As many people here know I lost a close friend, Paul Abraszewski, on June 24 of this year in a fatal kayaking accident on the Blackfoot River in Eastern Idaho. When I posted the news I made a plea that people refrain from second guessing and analysis out of respect for my friend and those who loved him. I said that it wasn't the proper time, which implies that there is a proper time. Maybe that time is now. There may be lifesaving lessons to be learned from taking a look at what happened. I do not intend to disclose all details of the accident, some of the things that were told to me by the people he was with are personal and will not add to this discussion. I know that one of the four men who were with Paul lurks here, another has a user ID and posts. If they want to add to what I say that is up to them.
Below I will give a description of the accident and I will include photos of the rapid to help give some perspective. My purpose is to stimulate discussion of safety issues, including whether anyone even thinks this kind of an analysis in such a public place is proper. I do not know the answer to that question, but if a life is saved or boating is made a little safer as a result then I'll take the heat. I'm throwing this out for that purpose and I'm quite willing to accept any criticism for it. By that same token, please remember that there are some raw emotions connected with any fatal accident such as this. It is not my intent to establish a cause and certainly not to lay blame. It is also not my intent to second-guess any decisions that were made. I wasn't there.
I have never run the reach of the Blackfoot River where the accident occurred. In the original AW description it was listed as class III-IV. After discussing it with local boaters including the four others who were there that day, I wrote to Charlie Walbridge to advise him and AW that the page needed to be updated. Their reaction was swift. They slightly edited my e-mail and published it on the page for that reach of river. Any information I'd give here would be second-hand, but I know that there are regular visitors to this forum who have run it and I hope that they'll weigh in to correct any errors I might have made in my description of the river.
The Blackfoot River lies in Eastern Idaho east of the city of Blackfoot. It empties into the Snake River below the city of Blackfoot. The river is empounded for irrigation on the plateau east of the Snake River floodplain. There are several sections of the river, both above and below the reservoir. The AW page for Idaho lists the descriptions here:
The section in question is Wolverine Canyon, now listed as class V. The section runs through rolling farmland in a steep sided basalt canyon carved by the river as it descends to the Snake River floodplain below. Around the canyon the area is arid and practically treeless. In the canyon there are stately stands of pine and lush riparian shrubbery.
The rapid is refered to by the locals as the first of the class V rapids in Wolverine Canyon. They call it "Teller Tube" because the river placidly approaches a horizon line, then plunges over 40 vertical feet producing the kind of accelleration that the tube in the pneumatic system at your local bank branch does. The run requires a left-to-right move across the face of a green drop, then work back left to center missing a huge pillow on a large boulder on river left and then a must make eddy on river right, indicated by the crudely drawn circle on the photo below. There is a small last chance eddy below this, but the consequence of missing the eddys is to be swept into a boulder field blocked by logjams. Once the eddy is made you can either ferry across the current and work down far river left, or you can bump down the sneak on river right, which is the prefered line.
In addition to Paul he was accompanied by four other expert boaters, all of whom had experience running this reach of river. One was a nationally known SRT intructor trainer and outdoor specialist, the second was the head of whitewater instruction for a large unversity, the third was a river guide with extensive class V experience and the fourth, in addition to being an expert class V boater was an emergency room physician. It speaks to the calibre of the group that when I've mentioned to other locals the people Paul was with, a typical reaction was, "He must have been a great boater then because those guys don't let just anybody boat with them."
Paul chose his Pyranha H:3 245 creekboat for the run that day, one of his stable of about five various play, creek and utility boats. He was wearing a drytop, full coverage helmet, 16 lb flotation PFD and was carrying a break-apart paddle under the seat of his H:3. He also had a throwbag, pin kit, and small first aid kit in the rear of his boat.
Paul had been boating about 7 years. He was in a pool class that I helped instruct as a practical assistant in St. Louis. When I first met him he was finishing his fellowship in cardiology and he had moved to Pocatello with his wife after he finished to join a cardilogy group there. Part of the reason they chose Pocatello was the opportunities for outdoor recreation, especially kayaking, that are available there. He had been very active in boating, polishing his skills, and was extending the scale of his boating. He had run Wolverine Canyon once before with most of the same boaters he was with that day, but he had chosen to shoulder his boat that run at "Teller Tube". He was enthusiastic about challenging his boating, but he was properly prepared for this run and had chosen his boating companions well.
All five boaters got out at "Teller Tube" to scout. Paul chose to run first. One other boater had already decided to shoulder his boat and was doing so, but all four set safety on the riverbank for Paul to make his run. Paul made the first move at the top of the rapid easily (1), that kind of move was his signature. He was flipped in the first hole below the entrance drop (2) and tried to roll back up. When he failed (I don't know how many times he tried) he exited his boat somewhere between (2) and the must-make eddy at (3) and was swept into the logjam lodging at point (4).
