Incident report: April 5, 2018 in Glen Park Falls, Williamsville NY
A kayaker was injured running the waterfall on Ellicott Creek in Glen Park, Williamsville, NY.
A plan was formulated in advance to run the falls with a group of 3-5 paddlers on a medium high water day. However, several of the planned boaters canceled leaving only two paddlers and two skilled observers at the river. The paddler who was injured, James Ratchford, had about six years of whitewater experience and described himself as a confident class four boater. The second batter, Patrick Craft, was a relatively new boater but with reliable self-rescue skills and some experience participating in rescues. James had run the falls before and Patrick had not.
The two paddlers set up and ran the falls in large creek boats without incident. A discussion was held regarding whether to do a second run and James was initially against a second run but Patrick wanted a second run and James agreed to join in so that there would be two boaters in the water rather than only one, but elected to take a slicy boat instead of the big creeker to make the run more challenging.
The second run started with Patrick in the lead, but Patrick got slowed down by a hole and eddied out just above the falls, leading James to slow down to investigate and give up some momentum. James then elected to proceed forward and run the falls ahead of Patrick. Several mistakes were made. First, James approached the lip without adequate speed. Second, he was off from the ideal line and crossed the lip at a spot with a straight drop instead of a nearby spot with a partial slide. Thinking he was on the slide, James chose not to take a boof stroke. The low speed and the lack of a boof combined to result in a nearly vertical angle by the bottom of the drop, and the boat pitoned hard, landing nearly vertically on the bow. The momentum of the boat combined with the force of water from behind then caused the boat to flip over the bow end resulting in James landing exactly upside down. He panicked and froze in the moment and failed to adequately tuck toward the deck of the boat, and consequently made contact with the rock ledge directly at the top of his head, resulting in damage to the helmet and compression of the neck and spine. The water pushed the boat and boater across the ledge and over the second drop inverted and backwards, landing in a pool under the curtain. James was successful in rolling at that point but felt aware of pain in several body parts.
The river has no eddies and several class 3 features below the falls for about 1/4 mile before the next viable eddy and takeout, leaving the paddler with little choice but to paddle on through additional rapids in spite of injury. Minimizing motion of the neck, back, and left shoulder, James paddled conservatively until the pre-planned takeout eddy and waited in the eddy for Patrick and the shore observers to arrive. He was unable to get out of the boat due to pain and weakness in the left shoulder. Suspecting head and neck injuries, he asked Patrick to call for an ambulance. The dispatch call was overheard by a reporter resulting in media arriving along with firefighters and an ambulance. The other kayakers helped James out of his boat, and an ambulance worker placed a cervical collar and assisted him in hiking to the street, while firefighters apparently observed from the street. The ambulance carried James to the local trauma hospital where imaging determined no spinal injury but a seriously displaced clavicle fracture.
No swim occurred and no rescuers were required to enter the water.
I came away diagnosed with just a broken clavicle, and I had surgical fixation of it two weeks later; now over a month out of surgery I’m doing pretty well but still can’t handle heavy strain on my shoulder. It might still be another month before I’m back on whitewater, but I plan to start doing some flatwater in a few weeks. I’m not concerned about the paddling itself, I’m concerned about the higher impact aspects of the sport and about actually getting in and out of the boat.
At the ER I wasn’t diagnosed with any other injuries, but the neck CT apparently showed a herniated disc, and I’ve been experiencing pretty severe back pain that hasn’t been formally examined at all yet; I first wanted to give it a chance to heal on its own but as I still can’t comfortably lay down almost two months out I’m going to pursue proper evaluation and treatment of that. I don’t think I’ll be on that particular waterfall again anytime soon. Actually I don’t think I need to run it again at all; the cost-benefit/risk-reward ratio just isn’t worth it.
Whitewater kayaker's plunge over Williamsville waterfall ends with broken collarbone
By Aaron Besecker
The Buffalo News
Published April 5, 2018
A 37-year-old Buffalo attorney hopped in his kayak and tried to conquer the 27-foot waterfall in the Glen Park on Thursday. James Ratchford took the plunge over Glen Falls and ended up in an ambulance with a broken collarbone.
Ratchford was one of two whitewater kayakers who went over the waterfall in a park known for the picturesque scenes of its ponds, trees and walking trails. But the part of Ellicott Creek that runs through the park includes a Class 4 waterfall, said Don Boehmer, president of the Zoar Valley Paddling Club.
The first kayaker went over without any problem. Ratchford, however, mistimed an important stroke, Boehmer said. Ratchford is one of 10 or 12 club members who whitewater kayak over waterfalls around Western New York, Boehmer said. "There are calculated risks," he said, adding, "but things do happen." Ratchford did not return a message left Friday morning by a reporter.
Going over Glen Falls in a kayak apparently is nothing new. Thrill seekers do it, and sometimes post videos of it on YouTube. Park rules prohibit swimming or wading in the waters of Ellicott Creek, but make no mention about the use of watercraft.
There were safety measures implemented in the creek on Thursday, Boehmer said. Two kayakers were in the water, one above and one below the falls, as well as two others on the shore wearing life jackets and helmets and holding throw ropes ready to toss towards the kayakers should trouble emerge, he said. The kayakers also had an emergency plan in place, which, unfortunately, they had to use, Boehmer added.
Ratchford was using a kayak designed for whitewater use. It's designed to prevent itself from collapsing and has padding for the kayaker, according to Boehmer.
The paddling club has nearly 70 members, the majority of whom participate primarily to see the scenery and don't take on the drops over waterfalls. The club offers practice time in local school pools twice a year, with sessions that involve training on paddling, gear and safety information, he said.
Boehmer said he believes Ratchford missed the timing on what's known as a "boof" stroke, or the last stroke made before going over the lip of the waterfall. The stroke, when done properly, helps the kayaker land properly and keeps the nose of the kayak out of the water.