weary of this idea and was damn-near unwilling to get back into the water. But after discussion, it seemed likely that it was our only viable idea. However, quite uniquely and conveniently, we were located just under a Tyrolean traverse ice climbers use to access Bridalveil in the winter when the Lowe isn’t quite frozen yet. Our shuttle driver, being a climber, had a harness, cordellette, and a few carabiners in the vehicle. He communicated his idea to come across the traverse line and fashion me a harness from this cord, then we’d be able to use the line to get back across. After inspecting the line and its anchors, we felt it was a reasonable idea. So, he came across, we made the harness, and then we shuttled back over. I still felt weak from my swim, so I was very slow to cross the line. In the middle of it, with rope stretch, my feet & butt sagged into the fast water, but I was mostly able to stay out of it. We recovered my packraft. We did a short and hurried debrief, but I had a time commitment I had to make, so I drove back to town.
Factors that lead to the incident:
- Bracing: A cop-out, but perhaps if I executed a proper brace, this whole incident could have been avoided.
- Inadequate signaling: My partner has unaware that I had capsized until just moments before I floated by. A whistle blast could’ve helped alert him and perhaps he could’ve gotten to a better spot to throw the rope.
- Inadequate practice: In the moving water, I struggled get my packraft up-right, and I struggled to climb on top of it to perform a self-rescue. I had practiced these techniques only once before, in much calmer water, and at the start of summer. If I had continually practiced wet reentry, and in slightly more challenging water, perhaps I would’ve been able to get back into my boat and catch the eddy.
Additionally, I had not practiced swimming enough. When I was in the water, I entered panic mode and tired myself out trying to get back in my boat and fight against the current once I let my boat go. I was mostly floating in the water vertically (i.e., I did not have my feet up), while my legs hit a rock or two. It scares me to think of what could’ve happened if my leg or foot became entrapped.
- Inadequate risk assessment: At high water and being a rocky glacial fed river, this river was hazardous: Powerful, cold, and full of features. We chose to expose ourselves to these hazards by paddling the river at that time. Had we waited just a day or two, water levels would’ve gone down and changed the character of the river. Finally, due to my lack of practice and inexperience, I was more vulnerable. Better boat control, wet reentry skills, intentional swimming practice perhaps would’ve helped to make this experience less harrowing.
- Inadequate experience: The other factors listed play into this. In addition, it wasn’t quite clear to me that this was a highwater event and that the river would be of very different character at different water levels.
- Hubris: We were inspired by our recent successful floats and felt we were ready for this river, but clearly, I was not quite ready.
What could have been worse:
- Rock pinning: I capsized nearer to river right, but stayed away from that shoreline due to the steep pile of sharp rocks made in a straight line from the road construction. Any eddies on that shore would have been very small with very fast current just outside of them.
- Foot entrapment: As mentioned, I didn’t swim properly, and hit rocks with my legs. If I had been in a different place at a different time, one of my limbs could’ve certainly became entrapped in the rocky river.
- Swimming failure: I had a base layer and a thin mid-layer on below my dry suit. The water was very cold, and by the end of my swim, I could feel the coldness sapping away the power from my limbs.
- Missing the eddy: If I had been too tired or my limbs too cold to catch the eddy, I would’ve floated into a sweeping river bend with more rapids waiting that could’ve been additional hazards and changed the outcome of this event.
- Hypothermia: If I had been in the water any longer, I likely would’ve developed hypothermia.
- Tyrolean traverse pinning/breaking: The Tyrolean traverse could’ve sagged further into the water, and in effect, pinned me underwater, either holding me there or adding force to the line that could’ve broken it, where I would’ve then continued downstream.
- Paddle appropriate rivers: While I felt like my technical paddling ability was well matched to the river, my other river skills were not up to par. If you want to paddle Class III waters, have the skills necessary to swim and rescue yourself from those same waters.
- A whistle helps with long distance communication: My partner says he did not hear me yell “Rope” while I had thought it was loud enough to reach him.
- Practice self-rescue/wet reentry regularly: crucial to reduce your vulnerability to hazards when if/when you swim. I did not do this nearly enough before the incident. If had been able to get back into my boat, maybe I could’ve caught the crucial eddy.
- Practice intentional and proper swimming regularly: Again, I did not do this nearly enough, and if I had, perhaps I could’ve gotten to shore quicker and in better fashion.
- Use dry suits AND dress for the swim. Luckily, I had a loaner drysuit that kept me mostly dry during this swim, and staved off rapid cooling of my body temp. However, I did not “dress for the swim!” My layers underneath were skimpy and after just a few minutes in the water I was cold and losing dexterity/control of my limbs
- Be wary of highwater: Acknowledge that highwater can change the character of a river and potentially make it more hazardous. This River was flowing near 8000cfs at the time of the incident and dropped to 3600cfs within the next 24hours and 2500cfs within 48 hours. Its fast and powerful nature at the time contributed to my scary experience.
- Be Humble & Honest: While I felt intimidated by the river, I thought my technical paddling ability would keep me safe and in control. However, one wrong maneuver led to this scary event. Had I realized my self-rescue and swimming capabilities were not matched for the river, perhaps I would’ve chosen not to paddle it.