Accident Database

Report ID# 3629

  • Pinned in Boat against Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

Jenna Watson - June 16, 2012

Washington's Little White Salmon is one of the most challenging regularly run rivers on the West Coast, 3.5 miles of stunning continuous Class V whitewater. On June 16th Jenna Watson, 38, was making her first run with Chris Arnold, Alex Kilyk, Robert Bart, Roman Androsov, Nate Pfeifer and Stephen Cameron. She ran the first two miles without any problems, with solid lines on all the major drops except Island, which she portaged.

S-Turn is a two-tiered rapid that begins with a 12-foot waterfall followed by a three foot ledge. About 15 feet downstream of this second drop, some of the water goes into an undercut wall on river left. Jenna boofed the top ledge on river left well, then angled right (away from the wall) and boofed the final smaller drop. All was well. About 5 feet downstream of this (she had essentially run the entire rapid) she flipped on the central boil, which turned her boat and shot her left towards the wall. I saw what was about to happen and yelled out to Alex and Rob, who jumped out of their boats and ran up to where she ended up pinning. She tried one roll, but before she could do another, she was pushed into the undercut upside-down. Her pink helmet was initially visible through the clear water and we assumed she was trapped against a hidden log or against her deck by the force of the water – explaining why she didn't bail as soon as she realized she was stuck.

Another group of paddlers consisting of Jeff Robinson, J.D. Gaffney, Ryan Bradley, Dan Jursnick and Greg Mallory happened to be scouting S-Turn on the left and saw the accident unfold. Jeff, Ryan and Dan ran downstream to help Alex and Rob. Ropes were thrown from directly above and just upstream where Jenna was trapped; the hope being she would be able to grab a hold of one. It was an awkward and difficult place to attempt a rescue, as we couldn't see her even though we were only about 6 feet directly above her. After a minute or so, her kayak was spit out, but she wasn't in it. Then Ryan bravely volunteered to live-bait her out. He clipped in and dove into the undercut, swam back about 15 feet, and was pulled out with Jenna 30 seconds later. Jenna wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse. We estimate she had been underwater for about 4 minutes. She had a small cut just above her nose, but no obvious signs of other trauma.

Amazingly, someone in the group onshore had a satellite phone and called the sheriff's office within the first minute after pulling Jenna out. We had the impression a helicopter was going to be sent, but that was never confirmed. In any event, it never arrived. We performed CPR for two hours, hoping desperately for some benefit from hypothermia – or a miracle – before deciding it was time to stop and carry her body out of the canyon.

Although nervous (and who isn't on their first Little White run?), Jenna was paddling just fine; no one in the group had any doubts about her ability to competently do the run. She received good beta and followed it well. And right above S-Turn, Chris and I described the lines and hazards of the rapid and offered her the opportunity to scout, which she declined. Jenna ran the drop well, and angled away from the wall just like she should have. From my point of view, just to the right of her at the bottom of the drop, it appeared she was through the rapid, yet even so, she quickly shot into the undercut after flipping. It was just a small goof, but at a terrible time, with terrible consequences.


S-Turn is not a rapid where most groups set safety, and is actually considered one of the more straight forward rapids on the Little White. The undercut wall is a known hazard, but until now has only been the site of one swim that I am aware of and a couple of near misses. It's a relatively subtle undercut though, and most boaters are only peripherally focused on it as they run S-Turn.


Over the next couple of weeks I ran the Little White a few more times. Each time, from below S-Turn on, I felt sad that Jenna would never see the rest of this beautiful run, and that I would never see her relieved and happy face after finishing her first run on the Little White Salmon.

Stephen Cameron



Skamania County Undersheriff Dave Cox said the woman who died Saturday in a kayaking accident has been identified as Jennifer Watson, 38, of Portland. She was with a group of 10 kayakers and was reported to have never been on the Little White Salmon, but was an experienced kayaker

Kayaker who died Saturday was a Portland woman.

June 17, 2012 at 8:58

The Columbian (

Skamania County Undersheriff Dave Cox said the woman who died Saturday in a kayaking accident has been identified as Jennifer Watson, 38, of Portland. He said CPR was in progress when Watson died about three hours after her kayak overturned.

