On Saturday, Apr 26 at approx. 1230est, Myself and a friend arrived at the Ohenry takeout with plans to make a quick tandem (Dynamic Duo) run and then run additional laps later. At the put-in we were met by Mike Huggins who very politely asked if he could, "impose on us by accompanying us down the river". There were no other boaters in the PVA. As I have done dozens of other times, I said sure. To allay any apprehension, Mike quickly advised me that he had paddled the river numerous times. I did inform him that we were in a tandem boat, it did not cause alarm. As I was coughing from a cold I developed the night before, Mike informed me that I must have the same thing he has. I replied that my issue were allergies. He replied "well mine is a little worse than that". I found out later that he has been suffering from bronchitis.
We put on and began to trade lines down the river. Mike chose to stay behind us most of the time because of the speed of the tandem boat. In fact, he was behind us until we reached the entrance to Bear Creek falls. We all ran nearly the same lines in the entrance and the center slot move of the fall proper. Mike was waiting for us in the river right eddy immediately below the falls. After approx. 10 seconds of eddy time, Mike informed me that he was going to run the right side of the river because quoting "I find the left side to be problematic". I informed him that my tandem partner had never ran the right side either so that was also our choice for this lap. Almost immediately, Mike peeled out and drove his boat towards the river left side (towards west prong rapid). I assumed he would go around the sieve rock (above the entrance to the left line) working back to river right, missing ledge 1 and continuing down ledge 2 and 3 on the river right side. This is the last time I saw Mike in his boat. I began to explain the rapid to my tandem partner and we turned to enter the rapid.
We entered the first ledge from the right side of the river. A scrapy 3' shoulder boof that almost lines your boat up with the hole of the first ledge. A couple of strokes and you are out and ready for the second ledge. After we went through the second ledge, We eddied out on the left side of the river right line. This eddy is next to the island that splits the west prong line from the right line and is just above the 3rd ledge. I expected to see Mike as we entered the first ledge and am still not sure how he beat us to that point in the river. As we sat in the eddy and made our turn to run the 3rd ledge on the left, a kayaker walking up the road began yelling at us. I could not hear what he was saying but after two or three times, we understood him to say "there is a yellow boat in that hole". We ran the left side and the boat broke free from the hole and begin to float downstream. Based on how low the boat seemed in the water, I initially thought that Mike was unconscious in the boat and communicated this to the front paddler. We gave chase but were unable to coral the boat until at least 100 yards downstream only to loose it again because we nearly broached in the trees. We did realize at some point the boat was empty but it continued downstream on the river left. It lodged in some brush approx. 200 yards or so below that third ledge.
We eddied out below the boat, I exited to grab it. Shortly thereafter (1-2 minutes) the paddle floated next to the boat. At this point, other boaters came down and I asked them if they saw a swimmer on the shore. More and more boaters continued down stream each not seeing anybody in distress. I informed them that a kayaker was missing. With the assistance of Dennis Huntley, we secured the boat and paddle. We re-launched and paddled to the river right bank to begin a shore search. I'm guessing that 7-10 minutes has passed at this point. We secured the Duo on the river right bank and began our search upstream. From the roadside up, We saw no evidence of a kayaker either in the water or on the shore. I sent my tandem passenger to Ohenrys parking lot to get my car that had my boat. This would at least allow me to search the water in something a bit more maneuverable. I also wanted to make sure that (though highly unlikely) Mike had not hitched a ride and returned to the parking lot to retrieve his car without letting us know. After several sweeps up and down the river, I hitched a ride with another boater downstream to the takeout. I knew there was a trail up river left that leads to Tapoco lodge and was hoping that by some long shot that he ended up hiking on the trail but was in the woods out of our eyesight.
