Accident Database

Report ID# 2618

  • Foot Entrapment
  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

 Successful rescue. Intermediate ww canoeist with canoe club. Intermediate-to-experienced group: 6 solo canoes, 1 tandem and 1 kayak. 5 people in rescue (1 at mid-river boulder, 4 on shore), 3 remained downstream.

Ankle entrapment in a submerged tree after broaching on a boulder and flipping. Trapped with head up and support from rock. Not very accessible, and not able to be freed with simple force or simple rope support. Rescued by Z-dragging the pinned tree off the rock. Only injuries were sprains, strains and bruises from the ankle to the knee, hip and shoulder. Contributing factor to accident: he put his feet down. Contributing factor to rescue: group was carrying proper gear and able to use it. Very lucky.

From "Canadian Canoe Routes" Web forum:

Foot entrapment, Chilliwack River, May 4th, 2008 On a whitewater day-trip on a class II-III section of the Chilliwack River east of Vancouver, a canoe club experienced a serious safety incident: a life-threatening foot entrapment. Fortunately, it ended well. For the purpose of sharing this experience as a safety reminder, this report presents one perspective from the scene and highlights a few key observations. The group included 6 solo canoes, a kayak and a tandem canoe .

In the middle of an easy class III rock garden our friend broached on a mid-river boulder. He came out of his solo canoe, had his foot wedged in the V of a submerged cottonwood trunk that was wrapped around the base of the rock, and he became stuck while going around the river-left side of the large boulder. Wedged his foot while travelling in front of the rock perpendicular to the main current, then forced downstream. Wedged in a relatively small tree, which had enough spring to act like a vice.

The group immediately recognized the trouble and had a sweep boat into the eddy behind the boulder, and a group of 4 assembling on the nearby river-left shore. The tandem and one solo were already through the rapid and waited within sight downstream. The Reality Luckily, the victim’s head & shoulders were out of the water and he was able to get some support from the boulder. However, he was in a strong current and it was obvious that he could neither free himself nor maintain his energy indefinitely. His survival was dependent on the actions of his paddling partners. The Rescue At the rock, the victim & rescuer were barely able to clasp fingers, but they could talk. Across the river within a throw-rope’s length (10-15m), it was nearly impossible to shout to the on-shore rescuers. With one rescuer on the boulder and others able to hit the rock with throw ropes, it was soon established that the quick & easy methods of simple force were not going to free the trapped swimmer. Not even close.

Trying to unpin the sunken tree that held the victim’s ankle emerged as the next available option. On one hand, it was very lucky that the specific structure of the river allowed this to be set up, even that it allowed a rescuer up onto the boulder at all; on the other hand, the layout made other rescue options impossible or useless. With a rope & caribiner thrown from shore, the rescuer on the boulder was able to attach a line to the single accessible branch of the tree, off the river-right part of the boulder. The shore team had set up a hauling system to attempt a “Z-drag” on the tree.

The hauling was not rewarding. There were flashes of time that allowed for feelings of helplessness. The victim & rescuer at the rock tried several more futile attempts to influence things from the boulder; another rescuer began work on anchoring a support line for the victim; and after the hauling lines were adjusted, 3 rescuers were barely able to gain critical inches and force the submerged tree to budge!

For some, these were the scariest seconds - the tree came off the rock with the victim still firmly attached, and lurched downriver with the victim now being dragged underwater. For others, it had been the “sameness” of the entrapment that was scariest, and the sudden rush of water and panic as the tree released was a deep relief: it didn’t matter what happened after that, as long as the tree was pulled loose, because there was nothing to lose. And the tree was still on a rope, although the throw ropes must’ve been stressed to their max.

Once the tree was loose, rescuers reached the victim in seconds and got him supported behind a small rock in very shallow current. The worst was over and the group took some deep breaths to reassure themselves. Once they’d collected themselves for a second, the victim instructed some rescuers on how to rotate the tree without hurting his leg, and they were able, with some effort, to pull his foot from the tree.

Now out of the river, rescuers tended to the victim, assessing his injured ankle and his general state – which was excellent, all things considered. He was very strong throughout, physically and mentally, which was a major contribution to the successful outcome. Rescuers went about collecting their ropes & gear and quietly exchanged thank-yous and handshakes, and a few knowing looks.

In time it was decided that the victim and the whole group were able to walk to the bottom of the rapid, re-unite with the others who had picked up loose boats & gear, and paddle the short, flat section to the top of the next rapid (Trailer Park), where there is road access. One rescuer waited there with the victim, for what must have been an emotional and surreal sit, while the group continued a short distance to the next take-out. It was decided at the scene that the group would neither retrieve the caribiner & rope that was left on the tree, nor would anybody paddle the class III Tamihi Rapid. (Other local paddling groups were later informed about the tree and the loose rope in the river.) After Now the group thanks each other, shares perspectives, re-plays the events, asks questions, celebrates their success, and can’t believe their luck. They get scared, they get mad, and above all, they thank each other again. And, although they hope to never see another entrapment, they plan improvements for the next time.


No doubt they were lucky. Everything they tried involved imperfections and a chance of failure. But there’s truth to the saying that “you have to be good to be lucky”. Without the ropes, caribiners and pulleys they were carrying, without the studying and practicing they’d done, even without the drysuits, they wouldn’t have given themselves a fighting chance. The event underscored some obvious golden rules: respect wood, lean onto a broach, don’t ever put your feet down, be prepared, and, above all, accidents happen. It also tested the paddlers’ comfort levels with the rescue equipment they carry, how they carry it, and whether they know how to use it under pressure.

This accident didn’t happen on the hardest rapid and it didn’t happen to a weak paddler, which highlights the fact that any of us could be called upon to respond to such an emergency on the river. Or, conversely, that any of us could need to call upon those with whom we paddle. On that day this group was just good enough to be lucky. It’s fortunate that this can be remembered as a positive learning experience for the paddling community - experience that’s so valuable to have, yet so unsettling to gain first hand. So, don't take your safety for granted. Please remember to paddle in a capable group and to carry the necessary rescue gear, keep it handy and practice how to use it.

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