Man drowns in Snake
By Tram Whitehurst
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
July 9, 2011 A 77-year-old man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, died Thursday after he was thrown from a commercial raft in the Snake River canyon south of Jackson and swept downriver for nearly half a mile. Jim Sawyer was on a float trip operated by Jackson Hole Whitewater when he and 13 other passengers fell from the overturned raft shortly after 4 p.m. near Lunch Counter rapid, said Capt. John Stetzenbach of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. All other passengers — including members of Sawyer’s family — reached shore safely.
Sawyer, who was wearing a life jacket, continued downriver until he was pulled out by emergency responders near Champagne rapid, said Mary Cernicek, public affairs manager for Bridger-Teton National Forest. He was later pronounced dead at Star Valley Medical Center in Afton. The cause of death was drowning, Lincoln County Coroner Michael Richins said.
David Tibbitts, owner of Jackson Hole Whitewater, said he has been “totally devastated” by the loss of the company’s first passenger in 30 years of business. He called what happened Thursday a “freak accident.” “What we’ve done in the past 30 years is what we did yesterday,” Tibbitts said. “It’s just crazy, but there’s always an element of risk.” The raft was piloted by a veteran oarsman with 29 years of experience. The oarsman is “one of the most respected, knowledgeable and skilled river guides around,” he said.
Although the river has been running high and fast — it was at 23,500 cubic feet per second at the canyon gauging station at the time of the accident — this is the first death on the river this year, Cernicek said. It’s also the first death on a commercial raft trip since 2004, and the fourth in the more than 40 years of guided service on the river, she said. Officials are warning people to take care on the water, which is at a level five times normal highs in places. Rafters also should ensure they’re healthy enough for the activity, officials said. “Rafting is an enjoyable activity, but not without risk,” Cernicek said. “People need to be physically prepared for such an arduous activity.”
Lincoln County Emergency Services received a call about the accident at 4:20 p.m. Thursday. A collection of agencies responded, including the Star Valley Search and Rescue Swift Water Rescue Quick Response Team, Lincoln County Search and Rescue, Bridger-Teton River Rangers, Alpine Fire Department and EMS, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and other rafts already on the water. Sawyer was pulled from the water near Champagne rapid. Emergency responders immediately started CPR, which they continued for about 40 minutes throughout the rescue operation, Cernicek said. The river rangers also connected a defibrillator to Sawyer.
As that was happening, a unit from the Swift Water Rescue Quick Response Team out of Alpine launched a 22-foot river jet rescue boat from Sheep Gulch, a main boat launch, and powered upriver to Champagne, said Capt. Dusty Skinner of Star Valley Search and Rescue. By the time the rescue boat reached Sawyer, the raft from which he fell and all passengers had arrived in the area, Skinner said. The rescue boat took Sawyer downriver to Sheep Gulch. He was placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.