Deschutes River rafting accident victims identified
Deputies ID women who died in, survived rapids plunge
By Renee Nelson, Barney Lerten and Kim Tobin
Deschutes County sheriff’s deputies on Tuesday identified two Portland women whose inflatable raft went through the violent Lava Island Falls rapids on the Deschutes River Sunday evening, one of whom did not survive and other who was rescued. Angela Chase, 48, was found and rescued by Bend fire personnel while clinging to the bank on the east side of the river, said Sgt. Bryan Husband. But the second rafter, Sharie Smith, 50, apparently drowned and was found dead in the water below the falls, upstream from Meadow Camp day-use area, Husband said.
Both were wearing life jackets, authorities added. Husband said it’s not yet known whether intoxicants were a factor in the rafting accident, but the investigation is continuing, with toxicology results pending. The official cause of death would come when a death certificate is issued, he added. What no doubt started as a pleasant float down the Deschutes on a hot August afternoon quickly turned tragic for the women visiting Bend. The tragedy is the latest reminder of how dangerous the Deschutes River can be.
River raft guides told us Monday they are used to seeing groups misjudge the river's course and strength. "I've caught people here putting in -- and this is a takeout -- and they had their whole family and their dog and cooler, and they thought they could drop in here and float into town -- and that's not the case," said Ryan Majeski of Sun Country Tours. Visitors from outside of Central Oregon flock to the river during the hot summer months, not knowing how quickly it can turn from gentle and meandering to experts-only rapids.
There are warning signs, as well as hazard signs informing people of where the takeout is before Lava Island Falls and the hazards that are ahead. However, the signs are close to where the falls actually occur, and raft guides warn this is a fast-moving current, leaving one to wonder if the signs can be seen soon enough. "When you come into Big Edy (rapids), it's calm and mellow," said Majeski. "And then it's a Class III -- and there are no signs about that."
Raft guides say the best course for novices is to go with a guide -- and if you're planning to go it alone, know the river's course. A Forest Service official said that public safety on the water is an ongoing discussion. However, there is no word yet on whether additional warning signs will be posted after the latest -- and by no means only - river tragedy. At least 11 people have drowned in the Deschutes River since 2005.
The first call came around 6 p.m. Sunday of the incident on the stretch of river southwest of Bend labeled as Class 5 -- labeled "extremely difficult" to navigate, under the International Scale of River Difficulty -- that only "very experienced kayakers" can safely navigate,, said sheriff's Sgt. Vance Lawrence. The two women put their 3-person rubber raft in the water below Big Eddy, but missed the takeout point and went down the falls and rapids, Lawrence said. Both women were wearing life jackets and were tossed into the water, the sergeant said. One woman made it mostly through the falls and ended up on the bank, on the Deschutes River Woods (east) side of the river, Lawrence said. "The other did not survive the rapids," he said. "We found her at the bottom" of the rapids, upstream from the Meadow Camp day-use area off Century Drive, located on the west side of the river. "It's a treacherous piece of water," Lawrence said.
Sheriff's Capt. Tim Edwards said a U.S. Forest Service crew found the woman's body in the water. "This is a very treacherous piece of water that only expert kayakers will do -- and I've never seen them do it," Edwards said. "It's an un-runnable stretch of water. And I think they got caught up in the current and were not able to pull to shore in time, and were taken over the falls."
The rescue effort turned to a tragic recovery instead as an intense thunderstorm moved through the area with a drenching downpour and heavy hail that left welts on some of the people involved, including Lawrence. The sergeant said sheriff's Search and Rescue crews, including swift-water divers, were on their way and preparing for a very tricky rescue when the two women were found, and one already had died.