Accident Database

Report ID# 115831

  • Vertical Pin
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water

Accident Description

Difficult Run Rescue Feb 26, 1972 

Rescue on Difficult Run

CCA Newsletter insert March 1973

     On Saturday Feb. 26, four paddlers set out to run Difficult Run.  The paddling ended with two paddlers pinned in their boats halfway down a chute, with water pouring completely over them.  One of the paddlers was freed after several minutes and then contributed to the eventual rescue of his companion, but it was to be after an hour and many agonized thoughts before the rescue was accomplished.  Following is the story of tat trip by the people involved.

     Rain had brought Difficult Run up to 5.9 feet on the gauge and this usually quiet trickle was a high fast rush of water.  Nick Cullander in his kayak, Chip Queitzsch running C-1, and jean Goertner and I in a C-2 were there to see what could be run.  From the parking lot on route 193, it was an easy run to the first rapid, maybe a quarter of a mile down.  From here on it was scout and run, scout and portage.  Nothing really bad, but tough enough not to mess with.  Then another invisible drop came up and again we got out to scout.  This turned out to be a five step 20 foot drop, stretched over about 50 yards.  It was a beautiful sight but nothing to run.  Below this series was a small, 2-3 foot drop with two passages.  The approach was down the left bank and then an “S” turn right and down gave an easy passage.  Continuing straight ahead on the left led through a slot 4-5 feet wide with a clean sluice of water pouring through it.

In appearance it was no different than many similar chutes we had run on other rivers, other than perhaps being cleaner. Both sides were smooth vertical rocks with no projections and probing with Nick’s kayak paddle showed no rocks in the middle.  After a little discussion Jean and I decided to run the slot and while we left the decision of which channel to use, up to Nick and Chip, we felt they should have no trouble in either channel.  Jean and I went first and had no problems at all, using only a light brace coming out.  We took up station in an eddy about 20 feet down on the left, and waited to help the boys if necessary.  Nick came first in his kayak and made a good approach into the slot, and the next thing I knew he was pinned halfway down the drop with water pouring over his head and all.  All that was visible was a new large hump in the chute with a vague figure occasionally visible in it.  We shouted to Chip to stay back and started back up to help.  Unfortunately, Chip was unable to hear what we were saying and could not see Nick, so he came ahead, spotting Nick’s hard hat at the last minute and just moving left enough to avoid going down on top of him, then he too became pinned, just to the left and somewhat higher than Nick.  At this point we had two boats and paddlers under water and things did not look good. 

By the time Jean and I got back up to the drop it was evident that the water flowing over them was leaving air pockets and they were able to breathe.  Our first rescue attempt was to paddle in and have Jean pull on them while I backed.  After several tries it became obvious that we were getting nowhere.  I got out into the eddy alongside the chute intending to work my way over to the bottom of the chute and try working them out.  I was unable to get a foothold or swim in the proper direction, so Jean pushed me over to the outside of the eddy where I managed to climb out on the rock forming the outside wall of the chute.  From here I found the stern of Chip’s boat about six inches under water near the top of the chute and after some effort managed to lift it up.  The water then pushed under and Chip started out of the chute.  About this time I lost my footing and started down the chute myself.  After hanging up for a short while halfway down, I washed through and floated down to the eddy below, where I found Chip standing in the water.

 Chasing him out in front of me I climbed out and headed back up the shore to see what was happening.  When I got back up Nick was all the way over against the rock on the right and a little farther down the chute.  He was now out of water from the waist up and able to lean against the rock.  Jean had extended a paddle out to Nick and was trying to pull him free that way, but without success. After some effort with one and two paddles and various sticks it became apparent that Nick was not coming out that way, and that any further efforts involved somebody out on the rock again.  Chip had been carrying our only rope which was now lost, and the paddles had pulled loose during one of the attempts to free Nick so Chip and I looked for a stick.  Chip found a good one, and I then sent him for help.  Somehow or other the stick and I got out to the rock.  I know I swam.  I think the stick was passed over by Jean.  Using the stick, I tried to pull Nick free without success.  Finally, I asked Jean to come out on the rock, but she was about two inches short and washed down the chute.  It then became a waiting game, trying desperately to think of something new to try and praying for help.  Somewhere during this time, we decided there was no point in two of us doing nothing but wait, and Jean went to look for help also.  After some time, Sam Huntington came in response to Chip’s search for help, and things began to improve.  My recollection of the rest is somewhat fragmented and I’ll defer to Sam’s write up.

Frank Daspit - 3/15/72


About 4:00 o’clock on Saturday, February 26, I shoved off from Anglers Inn in my C-1 for an hour’s paddle or so on the Potomac in, out and around the Difficult Run rapids.  I had expected to run into some other paddlers, but none were there and I decided to go out alone.  As the Little Falls gauge was about 5.5 feet, it took a little effort to get upstream.  I had managed to ferry across the Maryland chute and was making my way over to the center rapids when I heard a muffled shout.  Turning, I saw a figure halfway up the cliffs at the foot of the rapids.  After running down to within shouting distance, the figure—who turned out to be Chip Queitzsch—informed me that there were some people in trouble up Difficult Run.

