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Experienced/Inexperienced
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Accident Description


Stephen Smith (my husband), Jim Murtha and I were paddling the Middle Fork River into the Tygart Gorge on Saturday June 6, 2009. We had paddled this section of river several times before. The level was higher than we'd ever run it before (5.2 feet on the gauge at Audra), but still under the recommended maximum of 6 feet. This was a really fun level. The weather was perfect. It had been 8 weeks since my motorcycle crash when I broke my left scapula and 4 ribs. My shoulder had really strengthened and I felt almost back to my old skill level of paddling. I was hesitant to side surf though because of the risk of tweaking something in my shoulder. I felt like I was paddling competently and I was having a great time.

We scouted several rapids because they looked very different than at the lower water levels we had run before (the highest we had run it previously was 4.1 feet at Audra). I flipped in the slide rapid shortly after the usual lunch spot/surf wave, and had a successful, quick combat roll. A little while later was the rapid described in the Davidson guidebook as "The next big rapid, recognized by a giant boulder on the bottom left is very obstructed. Run down the right over high, clean ledges." It ends in a boof on the bottom right. I flipped in the middle of the rapid, was trying to roll, and hit my face HARD on a rock. I didn't know how badly I was injured but I knew it was the hardest hit I'd ever taken while kayaking. I also knew there was a calm pool below, so I swam instead of trying again to roll. I touched my face and my hand was covered in blood.

I checked to make sure all my teeth were in my mouth and, luckily, they were. Stephen and Jim took one look at me and both agreed I would have to hike out. I felt OK to paddle but I trusted their judgment since they could see the wound and I couldn't. It was approximately 2 inches long, gaping open about 1/2 inch, and very deep. Jim discovered a new (within the past year or so) logging trail that's about 25 yards from river right behind the rhododendron thickets and is not visible from the river. Apparently the logging trail goes to the mouth of the river on the Tygart Gorge. We hiked up this trail (away from the confluence) for approximately a mile or so. It was quite a long uphill hike out and Stephen and Jim took turns carrying my boat. (They left their boats near the river.)

Finally we came upon a house, and were greeted by a wall of approximately 10 barking dogs. We were worried for a moment, but the owner (Brett Strickland) came out and turned out to be really nice. He gave us all a ride to Audra State Park where our car was parked. We then proceeded to United Hospital Center in Clarksburg. My doctor there was Jack Ditty, who is an experienced C-1 paddler and was familiar with that stretch of river. In addition to the obvious gaping cut in my face, the CT scan showed that I had broken 3 bones in my face (known as a tripod fracture.) He wasn't sure if I needed surgery, so they had Stephen drive me to Morgantown where they have facial trauma experts. There they also did a CT scan of my neck which was feeling really stiff and achy. There was nothing broken in my neck, and they didn't recommend surgery on the facial fracture.

So, they stitched me up and discharged me at around 1 am. There were a total of around 30 stitches - 9 were on the surface skin and the rest were underneath holding muscle together. I have prescription antibiotics and percocet, and am supposed to make an appointment with my family doctor on Thursday to get the stitches removed. I'm not allowed to get sunlight on the scar for a year (if I do, the scar will be much more noticeable). I'm in a lot of pain and look awful, but it could have been a lot worse. Luckily I didn't get knocked unconscious by the hit. Luckily there was a logging road, and luckily we came upon a house where the owner was willing to drive us to our car. Soon I will be purchasing a full face helmet!

Stephen Smith