She was on the Little White Salmon River in the Columbia River Gorge when the accident happened about 3 p.m., Cox said. The river flows in to the Columbia via Drano Lake, east of Carson. “She was with a group of 10 kayakers and was reported to have never been on the Little White Salmon, but was an experienced kayaker,” Cox said. “It’s all white water there,” Cox said; a river rescue wasn’t possible because “it’s too rough of water.”

The Clark County Technical Rescue Team recovered the body by a high-angle rescue down the river’s steep bank, Cox said. “The Little White Salmon River is a very technical river for white-water enthusiasts,” Cox said. “This is a very unfortunate incident and our condolences go out to Watson’s friends and family.”. Also responding were the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office, Skamania County EMS, and Wind River Search and Rescue.


TUESDAY, JUNE 26, 2012


Washington's Little White Salmon is the most difficult regularly run river on the West Coast, yet it has only claimed two kayakers. The second, Jenna Watson, died on June 16. Here's the story.

By Nick Davidson

On Saturday, June 16, Portland, Oregon-based kayaker Jenna Watson drowned on the Little White Salmon, a tributary of Washington's Columbia River. Watson, 38, was an experienced kayaker, and this was her first trip down the Little White, a Class V river known worldwide for the quality of its challenging and dangerous whitewater.

“When you go in there you shouldn’t be questioning your skills at all. It’s rapid after rapid after rapid,” says Lane Jacobs, a Portland-based paddler who calls the Little White the most difficult regularly run river on the West Coast. The Little White was first kayaked in the early '90s, but saw few paddlers until the 2000s, when boat technology, paddler skills, and the river's reputation for clean, big whitewater began attracting top kayakers from around the globe. Today, as many as 10 boaters a day—20 on a busy weekend—run the river. Yet Watson is only the second kayaker to drown on the Little White. “It’s a serious, serious river. I’m kind of surprised there haven't been more deaths on it," says Jacobs.

Watson and the group of nine kayakers she was paddling with had negotiated the first two miles of Class V rapids—Gettin' Busy, Boulder Sluice, Island Drop—without incident. “She was having great lines," says Robert Bart, a Portland-based kayaker on the water with Watson that day. A second team of kayakers were setting safety on river left when Watson's group came upon S-Turn, a two-tiered rapid that begins with a 12-foot waterfall and flows into a recirculating hydraulic with an undercut wall (a cave) on the left. Watson was the fifth paddler to drop in. She boofed off the left side of the waterfall and paddled hard to punch through the recirculating hole that forms the crux of the second drop. When she hit the wall of water, she caught an edge, flipped, and was flushed into the cave.

“I was in an eddy six or seven feet from her, but I just couldn’t do anything,” says Stephen Cameron, an urgent care doctor in the area. He watched her pink helmet and the blue tip of her kayak vanish into the cave. She never resurfaced. As the seconds passed, the kayakers scrambled to shore and threw ropes for Watson to grab hold. A minute after she'd disappeared, her kayak surfaced beside the cave—she wasn't in it.

Ryan Bradley, a kayaker from Bellingham, Washington, watched the accident unfold from the bank. Seven years ago to the day, his brother had drowned on the Class V Clavey River near Yosemite National Park. Bradley, who had never met Watson, grabbed a rope and clipped it to his rescue harness. "Pull me out in 30 seconds," he told two kayakers who held the line. Then he dove in. Twenty seconds later, Bradley resurfaced with Watson, who was unconscious, in his arms. She'd been under for four minutes.

“After 20 minutes of CPR, I knew it was over,” says Cameron. But the group continued to administer CPR for the next two hours while waiting for a rescue helicopter that, through some miscommunication, never came. At 4:45 p.m., Cameron and the team made the call to hike Watson out of the canyon. Using life-jackets for padding, they strapped Watson's body to a kayak and carried her 800-feet up a scree slope to the road. Her baby-blue boat was left on the banks of the Little White, where in the days following the accident, paddlers placed flowers to commemorate Watson's life.

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