Accident Database

Report ID# 115767

  • Pinned in Boat Against Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description


The victim was Megan Thompson, Age 34; Report sent in by Justin Lee

Here are the details of this accident as I best remember them:

February 24, 2022

United States, NC - Oconaluftee River

  1. Smokemont Campground to Oconaluftee Visitor's Center

Group of 3 kayakers

Water Level 1700 cfs; Air temp: around 65 degrees; water temp: around 50 degrees

***Anyone that knows Megan, knows that she was more than qualified to be on this stretch of river and does not have to be convinced of her skill level or readiness on the river***

Megan, Kevin, and I met at the Oconaluftee visitors center around 1 and set shuttle up at the smokemont campground.  Once we parked, Megan and I realized we could walk up the road a little bit and put in higher up for just a little more of the beautiful scenery.  We walked up river for about 1/4 mile and put in just upstream of the campground bridge (old bridge covered in moss).  On the way, we both noted that there was a tree root ball to avoid on the left and another tree past that on river right that angled into the middle of the river.  Both of these were essentially right above the main smokemont campground bridge that connects to the highway. 

  We put in around 2 pm and we come around the corner in the view of the rapid just above the first root ball strainer to be avoided on the river left at around 2:10.  The rapid here is called "smokemont rapid".   The rapid is a wave hole to be punched and the flow continues down river left after the wave hole.   Today, the move was to punch the wave hole and immedietely eddy out river right to avoid the first root ball that is about 10-15 yards downstream of the wave hole.  I caught the eddy on river right, and Megan came in and her stern got caught and she had to brace to right herself in the kayak.  This knocked her off her line and the small eddy on river left turned her around and then she flipped.  One roll was failed which put her up against the root ball while she was in her kayak before she could roll again or free herself from her kayak and pull her skirt. 

  I could not get out of my boat from the position I was in because I had left the eddy to give her room in the eddy.  While I watched her fight to free herself from her kayak, I had to paddle aggresively to avoid the tree on river right and then catch an eddy on river left that was up against a small pebble type of island.  I was able to get out about 30 feet down below where she was pinned and I was able to make my way back up to her. 

 The root ball was wedged into some river left boulders and the tree trunk itself was on the left bank. The tree was probably 20 feet long from the root ball. I was able to physically pull on Megan with all my force without falling into the rootball but could not move her enough for her to get air, as there was water flowing over her helmet at this point and the entanglement was very complex.  She was able to get out of her kayak, but could not free herself from the root ball mass.

After unsuccessfully freeing her, I then ran up the road around 100 yards to contact the smokemont park police who then called for more help.  By this time it was around 2:30 PM.  A team of firemen and other responders successfully freed her from the root ball around 3 PM.  The park service and all those involved were extrememly professional and I have nothing but good things to say about them.

The pin was exceptionally severe. Speaking with the extraction crew I learned that there was a tree root that came across her chest underneath the shoulder straps of her PFD. Also her paddle was vertically pinned up against her and was also between her back and her vest extending vertically up out the top of her vest. This explains why the rescuer could not pull her free.


Kayaker drowns in Oconaluftee River near Smokemont

A kayaker’s body was recovered after she drowned in the Oconaluftee River, according to officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

By Kelly Ann Krueger - WVLT-TV Knoxville, TN

Published: Feb. 24, 2022

CHEROKEE, N.C. (WVLT) - Rangers with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park assisted responders with Tribal EMS Cherokee Fire and Rescue to recover the body of a woman who was kayaking in the Oconaluftee River Thursday, according to officials with the park.

Megan Thompson, a 34-year-old woman from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was kayaking in the river when witnesses said she floated over swift rapids.

“According to witnesses, Thompson floated over swift rapids before being pinned between a fallen tree and the riverbank,” GSMNP Spokesperson Dana Soehn said. “At 2:57 p.m., emergency responders freed Thompson’s body and removed her from the river where she was pronounced dead by the medical examiner.”

Soehn said that drowning is the third leading cause of death in the Smokies. Vehicle accidents and plane accidents are the top two causes.

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