Paul's companions, at great risk to themselves, attempted first to provide Paul with an air passage. While that was going on the others joined the first one to him in trying to lift him out of the water. Failing that they improvised a rope to tie around him, continuing attempting to rescue him. They set up a "Z" drag, but the current held him far too tightly. After more than an hour of this they decided that they were no longer in a rescue but rather a recovery. Paul was finally freed after about an hour and a half. The authorities were contacted, and here the storys diverge. The four with him told me that they removed Paul from the canyon climbing up the talus slope on river right to the road above. The police report stated that Paul was still in the canyon when the police first arrived. I tend to think that the story Paul's boating companions told me was accurate.
Paul was well prepared for the run, the moves he had to make were not above his abilities, he chose his companions very well for the run. The rapid was obviously runnable, he had been present when it had been run before. The margin for error was razor thin though. I will not make conjecture on any of the decisions that Paul or his companions made. The nature of class V boating is that your companions are there to support you, not to make your decisions for you. This was a terrible tragedy, one that I can find little to pin blame on other than fate. In hindsight, the only thing I can see that might have been done differently is that once the decision was made that they were in recovery rather than rescue mode, they might have called in the professionals to do it. Evidently that issue came up for discussion among them and they decided that since it was only two weeks or so since they themselves had held the training for the rescue squad that would have responded, they were as, or more, qualified to execute the recovery. The only thing that the authorities might have been able to do that they couldn't was request that the penstocks on the dam be closed draining the river.
One thing at issue here is the nature of the rivers we run. Over the last two decades the envelope of what is runnable has been pushed ahead. Some older guidebooks rate Lesser Wesser at class V, now most people begrudge it a low class III. Paul loved to watch extreme boating videos. He had several DVDs that he watched on his computer and he admired the boaters in them. Is it wise to establish that kind of thing as a goal of the sport? If that is what we aspire to, what is the baseline? At what point does it become irresponsible to expose the public and the boating community to the extremes of the sport, or does it at all? I have no interest in that kind of boating, not even to watch it on a DVD. Paul used to get frustrated with me because I bored easily and lost interest when he wanted me to watch them with him. I told him that it didn't represent anything that I identified with. Granted, my version of boating is pretty sedate compared to what many here on this forum enjoy, and I'm not trying to judge them or that level of the sport. But is that part of it overemphasized to the neglect of other levels that many people, including me, enjoy?
I'm not implying that the above contributed to Paul's accident. I am asking for some thought to be given to how far and how fast we arrive at that level. That said, the only other boater I knew personally who drowned on a river died on a class II southeast river in a strainer. Accidents can happen anywhere at any time. But a word of wisdom from another friend's high school age kid, (an excellent boater) when asked why he hadn't tried to tackle some of the harder, more extreme runs said, "One secret to a long life is to avoid doing the things that shorten it."
Cardiologist drowns in RapidsIdaho State Journal
POCATELLO - Paul Abraszewski and the other kayakers in his group had just paddled through some Class III and IV rapids but banked to study the river before attempting to navigate the first Class V, called Teller's Tube. The five experienced adventurers accompanying him walked the length of the rapid on the Blackfoot River Sunday before making a decision about shooting it. Abraszewski, a cardiologist at Portneuf Medical Center, drowned after tipping while attempting the feat.
Justin Dayley, one of the outdoorsmen with Abraszewski when he died, said the high skill level of each kayaker was the only reason they felt they could undertake that part of the river. ''I've run that rapid 10 times, but I was a little uneasy about it that day,'' Dayley said. ''The water was a little pushy, some logs had shifted around in the rapids, and that made me nervous. In the past, I had been comfortable with running it, but I was leaning toward not doing it this time.'' Most kayakers in the group felt the same way, but 37-year-old Abraszewski wasn't one of them. Like always, the cardiologist's enthusiasm got the better of him. Abraszewski wanted to be the first one to take on the rapid.
Dayley said the group set up safety positions along the rapids, placing themselves in areas where they could toss out safety ropes if Abraszewski ran into trouble. Two of the members of the group were kayaking instructors. Dayley, one of the instructors, also teaches wilderness survival, CPR and river rescue classes. He knew every precaution to take, and made sure the group performed them to exactness. But Dayley said nothing can be calculated precisely in that kind of water. ''Class V water is not routine,'' he said. ''We all know and understand the risks and take it very serious. When Paul was knocked over.'' Abraszewski made some moves through the rapids easily but ran into trouble when, as Dayley described, the doctor was ''knocked over by a big hydraulic.'' He tried to roll out of the water in his kayak, and when that wouldn't work, he pulled free the spray skirt that held him in the boat. When he tried to swim, the current forced him against a grouping of logs and pinned him against them.
Rescue efforts were difficult despite the extensive training in river rescues by the group members. Dayley, who travels around the country as an instructor for the Wilderness Medical Institute, said everyone in the group worked correctly and quickly. But the minutes kept passing. ''I just kept watching my clock, counting the minutes and seconds,'' Dayley said. ''It was difficult and our team worked rapidly. Everyone acted appropriately. We did the best we could for Paul while making sure we didn't become victims ourselves. Everyone understood the intense risk, but they were willing to put themselves in it and assume to try rescuing him.''
