EXPERT PADDLER CAUGHT IN FATAL ENTRAPMENT
Middle Fork of the Eel River , Northern California : May 2, 1993
For years the Middle Fork and North Middle Fork of the Eel River has fascinated me. These two streams come together to form a major river in one of the most remote canyons in the state. Access to the river for kayaking has always been difficult because the only roads into the area run along the tops of ridges. By the time the snow melts off the roads there is not enough left to provide water for the river. But during the winter of '93 I flew over the area and discovered a new road that started in the Mad River drainage to the north and came within a mile of the North Middle Fork of the Eel.
With much excitement I planned a trip for the spring of 1993, as soon as snow melted off the Jonas Ridge road. We would hike down to the river, then kayak 30 miles to the next road crossing where the Middle Eel meets the Black Butte River . The river drops nearly 3000 feet in that distance, and three of those miles have gradients of over 200 feet per mile.
The previous year Jaroslav Mach, Chris Volkamer and I paddled the South Fork of the Merced together. This is one of the most demanding runs in California, and the three of us developed an on-river rapport that we valued. We all seemed to judge rapids with a conservative and level-headed attitude, if such a description can be applied to running the South Merced . Both agreed to make the run. Chris and I have 27 years and thousands of miles of paddling experience between us, including most of the hardest runs in the State. Jaroslav was stronger and more skillful than either of us.
By May 1 the snow was gone from Jonas Ridge . The North Middle Fork was still flowing, although barely enough to kayak. The water in the main Middle fork would be about 2500 cfs, high but manageable. We met at the Eel River Campground near Covelo on Friday night and continued driving to the put-in the next morning. It's a beautiful five hour drive over winding mountain roads. Jaroslav brought two Czech Au Pairs along to drive his car back to Berkley so we wouldn't have to go back to get his car. We arrived at Jonas Ridge at 2:00 pm, but were stopped short of the river trail by lingering snowdrifts. We got lost trying to find another trail, and proceeded to bushwhack down the rugged, brush covered slopes towards the North Middle Fork of the Eel.
Although there were only three of us, we had trouble staying together. We were trying to hike down a ridge separating the North Fork from a tributary called Willow Creek. The temptation was to go straight downhill, but we were afraid that we would end up in Willow Creek, three miles from the North Fork , without enough water to float to the confluence. Each of us had his own idea of where to go, and the brush was so thick that once we were twenty yards apart we could no longer see each other.
Eventually I yielded to temptation and headed downhill, ending up in a narrow creek bed. It seemed like a tossup whether to thrash down the creek in freezing water or to attempt to walk on snowy deer trails 100 feet above. I could see that Chris and Jaroslav couldn't make up their minds either. At one point my trail crossed a mud slide sixty feet above the creek. One set of tracks made it across, but the other set (Jaroslav's) ended as a series of gashes leading to the bottom. With a gear laden boat on my shoulder I was one step away from solid ground when the muddy earth gave way. I dropped my kayak and tumbled after it. I collected myself at the bottom and discovered only minor damage to my body and kayak. Nonetheless, it seemed foolish to have split up. A half hour later I found Chris and Jaroslav at the North Middle Fork. It was almost six o'clock. I favored camping right there, but my friends wanted to get on the river to shift our focus from bushwhacking to the beauty of the canyon.
Beautiful it was. The North Fork carried about 250 cfs or crystal-clear water. The banks were steep; sometimes moss covered, sometimes bare limestone rocks. We saw not one shred of human visitation throughout our journey: no litter, no fishing line, no campfire circles, and no trails. We heard only the rush of water in the small rapids and the wind in the trees. Two miles later with night falling we scanned the banks for a campsite, but found none. Instead, we arrived at the confluence of Willow Creek. Here the river tumbled through a narrow chasm cut through a seam of hard limestone. We were forced to go back upstream 60 yards, shoulder our boats, and scramble up the hill. Two hundred feet later we started back down, carrying, lining, and sliding our boats. We reached the river in late twilight, and five minutes later we found a small beach that would be our home for the night.
