Accident Database

Report ID# 3925

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Accident Description

Denis Brown Accident Report

Incident Date: 4/12/15

Location Characteristics: White Salmon River, Farmlands Section, Below Triple Drop rapid in busy section before a long pool, water level 3’ at Husum gauge

Victim: Denis Brown, male, 63, good physical condition, class 4 boater, lifelong athlete, wonderful man

People in Denis’ group: Sarah Nathan, Alex Dey, Nick Jacob, and myself (April McEwen)

People in supporting kayaking party: 8 (arrived 10-12 minutes after event began) Teresa

Gryder, Scott Gerber, Joey Thomas, Brandon Bloomquist, Nobu Suga, Chris Dawkins, KevinSondey, Beau Evers

Denis flipped in the third tier of Triple Drop rapid on the Farmlands section of the White Salmon River. It is busy below the third drop with some small rocky ledges. He was unable to roll, and sustained quite a hit going over a rocky ledge. He appeared to make no attempt to roll afterwards, and his boat was calm instead of moving the way it does when someone pulls their skirt and swims out. His boat stayed in the current and swung over towards river right, where most of the river’s flow was going around the last shallow rocky ledge. I saw a flash of his blue helmet as his boat listed to the side, the way boats sometimes do when filled with water. Just after seeing the top of his helmet, the blue disappeared under the surface and his boat vertically pinned. A fallen tree protruded down into the right side channel from the bank, where most of the river’s flow (~70-80%) concentrated.

He pinned under the surface of the water on the log with his boat vertically pinned behind him on the upstream side. We never saw him separate from his kayak. He had already been upside down for ~20-25 seconds before he pinned and had not gotten air since he flipped. The top of his helmet was ~8-12 inches under the surface of the water. The stern of his boat was ~1.5 – 2 feet out of thewater. No eddy formed from the pinned kayak (although it did decrease the water velocity somewhat), and there was no visible air pocket under the water surface. 

Nick reached the pin quickly, immediately did a swiftwater rescue flat jump on the downstream end of the log briefly grabbing Denis’ PFD before the current ripped Nick  downstream. I reached the log just after, grabbed the 8 inch branch nub on top with my right hand and found a tiny nub for a left foothold in the mainstream current. He seemed so close, but considering the precarious perch and the force of the water, so far away. I grabbed my flip line (webbing with carabiner attached) from the front pocket of my pfd, extended out as far as I dared and punched my fist into the water towards his body. It felt like he grabbed my line, five seconds of tension and then it floated free.

A moment afterwards with my crew anchoring my legs, I was able to extend out on the log and punched down to grab Denis’s helmet at the brim. I pulled up so his upper torso was vertical and in line with the kayak. The water force was tremendous. The water was splashing up into his nose, but would then pulse down and we saw him clearly. He was unconscious, with grey ashen skin, and a blue ring around his lips. That was the first time his head had been above water in 2-3 minutes. Holding him unconscious above the water was doing no good since water was gurgling into his nose and mouth, he needed someone to breathe for him anyway (if not CPR at this point), holding his head above water was physically impossible for much longer, doing so meant I couldn’t do anything else including trying to attach a line to him or the boat, and doing so meant no one else could do anything else because they were holding me so I didn’t fall in upstream of the log.

Without any other choice, I let go of his helmet and managed to clip my flip line on the stern of the kayak. I punched my hand down into the water, his skirt was popped, butt in the cockpit. He seemed to be in the kayak. It was apparent we had to unpin the boat to even have a chance of getting Denis. River left was a rocky overhang without anchor points, but it was shallow so we could still pull from that side. The water pressure was so strong it would have taken mechanical advantage or many people on each side to hold him up anyway...had it been possible to get a “snag” stability line in front of him and under his arms in such strong current under the surface. 

A separate group of friend kayakers showed up upstream, and we whistled them down to help. An anchor was set up on river right, and five people hauled on the line. The kayak popped free by pulling from almost directly upstream. It didn’t come out in one smooth motion though, but in two with a little sideways jog, not sure if that was a result of Denis’ body coming out of the kayak or from two distinct pulls on the rope. Denis’ was still on the log but deeper now, at least two feet under the surface.

At this point 10-15 minutes had passed. I reassumed my position on the log, trying to clip a line onto him. I’d punch my hand into the current, trying to feel anything that held as my hand slipped up and over his back and pfd. The back of his pfd was slick; the only thing I was able to clip into was the side of his skirt. I was sure the carabiner would slip off, but it held (found out later it punched a hole through the skirt and the rubber rand held it, even though a lot of pressure was applied when 2-3 people were pulling on the line attached to his skirt). The skirt stretched when pulled but the rand held. Someone also started using a small hand saw on the log, but it was very slow progress.

After I tired from balancing on the log trying unsuccessfully to get a clip into Denis’ PFD, Joey live baited and repeatedly jumped onto him trying to attach a line. After multiple unsuccessful attempts, we filled a throwbag with heavy rocks and multiple times were able to snag him under the arms with it. The rope would catch enough on his body where two people on each side could pull hard, but then the rope would just slip up and over. We know the rope was under both arms because they would come up out of the water. However, the water pressure was too great, or there was not enough of his torso above the log to get purchase. The next option was to try a cinch technique, but search and rescue personnel were in sight halfway down to us bringing a chainsaw to cut the log. CPR was performed for a good 30 minutes or so before effort ceased.

The kayakers on the river that day did an impressive job of seeking what needed to be done and doing it. Several of us were former professional river guides, had swiftwater rescue and wilderness first aid training, as well as extensive experience on rivers. Rescuer safety was a top priority as there was always danger of falling in upstream of the log. Frantic behavior could have easily caused multiple victims, and everyone acted quickly while thinking of the danger and working in teams. 

