3 safe after rafting mishap
Three local fishermen made it to shore safely after their raft capsized on the South Fork of the Smith River Monday. Not without the help of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, however.
Clayton Horn, Jim Rogers and an unidentified friend were floating the South Fork while fishing for steelhead, when their raft flipped going over South Fork Falls. “I’ve floated this section 15 to 20 times before,” Horn said. “I run it all the time, this time we were just a bit off line.”
A bystander who saw the raft flip said that as it went over the falls, “it rolled over the first hump and then stood up on end for the second one.” "After it flipped two guys popped up and climbed onto the upside down raft while the other guy went floating down river,” said the bystander, who declined to give his name.
By the time Del Norte Search and Rescue workers arrived at the Craigs Creek pull-out off South Fork road, all three men were out of the water. Rogers, however, was on the far side of the river. Witnesses said he ended up there because he swam after the raft, which had been caught in an eddy.
Rogers managed to grab the raft’s lead rope and tie it to a tree, where it remained after the rescue operation.
As Rogers waited across the river without shoes, rescue workers pondered how to get him back across the fast-flowing 45-degree water.
“I can swim across,” said National Park Service Ranger Paul Tibbetts as he stood at the ready in his wetsuit. “But I won’t be able to swim him back across.”
Rescuers started to worry when Rogers began to get antsy, showing signs of trying to swim back across himself.
“It gets real dangerous just past this spot,” said Tibbetts, pointing to where the green water disappeared over a rock shelf in plunging white water. “It would be bad if he goes over that.”
Officials were worried that a rescue attempt could go wrong and send both rescuers and Rogers into the narrow and treacherous gorge just below the Craigs Creek river access. So they called in a Coast Guard helicopter.
As the helicopter could be heard in the distance, Rogers began climbing the rock walls to try to get up river, in what appeared to be an attempt to get far enough above the rapids that he could swim across safely.
Rescue workers began yelling that he should stay where he was.
In response, Rogers pointed at the helicopter and said, “no helicopter, either a boat or I’m swimming it.”
He did not appear to be joking, and even started indicating to rescuers on the opposite bank where he planned on jumping in and trying to swim across.
“If you jump in the water you go to jail,” one ranger yelled in an attempt to change Rogers’ mind. That may have worked, because he stopped preparing to cross.
“It’s a good thing all those guys were wearing BFDs (body floatation devices),” said Del Norte County sheriff’s Deputy Frank Villarreal. “If he does end up going downriver it will be easier to keep track of him.”
In the end, officials convinced Rogers to let the helicopter lower a rescue swimmer, and as the helicopter rotors sprayed river water, Rogers was lifted from the bank and deposited on the safe side of the river.
“This is solid,” Horn said, looking at the more than 20 rescue workers who had assembled by then. “I’m embarrassed at the turnout, but this just shows how we do it around here.”