Accident Database

Report ID# 2530

  • Caught in Low Head Dam Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • Inexperience
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

Warnings stronger after dam rescue
The problem: Dams on rivers create boils that pull in boaters
The solution: Towns have posted more signs, but is that enough?


July 14, 2007 It didn't dawn on Joseph Wanek that he was paddling for his life until well after his raft went over the dam beneath Scott Avenue on Sunday. Several times he tried to grab the concrete side walls of the dam on the Des Moines River, only to have his fingers slip. "I never really believed this was happening," the Grand View College senior said. Wanek, 20, was on a friendly, if novice, cruise in a $30 Target inflatable raft with friend Rachel Treptow, 21. They launched on the Raccoon River near Gray's Lake. "We even wore dorky hats like on 'Gilligan's Island,' " Wanek said. "After a half hour, we thought it was boring."

Boredom soon turned into terror. Wanek is still sleepless thinking how lucky he is to be alive after he and Treptow paddled to exhaustion, sucked in by the dam's powerful circular current, until rescuers pulled them out. This week, Des Moines officials posted 10 new signs at Scott Avenue with a stronger warning that the dam's recirculating currents can trap or drown victims.

Wanek and river safety advocates wonder why it has taken the city so long to post adequate warning signs, not only in Des Moines but on other Iowa rivers. "The money has been available for two years. The least they could do is post signs," said John Wenck, vice president of the Iowa Whitewater Coalition, which advocates for dam signs, portages and dam removal. "The signs that simply said 'dam' were not adequate." City officials say $30,000 in available funds was not enough to properly solve the problem. Don Tripp, city parks director, said warning signs are not the best solution. The city has been working on a plan to install a cable across the river that boaters can grab before spilling over the dam. That project will cost $90,000. City trail funds will be used to finish the project by summer's end, Tripp said.

Five dam-related deaths in Iowa this season have brought the state total to 12 since 1999. The state has 150 low-head dams similar to the one at Scott Avenue. In addition, Des Moines police this month identified the body of Franco Ivan Martinez Ventura, 21, who leaped from a bridge and was likely caught in the Scott dam's hydraulic current, say river experts who heard eyewitnesses describe his attempt to swim free of the dam-created boil.

Wanek is convinced signs would have helped him. He said he's no river veteran. It was a trip on a lark in a raft they had to blow into to keep inflated. As he and Treptow paddled toward the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers near downtown, Wanek stopped paddling to scope out the river below before continuing. He was aware of the dam but thought it was so small they could run right over it. Fishermen below were in clear view, he figured, so it couldn't be too dangerous. In fact, the dam is only 2 to 3 feet high, mistakenly "safe" to many novices. "As we got closer, the water was louder and louder," Wanek said. "We started to turn back, but we couldn't paddle fast enough against the current. We were going backward. We decided to straighten out and just go over forward."

When they got over the dam, the raft became caught in the boil. "Paddle!" nearby fishermen yelled to them. With as much effort as they could muster, the two paddled but went nowhere in the recirculating current. They reached for the concrete walls before deciding to maintain a slower paddling pace and save energy. If the raft tipped over, they knew they would surely drown. "For even the strongest swimmer, it is impossible to get out of that hydraulic," said Capt. Amy Montgomery of the Des Moines Fire Department's water emergency team, which was summoned for the rescue. The rescue team threw a rope from the top of bridge to the rafters. Another rope was thrown from the raft to a water craft farther downstream, which eventually pulled them free. "We were stupid for not wearing life jackets," said Wanek, who will be the Grand View newspaper editor next year. "At the same time ... there need to be warnings out there."

Public reaction to such events is usually swift and predictable: Weren't those people dumb? "I've really grown tired of that reaction," said Nate Hoogeveen, the state water programs coordinator who has advocated for dam safety and removal for years as founder of the Iowa Whitewater Coalition. "These are perfectly intelligent people who just want to paddle downtown. I could have been those people eight years ago." The Iowa Legislature appropriated $200,000 last session for grants through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for dam signs and portage trails around dams. Eighteen Iowa dams will have new signage this year, and portage trails will be created at seven others. It hasn't been easy persuading city officials in Iowa towns it needs to be done. "We basically sent them a letter that said 'free money,' " Hoogeveen said. Des Moines officials have also hired consultants to study the possibility of modifying the dam so paddlers can go through. River experts say most of the low-head dams serve no purpose, anyway. Wanek is ready to add his voice to the issue. "I feel like I need to do something," he said. "I'm one of the rare cases who lived."

