Accident Database

Report ID# 115752

  • PFD Not Worn or Present
  • Does not Apply
  • Inexperience

Accident Description

Inner tubers without lifejackets rescued from North Santiam rapids

Wed, Aug 18, 2021 6:25 pm

Scott Harding (

Here’s a detailed news account of a tuber rescue on the Niagara section of the North Santiam last weekend (note the headline is incorrect).

This area burned in the Beachie Creek Fire last year (see AW map), prompting the closure of a state park commonly used as a river access point. It sounds like this has caused river users to float non-traditional sections (unclear if this is what prompted the tubers to run a challenging section of river).

The tubers appear to have encountered trouble when they pinned on a fallen tree in the river, likely a tree that burned in the 2020 fire. From the photos, it is obvious that there is a wide, unobstructed channel to the river left of the pin location. The problem is not with the tree so much as it is with the tubers lack of skill at avoiding it (or choosing a different section of river entirely, and possibly wearring life jackets too). I have concerns that incidents like this will be seized upon by managing agencies as a reason to close rivers after wildfires (which is getting to be all rivers in the West).

Rafters without lifejackets rescued from dangerous North Santiam rapids

Five rafters who were not wearing lifejackets were rescued from a dangerous section of the North Santiam River on Sunday in a mission that briefly shut down Highway 22, according to the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

In the course of the rescue, a raft used by rescue crews overturned, causing two rescuers to become stranded and requiring a helicopter from the Oregon Army National Guard to complete the rescue.

Highway 22 was briefly closed in the area to provide access for emergency vehicles, officials said.

Ultimately, only one of the rafters was transported to the hospital for evaluation and no one involved sustained serious injuries.

The group, who were not named and appeared to be floating in boats closer to inner tubes than a standard raft, were floating what's known as the "Niagara section" of the river, which has large, expert-level rapids. The area was severely burned by last year's Labor Day Fires. Around 3 p.m., the group encountered rapids and apparently had a problem, leading to all five of them becoming stranded, officials said.

"Two of the rafters held onto a burnt log while three others were on a rock in the river, none of them had required personal flotation devices with them," a news release said. "This section of the Santiam River is difficult to access due to steep terrain and damage from the 2020 wildfires."

Emergency crews were able to get personal flotation devices to everyone in the group, but while attempting to access this remote section of the river, a raft used by rescue crews overturned, causing two rescuers to become stranded as well, the news release said.

"Water rescue teams were able to extract one person by ground; the remaining four rafters and two rescue personnel were airlifted back to safety," the news release said.

The "Niagara section," located between Big Cliff Dam and Minto Fish Facility, is not commonly floated except by experienced rafters and kayakers due to two class IV/V rapids. Most boaters begin just downstream at Packsaddle Park, which takes them through more manageable whitewater.

However, with Packsaddle Park closed this year due to damage from the fires, boaters have searched different locations to put on the river.

Donovan Strasser, owner of Fur Sure Outfitters in Mill City, who runs the river commercially, said having the main boat ramps closed has led to increased problems. "We've had problems with inexperienced people who don't have the right equipment going up there not knowing what they're getting into," he said.

Strasser has advocated for reopening Packsaddle Park, and late Monday he received an email from county officials confirming the park had been reopened.

Sgt. Jeremy Landers, public information officer at Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said it appears the rafters were unaware of the rapids before putting in. Landers stressed the importance of thorough planning before floating in unfamiliar areas.

"We really want to encourage people to research things before they go somewhere," he said. Landers added that to ensure safety, rafters must "have a solid plan about where they plan to go into the water and where they plan to come out."

As far as Landers is aware, there has not been an increase in rescues on the North Santiam River due to confusion over boat access points. Related:With main boat ramps closed, use hidden points to float North Santiam whitewater this summer.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 13 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

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