|Section:||Near Ripley, NY|
|Location:||Flume of Doom|
|Accident Cause:||Caught in a Natural Hydraulic|
|Cause Code(s):||Flush Drowning|
|Factors Code(s):||Cold Water|
|Boat Type:||Whitewater Kayak|
|Other Victim Names:|
Scary video featuring Ted Engelhardt running Belson Creek (NY state) during winter time. Ted paddled alone, and got recycled on a small sticky drop, ended up swimming and had to battle real hard to get out of there. This could have easily ended up tragically; Read below Ted’s account and feedbacks on this misadventure. Conclusion: always scout when you do not know a run, and never paddle alone…
Belson Creek AKA Gages Gulf: 7.5 square mi drainage 1.75 ft @ Rt. 76 Ripley NY ~ Gages Falls. From the center of the Go-Pro lens to my mouth is in between 10.5 and 11 inches so a lot of this video I am barely underwater and the camera is not. If you cant here my moans there’s a good chance Im underwater.
I rationalized it several ways, none of which were legitimate. It was the last significant whitewater creek dumping into Lake Erie between the Ohio line to 20 miles past the NY line. I hadn’t run and really wanted to check it off the list. I knew it was deep because I camped back there 4 days solo this summer getting to know the run and clearing wood. The spot I almost died was actually where I took my baths. A deep pool is a critical safety feature on a sticky hole because you can ball up and sink to the bottom to get washed out which is sort of what saved me. I told myself the gauge is only at 1.75 ft which isn’t anything on any other creek, even though I didnt really know how to interpret that because it had never been run. The flume of doom 1/4 mile downstream from here used to be the bottom leg of Belson before twentymile punched through the ridge and joined the Gulf so the Flume has all the narrowness of Belson with 3.5 times the flow. Like the falls its near impossible to set safety without hiking in, but unlike Gage’s it had been run successfully several times and the extra flow actually makes it safer because it just blows everything through there. The flume also comes in straightish where Gages falls comes in at an angle, creating a whirlpool with a massive boil.
We spent a lot of time analyzing the flume before we ran it, even changing our strategy after scouting from the bottom compared to our original plan from the top. I rushed scouting Gage’s because it was getting late. If I would have brought my binoculars like I should have known I needed I would have been able to tell how bad the boil was on river right and that the only way out was on the left. We had discussed hitting it left but I was concerned about having a hard time getting my boof stroke in shallower water if I was to far left so I went right for the middle, bad move. My #1 mistake was treating a creek like something to be conquered instead of enjoyed with respect. I would run it again at that level tomorrow if I could talk someone into doing the 1.5 mile hike down the gorge to set safety and not paddle the Gulf, but they could paddle the Flume and the rest of twentymile from the falls down. I know how to run it now!
We left Franks boat in the gorge and hiked back the next day with my spare to try and recover. Ended up finding my boat less than 1/4 mile from where I swam and 10 ft from going into twentymile where it would have been probably gonzo under the ice at Rt 5. Towed the spare boat 5 miles down twenty mile after repelling around the flume because it was so low there was a pin potential and got out at Rt. 20. Only lost the paddle. Most difficult recovery mission I have been on by far, most epic swim too. To set safety would have required one of us soloing most of the gorge and the other hiking in 3 miles from a different location down the 275 ft to the bottom (with boat) and missing the first 3/4 of the run. It was 4:30 pm when we put on. He didn’t know how to get to the safety spot anyway and I wasn’t going to have him run the gorge solo having never hiked it. It should not be done without at least three people, two in the gorge and one on the safety hike. Lesson learned.
The recovery was almost as lucky as the swim, second day not the first. The boat was in the hole for over 20 minutes. I swam downstream another 300ish ft after the video ends, went up the other side of the hill and hiked down a very steep deer trail 30 ft tall and 20 ft upstream from Gage's Falls. Frank Frankovitch, ferried over from river left where he had been stranded since I swam as you cant hike up all the way there, and I grabbed him. Unless you had a rope tied there I don't see a way of catching that micro eddy and climbing up the steep bank un-assisted. Even that would be really sketchy. I was only able to do it because I came from the top, didn't have to get out of my boat on that side, found all the roots slowly, and had my 8 ft tow strap as an anchor. This would be the only way to set safety separate from hiking the 1.5 miles through private vineyards, or splitting up and some people hiking ahead to set safety from a small handful of locations where you could even get up it because its crazy steep back there. Then hike back and paddle it as the first 2 could set safety for the second in an ideal group of 4, 6 at most.
We were to the point where Frank and his boat were at the top of the hill so he began rappelling me down to try and grab my boat which was still recirculating on the river right most of the time. It looked pretty easy to grab and clip onto. I was 3/4 of the way down the hill, under a minute from grabbing it, when it washed out right in front of me. Twenty minutes at least after it first got stuck there because I sat down for a good five as soon as I was up the hill and could wave to him that I was alive and ok. I scrambled up the hill and sprinted to where I had come up the back side just in time to once again see my boat go around the next corner I couldn't reach. We left his boat and paddle in the gorge and hiked out. It was getting dark fast at this point. I had a waterproof GPS in my life jacket with all rapids saved so finding the road was pretty easy, and I know the area well anyway. It was tough going, post holing through freshly melted snow, often knee deep for 1.5 miles. Half of it up a 200 foot tall gorge. We got to the wood line at the top and I called my buddy (always have my phone in my sock-less Kokotat bibs under my dry top) who lives 15 minutes away in North East PA to come pick us up because we were stranded in Ripley NY. Less than a half hour later he picked us up at the nearest house. The house happened to be owned by the grandson of the 1915 Erie Fire Chief who passed away from the Millcreek flood, John McMahon. The biggest flood in the towns history and the date I had been waiting to release the video even though we ended up releasing a history of the Millcreek flood video for that date and the Erie boating trailer a month later. We got permission from him to come back the next day with my spare boat, paddle, and ropes to hike in and get Franks gear, and hopefully mine too. There is a river right deer trail that runs from Gages Falls, the principal feature on Belson where I swam, down to the Flume of Doom on twentymile creek. The flume is 1/4 mile downstream from Gages falls by creek, 100 ft below the confluence, and is the biggest hole in the region by far. I've said many times its the largest hole with the smallest drainage that exists and I stand by it until proven otherwise! The Flume used to be the bottom 1/10 mile of Belson before the water cut through the ridge separating the two some point in the last 200 years as there are old maps that show the original course. What remains is a short section of gorge carved by about a 7 square mile draining creek with all the flow of a 36 square mile creek. 5 times the volume that originally created it. We found my boat from the trail, sitting upright on the river right bank, ten feet from going into twenymile at the confluence which was still low runnable the following day. Ten more feet it would have most likely been lost to lake Erie six miles downstream which still had lots of ice on it. There was even an old rope tied on the hill off the trail that led right down to my boat, couldn't have been more perfect. We hoisted it up, then rappelled down the back side of the floom of doom as it was runnable but so low there was a pin potential that we wanted no part of. I then towed my boat with an 8 ft, 10,000 tensile pound strength, $20 yellow tow strap over my shoulder aka my tow of choice as its not a one shot johnny like so many other methods and is much more versatile. Paddled 4.5 miles down to Rt. 20 where we said screw it and got out on the private property side instead of climbing the 2 ft tall railroad blocks, 200 ft up the gorge, We just walked up some guys driveway, it had been a long day! Never found my paddle but really didn't care at that point. Had my life, and my boat as a bonus! Huge thanks to Frank for all the help the next day, couldn't have done it without him and apologies for all the grief I caused as it was all my stupid idea!!!