Camping on a difficult kayaking trip is a minimalist experience. It doesn't take long to set up camp, and we had time to sit and talk. We talked about being in the wilderness and the sense of peace it brings us. Jaroslav seemed pleased with the life choices he had made, and the twists of fate which led from to having a family in California . He told us of his love for his daughter, and how much he enjoyed being her father.
The next day dawned cold and clear. We waited in vain for the sun to rise above the mountains and warm our campsite. After a quick breakfast started paddling at 10:00. Additional water from tributaries brought the North Fork up to a more respectable flow of 450 cfs. Most of the time the riverbank consisted of moss-covered earth, but occasionally the river cut through seams of hard limestone to form steep rapids. Most were runnable, but we made two short portages. In one spot the river fell ten feet over a large boulder. The right side was a sheer rock wall with only a narrow chute of water falling between the rock and the wall. The left side was open and afforded an easy portage, so Chris and I carried. Jaroslav decided to run the left chute. I wondered why he wanted to do it, since the portage was easy and it looked like he would bang his elbow against the wall. He paddled to the right, entering the swift water above the falls, but stopped short of going over by backpaddling and clinging to branches. Apparently it was harder than it first appeared, but there was no turning back. He took one hard forward stroke, then let go of the paddle with his right arm and reached across his body to avoid hitting the wall. As usual, he executed the maneuver perfectly.
We arrived at the confluence of the North Middle Fork and the Middle Fork, which thunders out of a narrow gorge at the confluence to add about 800 cfs. The banks opened up below here, and we paddled serenely, admiring the magnificent views that surrounded us. A mile later we hit a major rapid: the river made a left hand bend, running against an rocky outcropping. Numerous large rocks had fallen into the river to form the rapid. I could not see a clear route, so I paddled to the right bank and got out to scout. At the end of the rapid, several large boulders formed a river-wide barrier. There were four chutes dropping five feet; each chute appeared obstructed, so I signaled the other two that they should not attempt to run it. Jaroslav got out to see for himself.
By the time Jaroslav got to me I'd noticed another large drop 200 feet downstream. Together we climbed down to look at it. On the right, the river flowed under an overhanging rock; on the left, it went under a massive boulder. In the middle of the river, between these two undercut rocks, was another huge boulder. The river fell 8 feet on each side. Jaroslav decided that it was possible to run the lower falls by paddling hard across the current, passing by the edge of the center boulder, and landing in the eddy behind it. This "boof move" made it possible to avoid the turbulence at the bottom of the drop. Although it seemed workable, I was uneasy because it seemed like a mistake would send me into one of the undercut rocks. I looked for a portage route, but there were no good options.
Chris was already past the upper rapid. We thought he had portaged, but he told me later that he had found a shallow, bumpy route down the extreme left side. Jaroslav told him about his proposed route on the falls downstream, and as we walked upstream to our boats Chris ran the drop. I intended to portage the upper rapid and assumed Jaroslav would do the same. To my surprise he said,"Well, I am going to run it. Watch me and see if I survive." He was kidding, but he was clearly aware that the rapid was risky and wanted me to be ready if he needed assistance.
I took a second look at the upper rapid, and sure enough there was one chute in the middle where the water did not seem to slam into rocks at the bottom. Just above the chute was a small eddy; it would be possible to weave through the rocks at the top and stop here, just above the chute. But I could see problems. It would be impossible to paddle fast enough to gain momentum before going over the falls, and the paddler would drop nose first into very turbulent water. And something about that turbulence made me uneasy, suggesting a rock hidden beneath the surface.
So I was a bit aggravated with Jaroslav as he started down this evil-looking rapid. I watched as he skillfully maneuvered through the entrance drops and into the eddy. He turned downstream to face the chute, paused for a moment, then took several strokes to position himself and started down. His boat was positioned perfectly, angled slightly to the right, and I thought he was OK. Suddenly he hit a rock, and his kayak came to an abrupt stop. The force threw his head and shoulders forward; he recovered quickly, and I could see his face register surprise combined with attentiveness to what would happen next. The tail of his kayak drifted left, hitting the boulder on that side of the chute. He balanced there precariously for a few seconds; water mounded up against the back of his kayak, pushing the tail down. Suddenly the entire boat was pushed under water and seemed to lock in place. All I could see of Jaroslav was his left hand holding his paddle and a hint of orange helmet just below the surface.
