Accident Database

Report ID# 3319

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • High Water

Accident Description

Heavy rains caused the Middle fork of the salmon to rise at an unprecedented rate catching many boaters unprepared for the conditions. some good coverage and summary from the Challis Messenger here:

Rafter dies on Middle Fork of Salmon River - River rises two feet in one day


A boater from Ennis, Montana died June 4 after his raft flipped in a rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, throwing him and his two passengers into the cold, rushing water. Michael Fitzpatrick, 59, was rowing the raft and his two passengers were paddling, when floodwaters flipped the raft mid-afternoon in or near Hancock Rapid, about four miles above the confluence of the Middle Fork with the Main Salmon River, said Lemhi County Sheriff Sam Slavin. Fitzpatrick's unofficial cause of death is listed as accidental drowning, Slavin told The Challis Messenger, but a medical condition, shock or hypothermia may have contributed to his death and Lemhi County Coroner Mike Mitchell has ordered an autopsy to find out.

Fitzpatrick was unresponsive when the two paddlers asked him for advice as the raft entered the rapid, Slavin said. Other boaters were able to throw rescue ropes to the paddlers and pull them into other rafts, but Fitzpatrick did not respond as they tried to throw him a rope. When the other boaters retrieved Fitzpatrick downstream, they took him to shore and administered CPR for about 45 minutes, but were unsuccessful. After they came out of the Middle Fork canyon, group members flagged down a Forest Service employee along the Main Salmon River, who called 911 on a satellite telephone, Slavin said. Ten of the 15-member party were from Montana, four from Illinois and one from Wyoming, Slavin said. Fitzpatrick's wife was not on the trip and was notified of his death.

"It's very sad," said Main Salmon River Manager Linda "Rab" Walton, adding this was the first, and hopefully last, fatality of the season. The Forest Service doesn't advise boaters whether or not to float the Middle Fork or the Main Salmon rivers, but offers information so boaters can make an informed decision, Middle Fork Ranger Chris Grove said. Walton said most boaters are canceling or putting trips on hold. Two parties launched from Corn Creek onto the Main Salmon on Monday, but no parties launched Tuesday. Most are either flying out from airstrips along the way or camping out and waiting for the floodwaters to recede.

The Main Salmon is holding steady at between nine and 10 feet or 35,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Anything above 6.5 feet is considered extreme, she said. More rafts flip Three more rafts from another private party flipped on the lower Middle Fork on Saturday, June 5, as floodwaters crested above 8.5 feet, Slavin said. All 13 boaters from Colorado survived with minor injuries, but floodwaters carried two of the boats down the Middle Fork and onto the Main Salmon River past the Corn Creek boat ramp. The missing rafts have not yet been recovered, Slavin said. One oarsman was treated for a deep cut to the palm of his hand at Steele Memorial Hospital.

The second party got into trouble around Redside Rapid. One Colorado rafter was trying to turn the first capsized and damaged raft back over when his own boat capsized, Walton said. His life vest got caught up in an oarlock and he was trapped under the boat, trying to free himself. He had to take his life preserver off to get free. He floated down over 10 miles, through the rest of the Middle Fork's Impassable Canyon, to the confluence with the Main Salmon in his dry suit, which was buoyant enough for him to keep his head above water. "They just had a wild ride," Walton said.

The Forest Service is getting lots of calls from people trying to locate boaters, she said. The agency believes all are accounted for, despite rumors of other fatalities. Boaters are warned not to float the river under dangerous floodwater conditions, Slavin said, but the decision is up to the individual parties and neither the sheriff nor the Forest Service can prevent people from launching. Dangerous conditions A combination of heavy rain and melting snow combined to make river levels dangerous, Walton said. "Nobody saw this coming," she said, not even the agency's hydrologists.

The Middle Fork was flowing at 6.28 feet (8,580 cfs) on Friday, the day Fitzpatrick died, and crested at 8.68 feet (16,400 cfs) on June 5, said Donna Leuzinger, river clerk at the Middle Fork Ranger District office. The river had been flowing at 3.86 feet or 3,240 cfs when Fitzpatrick's group launched on May 30, she said. "Two feet in one day is outrageous," Leuzinger told The Challis Messenger. "I don't remember anything like this. I've seen a foot in one day, but not two feet." Leuzinger has worked for the Forest Service since 1991 and at the Middle Fork office since 1994. She checked historical river readings, but was unable to find another year where the water level rose two feet in one day. The Forest Service warns boaters that any Middle Fork water level over five feet, measured on a gauge at Middle Fork Lodge, is hazardous ?? over six feet is extremely hazardous and over seven feet is "beyond extremely hazardous," Leuzinger said.

The agency's Middle Fork river patrol crew launched Thursday, June 3, when the river was flowing at 5.86 feet, but stopped Friday afternoon at Indian Creek to wait out the dangerous conditions. They waited until Monday for the river to drop, then decided to fly back to Challis. The crew was planning to reassess conditions on Wednesday, then decide if they could safely launch kayaks at Boundary Creek on Thursday to float down to Indian Creek, recover their raft, and continue on down the river, said Leuzinger. Middle Fork River Manager John Haugh had told the crew to stop if they didn't feel safe running the Middle Fork at flood stage. Other boaters are canceling their trips, flying out from Middle Fork airstrips or avoiding the upper section of the river, said Leuzinger. Two commercial outfitters are flying clients in to Indian Creek for safety reasons because they're worried about the technical section from Boundary Creek to Indian Creek. On the other hand, some kayakers and other extreme boaters often wait for high water conditions and pick up permit cancellations when others decide not to brave the danger.

All boaters must make their own judgment call on whether or not to launch or continue their trips. The Forest Service has not closed the Middle Fork due to high flows, but has closed rivers temporarily for public safety reasons in the past, such as during intense wildfires or when a huge logjam completely blocked the Middle Fork at the base of Pistol Creek Rapid on July 24, 2006.

Boaters with Middle Fork permits can check current and past conditions at the following U.S. Geological Survey website: http://waterdata.usgs. gov/id/nwis/uv?site_no= 13309220. Data from other rivers can be found on the USGS website, which also has a link to the National Weather Service Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service website, to help boaters decide if water levels will be safe by the time they plan to launch.

06-04-10 BOISE, ID

Montana man drowns on Idaho rafting trip

The Lemhi Co. Sheriff says a 59-y/o Montana man drowned Fri. (06-04) while rafting along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Sheriff Sam Slavin says Michael Fitzpatrick was floating the river with a private group when his rubber raft flipped over. Fitzpatrick is from Ennis, Montana. The accident occurred about 5 mi. from where the Middle Fork of the Salmon River connects to the main Salmon River. Fitzpatrick's death is being ruled an accidental drowning, but an autopsy will be conducted to determine if he had a medical issue prior to falling into the river. Slavin says the river was flowing very high and fast on the day of the accident. When they set out on May 31, it was flowing much lower and slower. Another group that set out on the same stretch of river Sat. (06-05) had a rough trip. Three boats flipped; everyone got out safely but there were some minor injuries. Two of the boats were not recovered.

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