This is my account of Alan's death last week. We were a highly experienced group who had multiple runs of the creek at comprable water levels. We were carrying 2 pin kits, 3 first aid kits, 3 breakdown paddles and 4 ropes. This tragedy is a grim reminder that in real class 5 there is often nothing that can be done in a heads down situation.
On Wednesday, September 19 Alan Panebaker, Adam Herzog (the narrator) and Toby Bucsescu met in Lincoln for a run on the Upper Pemigewasset River near Lincoln, NH. A couple of inches of rain had fallen the night before and the level was medium-high (probably 6 inches on the bridge abutment near the takeout). The river was on its way down and probably peaked in the early morning hours. On the shuttle ride we discussed the need for frequent scouting due to high winds and possible new wood. It was the first time back in the water since the death of our friend Jeff West. He died a week and a half earlier while paddling, so we were feeling cautious.
Arriving at North Pole, the most commonly portaged rapid on the Pemi, Toby immediately portaged and set safety while Alan and I ran the drop cleanly. North Pole is generally considered the most dangerous rapid on the river. The other big rapid is Wham Bam aka Sentinel Pine. Wham Bam is a three stage rapid in a deep, sculpted bedrock bowl. The first ledge is a six foot vertical drop in a boat-wide slot. The outflow of the slot drops into the second feature, a narrow ledge hole. Below the ledge hole is an eddy, but there is no stopping between drops one and two. After the eddy is the third drop, a straightforward five to ten foot ledge. The first part of the rapid was a mandatory portage for years due to an obvious sieve to the left of the slot. A year or so ago, the rock collapsed on itself and seemed to fill the sieve in. Paddlers have been running the slot regularly without incident since then. This was the site of Alan’s death.
We scouted from river left. Toby went up and around the first drop to check for wood. The bottom of the slot was clean, but there was obvious wood broached against the former sieve boulder near the line. Toby mentioned the wood and the fact that it complicated the line but looked easy to get by. We decided the safest way to run was tight because it is difficult if not impossible to set ropes in the bowl. I went first and flipped at the bottom of the slot but ran cleanly through the second one. Toby came through seconds later. I paddled out into a boily eddy to keep eyes on Alan. It was difficult to see him but he seemed to be hung up sideways in the wood against the rock.
I yelled to Toby that Alan was stopped. He immediately got out of his boat and began clambering up the slick wall on river right. I paddled downstream to river left below the whole series and ran back to the top. Alan’s boat floated by but it was empty. Toby was already at the sieve when I arrived. He was probably there within two minutes and it took me a few minutes longer. Alan was nowhere to be seen.
A tourist on the footbridge above us called 911. We figured he was underwater, caught up in the log/sieve. We threw ropes in, hoping that he had an air pocket. At one point Toby got downstream of the rock and it was clear that there was a lot of flow going through it, but still no sign of Alan. We continued throwing ropes. Mine was tangled in the log so we pulled on it to shift the log around. Nothing moved.
After about twenty minutes of effort I left Toby and ran downstream in case he had flushed through the rapid out of site. I spoke to the tourist. They saw Alan broached sideways, then vertical. It’s unclear whether the bow or stern was up. The boat went around the sieve and over the 6 foot slot drop. Alan went into the sieve. They saw his sprayskirt, shoe and some other miscellaneous gear float out. I bushwhacked for 10 minutes and found the boat. It was perched on a sandbar in the middle of the river. I figured if he had come through he would probably stop where the boat stopped. I found a shoe.
Arriving back at the scene, I met up with rescue personnel. They had lifejackets, helmets and heavy duty ropes. With more manpower we were able to move the log around a bit. Roughly an hour and a half to two hours after Alan’s submersion he floated up below the sieve, in the main flow. He went through the series of drops and ended up in the big eddy at the bottom of the third ledge. I paddled Toby’s boat up to Alan and clipped into his lifejacket. I towed him ashore and helped the rescue crew extract Alan’s body with a Stokes basket.
“Paddling difficult whitewater is about being alive. It is the most pure and true experience that I have ever known, and it has brought me more joy, pain, and satisfaction than anything else. So while it may be a little fringe to be out there running the hardest whitewater you think you are up to, it isn’t crazy. It’s life. And while we all need to be cognizant of the dangers and take care of each other on the river, we can’t live our lives in fear.” — Alan Panebaker, ‘Keeping On‘