KAYAKER DIES ON THE RUSSELL FORK
Russell Fork River near Bartlick, VA: April 23, 1995
Gradient 180 fpm; Volume 415 cfs; Classification V
SUMMARY: On 23 April, 1995 Michael Munn, a local paddler from Dickenson County, Virginia, was killed in an accident in Fist Rapid on the Russell Fork River in Western Virginia.
DESCRIPTION: The Russell Fork River is no stranger to tragedy. There have been several fatalities and numerous narrow escapes over the past five years. Many paddlers run it during the popular fall releases, but after winter, spring, and summer rains the river can be caught at lower, less demanding flows. From 125 to 300 cfs the river is technical, but not powerful. From 300-500 cfs picks up some of the pushy characteristics encountered at release. At over 500 cfs it is suitable for experts only. The four paddlers on the trip had been down the river many times, and it was running at 415 cfs the day of the accident.
The early part of the trip went well, with the group warming up on the easier rapids which lead into the gorge. Tower Rapid was run without incident. The next rapid, Fist, has a low water line which involves catching an eddy just above an undercut. The risk of this move increases as the river rises, and at release levels almost no one catches the eddy. The first boater ran straight through, angling right and hitting the undercut with his stern and flipping. The second boater ran the low water route, catching the eddy. Munn. 39, took a good line, but a sudden change of direction sent him into the undercut. He lost his paddle, flipped, and disappeared. The last boater caught an eddy and joined in the rescue effort.
Working frantically with ropes, the group performed a series of drags under the rock without success. Next, they entered the undercut from the bank side and felt around the rock. The boat was found first. After continued efforts they were able to bring him out about fifteen minutes from when he disappeared. He was brought to the bank, where the group started CPR and sent for help. Two men performed CPR while a third ran two rapids solo, then ran back along the tracks through the tunnel. There, at the Garden Hole put-in, he encountered Breaks Interstate Park employees working who radioed for help.
Rescue squad members had to be ferried across the Garden hole in a john boat to reach the tracks. They arrived two hours after the accident. CPR was still being performed, and continued for some time before a decision was made to transport.
SOURCE: Rick Puckett
ANALYSIS: Mike was an expert kayaker who knew the risks involved with the sport. His ability was certainly up to the challenges of the gorge. The group was safety conscious, and their rescue efforts were beyond reproach. The Russell Fork Gorge is difficult and dangerous. Even with the most stringent precautions and the best equipment we can never be sure that accidents won't happen, and that another fatality won't occur.