     I paddled up Difficult Run as far as I could, picking up a canoe paddle and observing a C-2 and the remains of a C-1 lodged against a fallen tree on the way, and beached my boat.  After scrambling up the shore, around a corner and over some rocks for about 200 yards, I recognized  Frank Daspit crouched on a rock in the stream separated from the shore by an eight-foot-wide strong current of water dropping sharply about 3 or 4 feet.  Frank was holding on to one end of a short stick and Nick Cullander—whom I did not know at the time—was clutching onto the other end, half submerged at the foot of the drop.  Nick’s hands were quire red and it was immediately apparent that he had been in the water for some time.  Even though he was protected by a wetsuit, it was not clear how much longer he could hang on.

     After a few words with Frank, I made a fast trip back to my boat for my 10-foot bow line and a canoe paddle.  On returning, it soon became apparent that I could be of little use on shore since Nick was caught in his boat which was wholly submerged at the bottom of the drop.  Any attempt to pull him from shore would have dragged him into the main force of the current.  At Frank’s direction, I then jumped into the water somewhat upstream of the rock and just reached the rock before being swept over the drop.

     Once on the rock, we tied a large loop in the rope which Nick was able to get over his head and under his arms.  Frank and I then pulled on the rope for all we were worth, but without success.  We then tied the rope around the handle of the paddle and lay the paddle on top of the rock so that only the handle was sticking out towards Nick.  As the rope was taut, we could then hold Nick up by merely standing on the bade of the paddle.  In other words, we were no longer dependent upon either Nick’s or our own strength to keep him from slumping into the water.

     From what then seemed ages, but was probably about 20 to 25 minutes, we made several attempts to pry, jerk or muscle Nick out of his boat using various sticks as levers—all with no success.  Since during some of these attempts I was in the water actually standing on Nick’s kayak and reaching into the boat to try to free his legs, I was able to judge fairly well the position of the boat. In coming over the drop, Nick was probably closer to the rock than the shore.  The kayak’s bow, with its low volume, must have plunged to the bottom and become solidly lodged against a rock.  The substantial volume of water coming over the drop then forced the stern down into the drop so that the kayak was close to the rock Frank and I were standing on, pretty much in line with the stream but tilted downwards somewhat, under about one foot of fast-moving water.  The full force of that water was pressing against Nick’s back, thus holding him firmly in the boat.  When Frank and I pulled from the rock standing above him (which was the only place we could stand), we were actually pulling him against the forward deck of the kayak and were not directly counteracting the force of the water holding him in pace. In retrospect, I might have had more success trying to dislodge the bow of the boat than trying to pry Nick free.

     As a later examination disclosed, Nick’s kayak suffered relatively little damage.  The stern seam between deck and bottom separated in several places, there were one or two tears in the bottom and the front of the cockpit rim was broken.  There was no evidence, however, that the boat had been doubled over in any way.

     Eventually the Fairfax County Rescue Squad, alerted by Chip, arrived about ten strong—others arrived later.  They tossed me a heavy nylon rope which I tied around Nick under his arms.  Again, it was apparent that a direct pull from shore would merely pull Nick into the current.  But with Frank and I pulling laterally on the line and several members of the Rescue Squad pulling from a point somewhat upstream of the rock, Nick finally came loose.  Frank and I were able to pull him up on the rock, which fortunately was large enough so that he could lie down.

     Some ten or fifteen minutes later a wire litter arrived and was passed out to us.  I tied one end of a heavy nylon rope around a projection of the rock.  By passing it through the ends of the litter and having several men pull hard on shore, we had an overhead cable and Nick, strapped securely in the litter, was safely pulled to shore.  Frank and I followed, hand traversing on the same rope.

     Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the entire operation was Nick’s attitude.  Without panicking and in extreme discomfit both from the cold and the fact, as it later turned out, that he had two broken legs, Nick hung on determined to survive the ordeal.  How much longer he could have lasted had the Rescue Squad not come when it did is only a matter of conjecture; to hang on as long as he had to—which I would guess was in excess of an hour—took an incredible exercise of willpower.

     Frank also was called upon for a supreme effort as he did not have a wetsuit and had been fully submerged in the water several times before getting onto the rock where he was when I arrived.  How he had the strength he did, shivering the while, I will never know.

     Once on shore, the Rescue Squad carried Nick up the Difficult Run trail to an ambulance.  Frank, Chip and Jean Goertner—who had been with Frank in the C-2 and had also gone for help—went with Nick.  I rounded up the C-2 and Nick’ kayak, which had come free after we had pulled Nick out, and towed them back to Anglers Inn, arriving there about 6:30 p.m.

Sam Huntington


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