Abraszewski was finally pulled from the river an hour and a half after being pulled under. The group that included an emergency room doctor and trained first responders knew immediately Abraszewski hadn't made it. ''When we paddle this kind of water, we go in understanding it is difficult and dangerous. That's the reason we don't take students with us. That's the reason only a small group goes in. That's the reason we practice,'' Dayley said. ''Something like this is hard on everyone. You never want to lose someone you paddle with.'' The kayakers went into the river at 11:30 a.m., nearly eight miles south of Cox's Corner. By the time they hiked out of the rough terrain that included 500-foot cliffs and were able to call for help, it was 3:28 p.m. It took two and a half hours to recover the body and hike up the rock cliffs to the Blackfoot River Road, where the Bingham County Sheriff's Office responded to the call.
Dayley said everything was done according to procedure in the kayaking group and stressed the importance of always taking safety precautions when taking part in outdoor activities. ''Anybody who wants to play outside, especially those who play hard, should take some type of a wilderness first-aid class, a course in river rescue, or some kind of safety course'' he said. ''And always wear a lifejacket and helmet, because these kinds of activities are inherently dangerous.'' Abraszewski was born in Warsaw, Poland and had worked with Pocatello Cardiology at the Portneuf Medical Center since 2004. Co-worker Jacob De La Rosa, who worked with Abraszewski, said the doctor will be missed by the medical community and his patients for his compassion. ''He was such a caring doctor,'' De La Rosa said. ''If you had a problem, he would do anything for you. If he got called at two, three, four in the morning, he'd come running. He'd never question and never complain. He was without a doubt a wonderful person and an exceptional doctor. Ben Call, who worked as Abraszewski's partner, said it was Abraszewski's genuineness that made him such a good doctor. Call described Abraszewski as someone with ''integrity.'' And that's one of the things Call will miss most. ''I'll miss his enthusiasm. I'll miss his care for patients. I'll miss his personal integrity,'' Call said. ''He loved people and he loved the outdoors.'' By Adam Chambers
Idadoboater posted on Boatertalk- Answer to Air Pocket Question, "In response to the question about creating an airpocket for Paul. It was attempted and Paul even helped create an airpocket for himself. As the water was pushing against him, he would raise up his arm and put up his hand against his face along with the hand from one of the party to help hold it in place...."
Idahoboater further posted Follow up from Gordo's answers: "In response to the answers that Gordo has supplied about how he was finally recovered, boat recovered, and those items, I will help him out.
For the boat, it was recovered a couple of days later as we were not concerned about it....
The paddle was never recovered.
For equipment malfunction, none was discovered.
For removal of the body, there was different directions of pull tried, even a vector pull that about put another person into the water. Pulling up and over the log was one of the first things tried and was unsuccessful. Even with two people trying to pull up and over was to no avail. After some of these efforts, rope work was employed or about the same time as everything was unfolding. The early tries with the rope was trying to pull just a bit upstream and more over to the bank on the river right side. After that was unsuccessful after a few different tries and different things along with ruining a spectra rope at this time from so much pressure from the prussiks. After this was not working, direction of pull was changed to more upstream. It was basically at the rock in the eddy that Gordo showed as where you wanted to be after the last big drop in the top half of the rapid. There was numerous attempts at different rope placement on the body for pulling, even using the life jacket. The life jacket was ruined by the time this was done. We basically had it ripped apart from tying to it and trying different things also. As much force was involved, we could not extract by wrapping around the body. He would just get stretched out and it looked like we dislocated his shoulder at some time during this process. The final way we managed to get him out we had to tie his wrists together. At this point we also had two of us pulling on the rope and as a z-drag. After coming loose, he still got stuck in some of the rocks as we were trying to get him to shore and used a vector pull to eventually get him to shore with some pull up and then give slack and back and forth. It took about an hour and half to get him to the shore."
"In response to the question of was he wearing a rescue vest? I believe he was wearing a rescue vest but I might be wrong. I do not think if he was wearing a vest with the harness would of made much of a difference. The only way it might of made a difference if he had one something similiar to a climbing harness but still hard to tell since might not be able to get the angles needed for extracation. We did try using the vest for pulling but it would be slipping off and over the shoulders. We pretty well ripped up the PFD from trying to tie to it and pull etc. It is hard to say if anything else might of been better but we could not get any good tether points or tie off areas that we could get to stay without pulling off the vest or even without slipping up and off the torso."
06-24-07 BINGHAM COUNTY, ID
Local Doctor Dies in Kayaking Accident on Blackfoot River
A kayaking accident over the weekend took the life of a local doctor.On Sun. (06-24), Dr. Paul Abraszewski was shooting rapids in the Blackfoot River when his kayak hit rocks, throwing him out of his kayak. His body became trapped under a log. Members of his party retrieved the doctor's body and then climbed to high ground to call for assistance. It took Bingham Co. officers and Search and Rescue 2½ hours to retrieve the body.Drowning is listed as the cause of death.