Todd Smith, 28, was a very experienced boater who had paddled the North Chickamauga Creek, Upper Gauley and Upper Little River Canyon in Alabama many times. He was on the Ocoee several days a week all through the last three summers. He paddled the Russell Fork and had been down Possum Creek twice before. He would look at a drop, discuss it, make up his mind, and either run or carry. Normally he was quiet about his choices
“On Sunday, December 1, 1999 seven of us, including Todd, set out to find water following the heavy rains the previous two days around Chattanooga. The other kayakers were Jon Lord, Jamie Casson, Eric Zitzow, Paul Shoun, Allen Raines and Jim Hampton. All were experienced with difficult creek paddling.
“When we checked the gauge at Possum Creek that Sunday the reading was 5 feet. Since our previous runs had been at the mid-3 feet zone, we decided that this was a dangerous level. We left to scout other runs, then returned two hours to recheck the gauge. The river had dropped a foot. Since our previous runs had been too shallow at the bottom, this level might be just right.
“We shuttled to the top. The big 30-foot waterfall was run with no problem. We ran a rapid we call Holy Cross with Todd having the cleanest line through. Next we came to the two 20-foot double falls. Jon ran a perfect line on both. Eric ran the top falls twice but walked the bottom one. The rest of us had no problem walking these drops, setting up safety for the runs on both falls along the route,
“Once past the major drops we flew down an easier section for several miles. The rapids were mostly Class II-III with a few IV’s. Since the two canoes had to pull over after most rapids to dump, we broke into two groups. I was the lone kayaker hanging back to watch the open boats.
“As my group approached an area that had a small drop that had caused me trouble on a previous run. I could see that efforts were being made by the first group to free what I assumed was probably a stuck boat, so we proceeded to eddy out just upstream. It never entered my mind that my great friend was in a life-threatening situation. The area of the drop has a nasty undercut on river left. We walked this rapid until a tree that had caused me trouble had washed out.
“Evidently the four kayakers had eddied out and one by one ran this squeeze. The creek here is forced into the right bank where several large tree limbs were overhanging the water. These limbs, along with sharp eddy lines, caused three of them to flip, but they all rolled up okay. A short pool then narrows into the 4-foot drop where I had been stuck against the tree previously. The creek goes from being 20-30 yards wide to about 5 to 6 feet, creating tremendous pressure against the undercut. Jamie rolled up and went through forward. Eric rolled up and went through backwards.
“Todd rolled up but his paddle, a lightweight graphite model, broke in half. Unable to steer or stroke for speed he was pushed into the undercut. His boat didn’t flip but was pressed up against the undercut rock. A log was under his cockpit and the force of the water bucked the deck of his creek boat onto his legs and wrapped it around the log. The bulkhead was lying on its side inside the boat.
“Despite quick action by his friends, Todd couldn’t be saved. Twice Jon got a hold on him by jumping in but the force of the water was too strong. They were using ropes, pulleys, carabiners and personal courage to free Todd before our arrival, and we continued to do so. We worked both banks to see if a different angle would give us an advantage. We then decided to send Jon down to call the rescue squad. Almost two hours had passed since Todd had been under so we all knew he had drowned. The shock of this loss was devastating.
Any fear that we had failed our friend in rescue were allayed by the fact that the rescue squads needed 30+ men and over 4 hours to extract him. Basically, the water dropped enough for them to get him out.
We thank the agencies that responded to our call to this remote area.
SOURCE: Paul Shoun, in the TVCC Newsletter
1. (Walbridge) The accident was unusual in that gear failure played a central role. A broken paddle, combined with a flip, left Smith helpless above a dangerous hazard. The paddle, a lightweight graphite model, was a replacement for one that he had broken previously. Graphite tends to shatter, and is probably not durable enough for creek boating. This incident reminds us that lightweight gear in general should be used with caution in difficult whitewater.
2.(Shoun): Should this rapid have been run in the first place? After running all the big drops upstream this “squeeze drop” didn’t seem too bad, especially since the tree had washed out. I’d rate it a Class III-IV.
3. (Zitzow) The mechanism of the accident was as follows: Todd’s stern tagged the tree, causing him to flip. He rolled, but his paddle was broken and he was pushed into the squeeze drop backwards. The drop was only 3 feet high, but was a left to right move with a bad undercut on the left. His boat jammed in the slot, then folded at the cockpit around a 6 inch diameter log that was jammed vertically in the chute. The boat pinned Todd in his boat facing upstream. He was completely submerged and not visible to rescuers.
4. (Zitzow): The wrap started in the cockpit area, between the sides of the seat and the start of the wall. The crushing of the cockpit held Todd’s legs in his boat, trapping him. The sides of the seat did not crush, but the front wall did. It stayed within its tabs, but bent into an “S” shape. On larger cockpit boats there is little internal support in this area, and we need to think about what can be done to strengthen it.
5. (Zitzow): This accident should cause everyone to pay more attention to the danger posed by small diameter logs. The one that pinned Todd’s boat was quite narrow, but could not be moved by a Z-drag. With some of the new moves like jumps and slides, I think some people have developed a cavalier attitude. We must remember how dangerous they really are.
The victim's name was Todd Smith, and the river was a steep creek, Little Possum Creek. The accident occurred on Dec. 1 '96. What I remember from a verbal report , and what was reported in the Chattanooga Times on Dec. 6. Seven guys started out, but then separated into 2 groups. Four kayakers were out in front, in the fateful group. They prepared for a 3 ft. chute over a 4 ft. drop. the first 2 did OK, the third flipped, rolled, & went over backwards, but made it. Smith was last, flipped, rolled, but broke his paddle. Also going backwards over the drop, his boat was pinned, upside-down, I think.
One of the paddlers reached Smith's boat twice, but could not free it. Reportedly, there was only 1 rope between the 3 initial rescuers, and the total of 6 remaining paddlers worked for an hour to rescue, but were not successful. Smith was married, no children. I think he was from Cleveland, TN, but the funeral was held in East Brainerd.
Source: Tennessee Valley Canoe Club