At this point, approximately 30 minutes had passed. When I arrived at the parking lot I blew my whistle and rallied a few kayakers who returned with me to assist in the search. By this time, my tandem partner had returned with my car and boat. I put in and ran the route that I think Mike took, I saw nothing. I eddied out, exited the boat and began foot searching the islands. Other boaters where helping by looking on the river right bank. At approximately 4pm (1 hour after the incident began) a group of approximately 5 kayakers found Mike on the river right bank approximately 25 yards above the location where his boat had drifted on the opposite side. They worked to retrieve Mike and I went to my car to call 911. I drove to Tapoco lodge and instructed their staff to call 911. When I returned, CPR was being performed by kayakers and bystanders. They took turns providing CPR until EMS arrived.
Unfortunately, I did not see what happened and still do not understand how it happened so fast. Like so many times on so many rivers we split apart and run our favorite lines reuniting at the bottom of the rapids. This is what we expected on Saturday. Mike had paddled without incident up to this point. He had complained about his boat outfitting and also about a bout with bronchitis.
After running the route that he most likely took, I can only assume that he somehow he ended up in the hole in the 3rd ledge on the river right side. After looking at it more closely on Sunday, the middle to right could be problematic for a boater. Most people run down the left side. There are also multiple offset holes below these ledges that could have certainly caused issues with a distressed boater. Mikes sprayskirt was caught in trees on the river right bank. It is unlikely that he drowned in that final location because it was on bank and there would have been plenty of objects to grab or just stand up.
Many thanks to all those that assisted.
Accident Report: 4-26-14
Location: Cheoah River, NC Site: Below Bear Creek Falls Slide
Flow: Normal Saturday Release
By Todd Vanderhoof, Atlanta Whitewater Club Facebook Page
I was leading a medium sized group of boaters (6-8) below Bear Creek falls when we heard that a boater was missing. At that point the information we got was that the missing boater was in a group of three below Bear Creek Falls. Two of the group members decided to run the West Prong line (river left) and the missing boater decided to run river right known as the slide. We received this information after running thru this area without seeing anyone. His group expressed that there were people going up river on shore to look for the missing boater. Knowing that Cheoah swims can be very long we spread out and searched the river from there to the take out.
Shortly after arriving at the take out the missing boaters group showed up and called a meeting relating to everyone that the boater was still missing and where he was last seen. I was in the process of taking a group back to the put in for the lower section. On the way up we saw multiple people on the banks looking and Will discussed that there was a nasty hole on river right below the slide that had caused a near miss some years back. They agreed to search on the river in boats and I decided to go to the spot we discussed. Upon going down to river level on foot and not seeing anything I watched Will, Martin,and Joe paddle downstream. I checked a few more spots and then climbed back up the hill. A few minutes later I saw people running and saying that they had found him down river from my location.
When I arrived on scene Martin and Will were in the water about 3-5 feet off shore trying to unpin a face down boater with no success at that and were calling for a rope. As they were reaching for a rope a saw a log going into the water a few feet upstream of the boater. I was able to lift the tree and when I did the boater came out of the water and reveled that the sprayskirt was stuck on the log. So I shook the log hard and the guys pulled and freed the boater.
We got him onshore and I cut off his vest and helmet and immediately started CPR. Knowing a time frame of being under for close to 45-60 minutes, medically it wasn't looking good. We continued CPR with multiple participants to allow for rest and nonstop compressions for over twenty minutes before the paramedics showed up and we relinquished responsibility to them. Our assessment is that he swam somewhere near the slide and was either knocked unconscious or while in the process of swimming to the river right bank was sweep into the pour over. The main reason for this assessment versus the log causing it was the ease at which the skirt dislodged from the log itself. Again this is our assessment but we may never know what exactly happened due to the fact that there was no eye witness.
Thanks should go out to Martin, Will, and Joe for there diligence and persistence in looking and finding the boater. As well as the other boaters who helped continue CPR until the paramedics arrived.
Michael Lee Huggins, 64, of Hickory, died on Saturday, April 26, 2014 while doing what he loved most, kayaking on the Cheoah River in Western NC. Michael graduated from Oklahoma State University, College of Veterinary Medicine in 1977. He was a retired practicing veterinarian and was currently employed with by the U.S.D.A. He also loved the outdoors and music.