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Difficulty
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Experienced/Inexperienced
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Accident Description


Asheville Woman Drowns in Cheoah River

by Lindsay Nash, published April 23, 2007 11:33 am

ROBBINSVILLE - A 24-year-old Asheville woman drowned on the Cheoah River on Sunday after she fell off her raft and got snagged underwater, Forest Service officials said. Ashley Miller was in a personal raft going down one of the most technical whitewater rivers in Western North Carolina when she fell off the back side of it, Forest Service spokesman Terry Seyden said.

The drowning marks the first accident on the river, which was recently re-opened after 80 years. Miller was one of four people in the raft, Seyden said. Once she fell out, another rafter jumped in and brought her to shore, but she was not breathing. Graham County rescuers and the Forest Service responded and Miller was flown to a hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., where she was pronounced dead, Seyden said.

The Cheoah, classified as a Class IV river, was recently reopened after 78 years of being dammed by Alcoa Co. to create Lake Santeetlah. Class IV waters are usually extremely rough rapids for experienced boaters only. The river is known for its high volume of consistent and dangerous rapids. Alcoa releases the water to simulate a natural flow. This means there is a base flow of 50 to 100 cubic feet per second, with occasional "high flow events" in the spring and fall to simulate the natural occurrences of storms during those seasons of 1,000 cfs. There are 20 release dates for the year, Seyden said.

Contact Lindsay Nash at 828-232-5922, via e-mail at lnash@gannett.com 

VOLUNTEERS REMEMBER MILLER

Asheville Citizen Times 5/17

by Karen Chávez

published May 17, 2007 12:15 am

It is still painful to talk about, much less to return to the scene of the accident. But Jessica Hardy will go back to the Cheoah River on Friday with friends and other volunteers to work toward something positive after the tragedy. Hardy, along with American Whitewater and the U.S. Forest Service, will hold a workday to remove trees and other potential hazards to boaters on the Cheoah, where 24-year-old Ashley Miller, of Asheville, died April 22 after falling from a raft and getting trapped.

“All rivers are dangerous, but the Cheoah is especially dangerous because it has been dry for 80 years,” said Hardy, 29, a river guide who lives in Asheville who was in the raft with Miller when she fell out. “It had time for trees to be growing for 80 years.” The Cheoah River, which runs through the Nantahala National Forest near Robbinsville, was dammed in 1928 by Alcoa Co. to create Lake Santeetlah. In the fall of 2005, the power company began releasing water back into the dry streambed to simulate natural flows, to help restore some endangered species and to add economic benefits from commercial rafting, said Frank Findley, assistant ranger with the Cheoah District of the Nantahala National Forest. Permits are required for both private boaters and commercial outfitters to run trips on the river, which at peak flow produces Class IV rapids — very difficult and high-volume whitewater.

Miller had been on a permitted raft trip with a group of eight, Hardy said. Five of the eight paddlers, including Hardy and friend Kelly Patton, were experienced river guides. “She was a supernice person, she was very into music and she liked playing poker,” said Patton, 29, a chef at the Grove Park Inn, where Miller worked as a restaurant server. But Miller’s real love, Patton said, was being outdoors with her yellow Lab, Bailey. “They spent all their time with Bailey,” Patton said of Miller and her boyfriend, Jamie Vitt. “They did a lot of hiking and camping with him.”

Patton was also in the raft with Miller that day. He said Miller, a graduate of Appalachian State University, was not a raft guide but had experience on the infamous Gauley River in West Virginia. “We were in a large rapid, and we hit a hydraulic,” Patton said. “As the raft bucked, she got kicked out. Her clothing got hooked on something in the river and held her in the rapid. I jumped out and swam in after her. She was doing a good job of keeping her head up, but by the time I got to her, she was unconscious.”

Ben Van Camp, outreach coordinator with American Whitewater, a Cullowhee-based national river conservation group, which worked on the reopening of the Cheoah, said he hopes the work will make the river safer for boaters. “It’s certainly not a beginner’s river. Something for people to keep in mind, whether it’s a Class II or IV river, it has risk involved. The Cheoah is a river that was dry, and with the vegetation in there, it has that extra element of danger.”