Mike Kilen can be reached at (515) 284-8361 or

Personal Account - from the Iowa Whitewater Coalition

On July 8, 2007, Joseph and Rachel Treptow set out on an ill-prepared river excursion that nearly claimed their lives at the deadly Scott Avenue Dam in Des Moines. Miraculously Joseph and Rachael survived the encounter. IWC invited Joseph to submit an article describing the event. This is his account. -- IWC Editor]

Low-head dams create a re-circulating underwater current, able to suck a person down and drown them. This might seem obvious to some people, but we had no idea these dams could be so deadly.

I have always had a hunger for adventure, so during the summer of 2007, I decided to buy a cheap inflatable boat with the capacity of about two people. My friends and I went on three different trips down the Raccoon River. The first two river adventures were really amazing to us because it was a part of Des Moines we had never fully experienced. However, the third trip left us with an experience we will never forget.

My friend Rachel and I began our rafting excursion on the Raccoon River near Gray's Lake. The river seemed calm enough, so we didn't wear any life jackets. We also don't own any, so we didn't go out of our way to get some. For about half an hour, the boat floated downstream at a sluggish pace until we came to the convergence of the Raccoon and the Des Moines Rivers, right by Principal Park.

As we approached, we noticed orange signs far up ahead. At first, I thought it was a construction sign that had fallen off the bridge and gotten stuck. As we drew closer, we noticed the sign said "DAM." We could hear some falling water, so we decided to stop the boat and check it out. I climbed some stairs on the riverbank to get a better view of the dam. This point of view wasn't much better than what we could see from the boat. It looked like there was maybe a small drop where the dam was located, but it was hard to tell. We could see fishermen standing in the river about 100 feet downstream beyond the dam, so we figured there was no real danger.

Back in the boat, we decided to go forward. We thought the worst thing that could happen was that we might tip over and get wet, but we figured we could just get back in and continue on our way if that were to happen. Since we weren't sure what the dam looked like, we paddled toward a pile of branches so we could grab onto them if we needed to stop. As we got closer, the sound of falling water intensified. We soon grew very nervous and decided to paddle to the side of the river.

It was too late. The dam started pulling us closer and we were backward, trying to paddle in the opposite direction. Rachel yelled, "I can't go over backward, I'll fall out!" We quickly turned the boat around to face forward, just as we were about 5 feet away from the dam. With a forceful slam, our inflatable boat dropped about three feet, pushing the front of the boat underwater for a second. The boat was still floating, but had filled with about six inches of water. We quickly started paddling forward, but to our surprise, we couldn't get away from the dam. The swirling current below was pushing us back toward the falling water. We didn't know what to do, except paddle. We were up on our knees, exerting all of our energy to get beyond the backwash current. We paddled next to the support column that holds up the bridge. I tried grabbing onto the edge, only to discover there was nowhere to grab. We even tried grasping the imperfections in the cement support with our fingertips. We could do nothing to help ourselves.

During the approximately 30 minutes that we spent paddling, we noticed commotion from the group of fishermen standing beyond the dam. We then saw a police officer standing on the riverbank and we knew we were in trouble. Since we still didn't realize how deadly the situation was, it crossed our minds to jump out of the boat and try to swim beyond the dam. However, we made the right decision by staying in the boat.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, the fire department's Water Emergency Team came to our rescue. They threw a rope down from the bridge above us. Rachel and I quickly brought the rope into our boat. Moments later, two life jackets were lowered down. In the meantime, a rescue boat came from downstream and waited a few hundred feet away. Then, the other end of the rope we were holding was thrown out toward the rescue boat. They began to pull us over the backwash current, and for a moment, the force of it almost tipped us over. Once we were free from the current, two fire fighters near the river bank threw us another rope. We let go of the first rope and were pulled off to the side of the river.

It wasn't until afterward, that we realized how very dangerous the situation had been. We heard stories of how almost all people that go over the dam, die from it. We would have been dead too, if it weren't for everyone involved in the rescue. Rachel and I would like to thank the Des Moines Fire Department and the people that called 911 for their kindness. Hopefully, this incident will teach other boaters, amateur and experienced, to stay away from low-head dams.

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