Close call on Overflow Creek
By Steve Frazier
Sun. June 8, 2003
It was a nice day, sunny and warm. The level was 1.0' at the take out, a low but acceptable level. In short, the kind of day you dream about-paddling your favorite creek on an amazing late spring day. I put on with Snuffy Hall, Kent Wiggington and three others. I had done the creek about 3 weeks before and was told by a group taking off that there was no more new trees down in the creek. There were, however, a couple that I knew were there and that we would have to take care in those spots.
The one in question here is in a rapid about a third of the way downstream from the put-in called Round bout. The top of Round About is where the trouble started. It begins with a 3-4 ft' ledge that has a good size hole at the bottom. Not a huge hole, but a respectable one. As a boater lands at the bottom of this small drop he or she must be ready to make a 90 degree left hand bend with the creek. As one goes around to the left there is a narrow gap about ten feet wide where the rapid has another small drop and then has a short run out. There is a very long pool at the bottom. There is a tree about 8" in diameter in the second drop and I knew it from the previous trip. After going over the first drop, the bow of my canoe hit the right hand gorge wall and I was floating toward the second drop and the tree backwards before I knew it. This is where I made my mistake. I should have looked over my shoulder and tried to get past the tree backwards. Instead, I tried to turn around forwards again. I only made it about half way around before the force of the current pushed my canoe into the tree. There was about 4' of stern to the right side of the tree. Unfortunately, there was only about 5' of room between the tree and the gorge wall on the left.
For about 2 seconds I thought I might be all right. I thought the boat might stick on the gorge wall, pin, and allow me to climb out. No such luck. First I felt the stern of the boat wrap about the tree. Next the upstream gunwale started sinking and the boat filled up with water quickly. The gunwales started bending about two feet in front of me. In the next five seconds or so the 10' of boat between the tree and the left gorge wall folded into the five feet wide gap between the tree and the gorge. After the boat "squeezed" through the slot it straighten back out and was, naturally, still stuck with the four feet of stern still wrapped around the tree.
I was upside down with water rushing over my head. I had no idea why, but there was an air pocket, so I was able to breath. I tried to push out of the thigh straps, but I was unable to get my right foot back enough due to the force of the current and the fact that the boat was pinned just behind the saddle. No problem, I thought, I will just release the Fastex buckle on the strap, something I usually don't have to do when I want to wet exit. After a few seconds of searching I found the buckle, but couldn't release it. The current was so strong that it had my leg forced into the strap. The force was too great to allow me to release it. It had been a good minute or so by now, but I had not lost my air pocket so was not in any immediate danger.
I changed my tactic and decided to go back to trying to get my leg out of the strap. After several seconds of trying this I concluded that it wasn't going to happen. Okay, back to trying to release the buckle. I found it again and carefully tried to release it. It just wasn't going to happen. Two minutes or so had gone by now and I realized my boating partners would probably be setting up a rescue by now. I had already started to consider folding myself up under the canoe so I could breath and relax until they unpinned my boat. I also thought by repositioning my body I might be able to work my way out of the strap. On one hand I knew I was breathing and didn't want to do anything to change that. On the other hand I knew I couldn't stay there indefinitely and my thigh was really starting to hurt form the force of the strap.
Fortunately tis was a decision that I didn't have to make. The force of my thigh on the strap eventually ripped the d-rings holding it out of the boat and I floated free. Now I was free of the boat, but still had some rapid left to swim. I was on my stomach and my head was downstream. Obviously this is not the ideal position for swimming a rapid. I had no time to get my feet downstream, but was able to roll over on my back. Just as I did I went over the last drop and the water took me down. I landed on a rock with the small of my back. Snuffy threw me a rope and pulled me to shore.
I felt there was a lesson or two to be learned here. First of all, a knife would have been very valuable here. I used to carry one. I lost it a few years back and started thinking that I had been carrying it for a really long time and had only used it to slice apples and cheese. I never replaced it, incorrectly thinking there was no real way to get stuck in a canoe by anything that could be cut by a knife. WRONG!!! Second, the fact that's I didn't panic helped a lot. I made sure I was breathing deeply and slowly the whole time, thus keeping my heart rate slow and my oxygen use at a minimum. This allowed me to continue to think clearly and keep focused on what I needed to do. It also kept my muscles supplied with much needed oxygen. This would have been really important had the d-rings held and I would have been force to wait for my paddling partners to rescue me. Also to be remembered is the old "never give up".
After this was all over I was please with myself for not ever thinking a negative thought. Equally important was the fact that my partners had already started to mobilize for a rescue.
If you are ever in the position they were in it is VERY IMPORTANT to assume the victim is still alive until you are sure he or she is not. Snuffy was the only person that saw the accident happen in its entirety. He told me later that we was sure I was dead, but was ready to try the rescue on the off chance he was wrong. He did everything right. That would have saved my life had I remained pinned in the boat. As it turned out, they got my boat off the tree in about 10 minutes. I bet if they needed to they could have made it five