The horror of those next few moments is indescribable. Jaroslav held the paddle a while, then let go. He pushed and struggled, trying to free himself, but the full force of the river was on his back, pushing him down. After a short time, I saw him raise his head to try for a breath, but his helmet was still two inches under water. Then the struggling stopped.
I had reached out and unclipped my throw rope, hoping that I could reach him if he worked free or raised his hand. Although I was only 30 feet away there was no way I could climb or swim to him out to him in the midst of that powerful rapid. As the seconds went by, I realized there was nothing I could do. I felt completely alone and utterly helpless. Terror, sadness, frustration, and panic swept over me. Tears came to my eyes. Again I looked for something I could do. Again nothing.
I stood for several minutes hoping that the boat would come free before deciding to go down and alert Chris to the disaster. I signalled that something was terribly wrong, then started back upriver. When I got to where I could see the first rapid I saw a boat floating down the river, with Jaroslav still inside. I expected it to drift to the far shore, but it floated towards me. I was making slow progress because Jaroslav's body, hanging upside down, was dragging on some sub-surface rocks. The boat ran up against a rock near shore and I leapt out to grab it, but it freed itself and started floating away. I held on for a moment, then was forced to let go. Further down was a small rock island , and the kayak came to rest here. I swam to the island, and was able to get a firm hold on the boat and pull it onto the rocks.
The spray deck had come loose, and the boat was filled with water, making it horribly unwieldy. Jaroslav was a big man, and I could not pull him ashore. I righted the boat and attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but could not hold him up and give breaths at the same time. Chris appeared, but he was on the wrong side of the river and could not offer any help. I tried to pull Jaroslav out of his kayak, but his legs were still under the thigh braces. Finally I found some footing on the bottom and was able to roll the boat onto some rocks. The boat was now tilted so that gravity would help me get him out. I entered the river, put one foot against the cockpit rim, and pulled Jaroslav free of the boat and into the water. Then I rolled him onto a large flat rock. Each move required every ounce of strength I had, and I had to stop for a few seconds to catch my breath. Yet each second was precious if there was any hope of bringing him back.
Jaroslav had now been under water for at least ten minutes, possibly more. He was not breathing, and his face and hands were blue. The pupils of his eyes were half dilated, and did not respond to sunlight. But aside from a small bruise over his right eye there was no sign of injury. The rock I'd placed him on left his head tilted back, opening his airway. I forced two breaths of air into him, then searched for a pulse. I felt nothing but my own heart pounding. I gave him two more breaths and could feel it going into him. I watched his chest rise. I began the chest compressions, and some natural color returned to his face. It was 12:15 pm.
Finally Chris arrived after climbing back down to his boat, paddling across the river, and working his way up the other side. One look at Jaroslav and Chris was overcome with emotion and broke into tears. I directed him to start giving breaths, and he responded immediately. Working together, the task was easier, and Jaroslav's color improved further. Some of the air that Chris forced into him must have entered his stomach, because as Jaroslav exhaled there was the smell of vomit. After a while this made Chris nauseous and we had to trade places. Then the same thing happened to me and we traded back.
I had worked for years as a river guide in the Grand Canyon and had practiced CPR many times, but nothing prepared me for the emotion of the moment. I had always thought of a victim as a stranger; now I was trying to breathe life into the body of a man I cared deeply about. Tears would come to my eyes, but this affected my ability to perform CPR. I tried not to think of him, but to concentrate on the rhythm. I looked at my watch again. It was 12:30. I resolved to continue until 1:00. The minutes went by incredibly slowly; Chris and I encouraged each other as we worked: breathing, compressions, breathing, compressions. At 1:00 we paused and listened for his heart. There was nothing. We agreed to continue. At 1:30 I stopped again. Chris and I looked at each other, and each could see in the other's eyes that we had lost hope. We checked one last time for a pulse, then stood and embraced.