On the behalf of everyone in our kayaking group that day, we sincerely appreciate the emergency response from the community, including the local fire department, Sheriff’s office, EMT’s, and search and rescue personnel. You were on scene rapidly, extremely professional, and displayed sensitivity during the situation. WET Planet - thank you for volunteering guides and equipment to move the body downstream and off the river. It is quite impressive to see a community come together and perform calmly, organized, and professional. 


Last but not least, to Denis’ family, may you find solace in the memories of such an extraordinary human being. Denis was no stranger to adventure, having climbed Everest three times and summiting once (among many other adventures I’m sure). He was inspired by and passionate about kayaking. He loved mountains, and after he hit a good boof on Canyon Creek the previous day, he said it was one of the best feelings he had ever had. He is one of the most humble, positive, and happiest people I have ever met. He somehow seemed to see the best in every situation although he had seen more than a fair share of death and hurt in his lifetime. He chose to see the beauty in the world and enriched my life in the short time I knew him. Life is fleeting, but Denis’ legacy lives on through his family and the lives he touched. Denis liked to clap to music when dancing. I’m sure he is applauding all the wonderful moments he had in his life and all of us.

A kayaker lost his life in the White Salmon River on April 12. Sergeant Joe Riggers of the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Department took the call at 1:44 p.m. A kayaker was reported stuck in the water and people at the scene were unable to free him. Rescuers eventually extracted the man and performed CPR, but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. The man has been identified as Dennis Brown, 63, from British Columbia.

Rick Hudson: I have known Denis Brown MD for over 40 years. He was a very accomplished climber with ascents of many big mountains around the world, including 3X on Everest as expedition doctor. He was 63 years old, recently retired, and lived in Summerland, BC.

Teresa Grider:" Level was just under 3' (easy as it gets) Denis Brown was Canadian visiting for the whitewater. I wasn't there for the pin---the Canadians with two locals were running in the front of the pack, and he'd been under water 10 minutes before we showed up. His body pinned on log, 6 feet from shore river right. His boat pinned on top of body not clear if one or both legs were still in boat when pin occurred. We were able to pull the boat loose by pulling upstream. The body went deeper and was hard to access; he was freed when local SAR showed up with a chain saw We had lifted him up a few times by dropping a loop under the log and pulling his upper body up but didn't free him CPR for 20 minutes or so before calling it ​


I was in Portland on a business trip and took a day to paddle on Sunday April 12, 2015. A business associate/friend from Portland and I connected with a crew running the Farmlands section of the White Salmon. It was my and his first time on this run. We had around 14 paddlers in the group but split up into smaller groups with groups staying in the vicinity of each other.

Everyone made it safely below Lava falls with only a couple flips and rolls. Shortly below Lava my group made it halfway through a long rapid that I would rate a class IV and took eddies. The group below us was out of their boats and signaling us to stop. They were attempting to communicate using hand signals, yelling and whistle blasts. I assumed there was wood in the bottom of the rapid. We held our position and someone made it from downstream coming up river right and told us to get out of our boats. I ferried to river right and started my portage still not knowing what the issue was.

Part way down I noticed the pinned boat on river right less than five meters from the shore. This was in the last part of the rapidly moving water at the very end of the rapid and could possibly be considered the run out. The boat was vertically pinned less than half to halfway out of the water. A fallen tree came down from river right into the water perpendicular to the river which was causing the pin. There was a rope coming from river left that appeared to be attached to the boat with two paddlers manning the rope. There was another rope on river right attached to the boat that ran close to perpendicular to the shore and to an anchor on a tree. Several boaters were pulling on the rope and the boat would move but not come free. There was a since of urgency.

At this point I was unaware there was boater pinned with the boat and thought it was just a boat recovery. A boater from river left had taken the leadership position and was yelling instructions. He advised a vector pull. I created an anchor further upstream on a tree and we reattached the river right rope to it making it run more parallel to the shore. Another boater utilized a prussic cord to create clip point about halfway between the boat and tree. We clipped in another rope and proceeded with the vector pull with force headed towards river left. The boat eventually came free.

When the boat came free is when I realized a paddler was trapped because the first rescuers at the scene continued to work at the pin spot. The paddler did not come free with the boat. At this point I understood the urgency. At this point I also realized the rope coming from river left was attached to the paddler and not the boat. A paddler clipped in live bait style and attempted to reach the pinned paddler. She was able to get to him but unable to free him. The boaters on river left requested assistance on their rope to attempt to pull the pinned paddler out. I grabbed a boat and ferried across along with my business associate/friend to assist them.

No amount of pulling would free the pinned padder. We were underneath a rock overhang and I could not see anywhere to create an anchor to set up a z-drag without rock climbing nuts or cams. After suggesting some paddlers should paddle out and call 911 I was advised 911 was already contacted. During this time two paddlers were making attempts free the entrapped paddler via live baiting. Other boaters were attempting to saw through the trunk of the tree with a hand saw. We then attempted to utilize the rope from river left to hook under the entrapped paddlers arms. We were successful in hooking under his arms several times but unable to free him. His arms would flop back upstream but he would not come free. My best estimate at this point was he spent 20 or more minutes under water with no airway.

After several unsuccessful attempts to free him looping under his arms the rescue squad arrived on the scene with a chainsaw. They cut the trunk of tree and the entrapped paddler came free. He was still attached to the rope coming from river left and he was guided to an eddy on river right and brought onto shore where the rescue squad began treatment. After unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate the patient, the rescue squad brought in a raft to extract him. Our crew decided to hike out.

I met Dennis at the meeting spot for the first time ever before we headed to the river. He was a very nice and jovial man. He went out of his way to be friendly to me and my friend and appeared to be a very kind soul. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Respectfully Submitted, KBS

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