Accident Database

Report ID# 3457

  • Swim into Strainer
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Obituary: Donald Bartlett Smith

Ross lawyer who loved the outdoors

died while kayaking

Sept. 6, 1966-April 21, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

By Pohla Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Donald Bartlett Smith wasn't practicing law, he was kayaking, splitting his time between a new home in the Davis, W.Va., area near the North Fork of the Blackwater River and an apartment near his office in Ross. "He'd become focused on his law practice and kayaking whenever he could fit it in," David Smith, of Purcellville, Va., said of his older brother, who had a passion for the outdoors.

The rapids of the North Fork, rated Class 5, or most difficult to paddle, were Donald Smith's favorite, his brother said. An expert at the sport -- he was so good he could shoot rapids "striding," or standing in a kayak -- he loved the challenge, as well as the natural beauty of the area. On Thursday, the North Fork took his life.

It appeared the skirt of his kayak got caught on a branch or part of a tree under the water and flipped him upside down, according to Senior Trooper Jake Kopec of the West Virginia State Police.

"The stretch he was in he had done hundreds of times," his brother said.

Mr. Smith was reported missing Friday, and his body was found that day. An autopsy was under way Sunday, Trooper Kopec said, but apparent cause of death was drowning. He was 44.

"There was no question he was doing exactly what he loved," his brother said. "The shame of it was he had probably the best year of his life. It was probably the happiest he'd been with his law practice and having his place by the river."

Donald Smith, who was raised in Franklin Park, was known to other kayakers from as far west as California and Colorado, where he went to paddle each year during "spring melt." His passion for kayaking even took him to Ecuador.

"By Friday evening, there were tens of messages" on the Internet from kayaking buddies, his brother said. "He was often the person who was showing other people down, whether it was their first time or hundredth time," said fellow kayaker Curtis Heishman, who also lives in the Davis, W.Va., area. "He enjoyed being the person to lead the way." Among those he introduced to the sport were his six brothers.

Kyle Wingler, of Alexandria, Ohio, another kayaker friend, remembered how after Mr. Smith broke his leg kayaking in Colorado one spring, he came home and after a brief respite resumed his passion.

"He would hobble down in his cast and run a Class 5 with a broken leg," said Mr. Wingler.

"He was an incredible kayaker, one of the top creek boaters in northern West Virginia, and that's saying a lot."

Mr. Heishman's favorite memory of his late friend was a cold and snowy Christmas Eve they spent together on the North Fork two or three years ago. "It was a particularly magical day for both of us," Mr. Heishman said. "He'd been under a lot of stress and showed up looking to escape a lot of those stresses. The two of us did two runs in the snow with ice cliffs on the banks."

Mr. Smith had a general law practice, but a big part of it was devoted to property rights cases. He got interested in property law working with his father, William Claney Smith, of Franklin Park, an attorney-turned-real estate businessman who had handled similar cases.

Mr. Smith majored in philosophy as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and then got a master's degree in the same subject at Duquesne University. He then graduated from Duquesne's School of Law.He also was active in sports growing up, swimming and playing hockey for North Allegheny High School.

In college and during his early 20s, he focused on fishing, his brother said. He caught what was at the time the second-largest Northern pike in Pennsylvania and also landed a 32-pound, 48-inch muskie in Ontario, Canada.

He also became interested in archery and got his brothers involved in that sport as well before turning his focus to kayaking. For many years, he also had a pet fox.

"He was a focused and intense person, whether in his real work or pursuing kayaking," his brother said. "The fact he did this incredibly challenging kind of risky kayaking ... pretty much sizes him up."

In addition to his brother David and his father, Mr. Smith is survived by his mother, Nancy, and five other brothers: Mark of Observatory Hill; Douglas of Shaler; Timothy and William, both of Naples, Fla.; and James of Boston. Donations may be made in Mr. Smith's name to Thomas Fire Department, Thomas, W.Va., or Tucker County, W.Va., Search and Rescue.

Pohla Smith: or 412-263-1228.



 Pinned on a log strainer while paddling alone.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Davis man died Friday while kayaking on the Blackwater River, authorities said. Donald Smith, 45, was kayaking with friends on the black fork of the river in Tucker County, said Hoy Murphy, public information officer for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. The friends were in individual kayaks, Murphy said. When Smith did not return, his friends went looking for him at about 5:30 p.m. and found him pinned in the water. He was dead at the scene. DNR law enforcement officers are investigating.

Forum: BoaterTalk

Date: Apr 22 2011

From: Clipper Clipper

Yesterday our dear friend Donald Smith drowned on a solo kayak run on the North Fork of the Blackwater. Not much is known at the time but, his life jacket was found at the confluence and shortly after his body was promptly found and recovered this afternoon. He will be missed dearly. Information regarding funeral dates will be posted when they become available. Rest in peace my good friend. The log he was trapped on is still there. Don't run Rainbow Room. 

Don Smith did a Solo run on the North Fork of the Blackwater on Thursday evening. He didn't show up to meet some friends on Friday, and his car was located in Douglas at the put-in for the run. His PFD was also found at the confluence of the North Fork and the Main Blackwater. Two boaters put on the North Fork and found him just below Rainbow Room, entrapped on a log. They got some help, and a larger group of boaters went in and were able to get his body off the log and out of the canyon. They said he was trapped underwater on the log, a branch was through his skirt, and his boat was nearby, and stuck, but he was not in it. The log is still there, they plan to remove it today. It is apparently below the surface, in very aerated water in the runout of the rapid. 


Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!