Accident Database

Report ID# 395

  • Flush Drowning
  • Hypothermia
  • High Water

Accident Description


Cold River near Charlemont, Massachussets: October 21, 1995

Gradient 80 fpm); Volume/near flood; Classification V

DESCRIPTION: The Cold River , a tributary of the Deerfield River in Western Massachussets , runs along Rt. 2 as it climbs to the crest of the Berkshires. It's a classic class IV creek run. On the third weekend of October the area was hit by 3-4 inches of rain. Flash flood conditions prevailed that Saturday as the rain tapered off.

The victim, Ken Olin, was travelling with two other kayakers from Connecticut . They had been paddling for about six months, and were athletic and capable. Late the afternoon of October 21, after running the Dryway at 2500 cfs (roughly three times the normal flow), the group decided to check out the Cold River . It was bank-full: the normal gauge on the left abutment was buried; the water read 2 feet on the right abutment. This is an exceedingly high level.

One member of the group elected not to run; the other two put in and capsized within a quarter mile! The first man bailed out after multiple roll attempts and was able to swim to shore; Olin bailed out and did not attempt self-rescue. He seemed helpless and may have hit his head. His two companions began a wild car chase downriver. First they attempted a swimming rescue; they actually made contact with Olin but did not have a throw line with them, and the rescuer was forced to swim to shore. Further down with the help of some other kayakers they formed a human chain, but could not to catch Olin and pull him in. His body washed five miles down to the Deerfield where it was recovered.

SOURCE: Bruce Lessels, Zoar Outdoors; Norm Simms, New England FLOW posting to Rec.Boats.Paddle, Brian Aubin

ANALYSIS: With the excellent gear and instruction available today young, athletic kayakers become very skilled rather quickly. Good judgment, unfortunately, may require more time to develop. The two who decided to run this section were clearly in over their heads and did not appreciate the seriousness of their venture until it was too late.

Steep, high water creek runs are very dangerous. In water this fast and difficult a life jacket cannot offer total protection against drowning. Additional boaters might not have been able to recover the victim.

It has been reported that a wetsuit was not worn by the victim, so hypothermia could have been a contributing cause of this tragedy. A throw line, or better yet a rescue life vest would have made a swimming rescue possible and would have allowed resuscitation to begin earlier.


A kayaker died Saturday, Oct. 21, on the Cold River in northwestern Massachusetts. I talked to one of the boaters who helped at the scene and heard a brief TV report, so some of this information may be inaccurate. His name was reported as Kenneth Olin, 25, of Huntington, Mass. He was paddling the Cold with one other boater. The conditions on the Class IV Cold River were extreme flood. There had been between 3 and 4 inches of rain on Saturday, and the Cold was flashing into flood. It was above the standard gauge, and experienced Cold River paddlers were avoiding the river. The incident happened late in the afternoon. Word picked up by people at the scene includes the following: Apparently Olin and his friend were paddling together without additional boaters. They both swam at the same time. Olin was wearing a very good helmet, a PFD, a shorty paddling jacket, and shorts. One rescuer believed death may have been caused by hypothermia. The two boaters may not have been familiar with the Cold River. They apparently did not know where the gauge was located. The skill levels of the paddlers is unknown, but apparently they were familiar with the nearby Monroe Bridge section of the Deerfield, which they may have paddled earlier in the day. At those flood levels, skill level may be irrelevant, in my opinion, and it's very possible that additional boaters would have been unable to rescue a swimmer. This is the first death reported from a whitewater boating incident in Massachusetts in a long time, possibly 20 years. If I find more reliable information, I'll post it here.

Norm Sims N.E. FLOW


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