We now had to deal with Jaroslav's body. We took out his throw rope and tied it around him, below his armpits. Chris took the line jumped in and swam to the right bank; I shoved the boat over to him, then held onto the body as Chris pulled it to shore. We planned on carrying him to a flat rock 50 yards upstream, but he was very heavy and it was hard to get a good grip. We put him next to a log that was making some shade and covered him with his sleeping bag and foam pad. We then walked upstream. I showed Chris where it happened and took pictures of the site.
Neither of us wanted to continue the trip. The remaining miles had some very steep sections, and we knew that our concentration would be poor. We agreed to abandon the boats and hike out. We looked at the maps and decided we were at Asa Bean Crossing. If we crossed the river and started climbing to the right it looked like we could hit a trail, and from there it would be about 1000 vertical feet to a main road. Chris helped me portage the lower falls, then we crossed to the other side of the river where we put our gear in impromptu packs. We bushwhacked up and to the right for about a quarter mile before we hit the end of a road leading uphill. We felt pretty good about our map reading skills, but we later found we were at Hoxie Crossing one mile upstream. We had stumbled a private road, not marked on the maps.
Four miles and fifteen hundred feet later we came to a gate marking the boundary of the wilderness area. Soon we arrived at a fire fighting camp called Indian Dick Station, 25 miles from the nearest phone. We drew water from the well, prepared a meal, and at 7:00 started walking again.
Most of the time we travelled together. We talked about the death of my father, and Chris's best friend, and how those incidents changed our lives. We talked about how Jaroslav's death would affect us; it was hard to believe he was really dead. It was an eerie feeling to know that this tragedy had taken place but only we knew about it. We dreaded having to make the phone calls to his friends and relatives. But sometimes we walked alone so we wouldn't have to think about what happened.
At about midnight stopped and rested. We laid our sleeping bags out under a starry sky, but woke up to a cold rain two hours later. We walked some more until we came to a bridge that offered some shelter so we could sleep some more. At dawn we continued walking in the rain. We passed a sign indicating that we had walked 18 miles from Indian Dick Station. Chris got ahead of me, and at about 10:00 he met a truck containing a Forest Service road crew. He told them what happened, and they radioed headquarters.
An hour later a Forest Service enforcement officer arrived. Although we were wet, cold, and only six miles from dry clothes in my car she loaded us into her vehicle and drove us back towards the river. The radio crackled with talk about the accident, and we learned that the county sheriff was on his way. There were lengthy discussions on whether to drive a vehicle into the wilderness area. The sheriff showed up, along with another Forest Service employee with horses. The cold rain turned to snow. A helicopter was sent to the scene, but was turned away by the weather.
There was no resolution about how to enter the wilderness area. The Forest Service refused to give permission to drive, and the sheriff stubbornly refused to walk. Some kind of watercraft would be needed to get to the other side of the river. We were worried that the rain would raise the river to where Jaroslav lay. We offered to help, but the sheriff confiscated our paddles and refused to let us. A swift water rescue team was being dispatched from Ukiah, three hours away. Only four hours of daylight remained.
I became impatient waiting in the ranger's truck, so Chris and I decided to walk down to the river and get our boats. The river had risen a foot and a half, turning a chalky brown. The log we had placed Jaroslav behind was farther above the water than we remembered, so he was in no immediate danger of being washed downstream. The trip down and back took three hours and we got to the top utterly exhausted. It was decided that the ranger would drive us to our car when she went out to get provisions for the crew that would spend the night.
It was dark when we reached the car. We changed into dry clothes, and talked about who would call Jaroslav's wife, Nancy. Neither of us knew her well, but Chris had spoken with her more often and accepted the task. It was very difficult, and there was no way to avoid the pain. We told her what happened, then contacted a friend of ours who promised to call some people who were close to her. In ever widening circles the news of the tragedy would spread, bringing sadness and pain to the many people who loved Jaroslav.
The next morning the weather was clear, and a helicopter was able to get into the canyon. There was no place to land, so the swiftwater rescue team hiked in and placed Jaroslav's body into a stretcher. They loaded him into the aircraft and he was flown to Weaverville, California .
AUTHOR: Walter Garms, Palo Alto, CA .
EDITOR'S NOTE: What an eloquent statement of the risks and rewards of expedition kayaking!