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Accident Description


On June 3, 1997 Dugald Bremmer, an expert kayaker from Flagataff, Arizona, was killed on the Silver Fork of the American near Kyburtz, CA. Postings by Kieth Gershon and others reported that Bremmer and his group arrived at a very steep, demanding drop. The other three members of the group portaged as Bremmer prepared to run the drop alone. Part way down he became pinned between two rocks. The pin seemed stable, and several members of the group waded out to him. At some point Bremmer decided to remove his spray skirt. The high-volume creek boat filled with water immediately, and before Bremmer could exit it was sucked backwards over a steep drop and into a drain. The lack of float bags in the boat may have contributed to the speed with which this situation became unmanageable.

Only two feet of the kayak now protruded above the surface. Several of the group lost their footing in the ensuing rescue attempts. One person was actually sucked into the drain and had to chimney out, hand-over-hand, up another person's legs. The body was recovered the following Sunday when a party lead by paddlers Eric Magnuson, Lars Holbeck, and Mike Weiss joined forces with the sheriff’s swift water rescue team. A tyrolean was set up, and both Lars and Eric were sent out to the accident site. Lars cut a hole in the bow and was trying to locate Bremmer's feet when his body came loose. It was recovered about 40 downstream, where it snagged in a tree. The body was placed on a litter and carried to the trail head, arriving at about 8 p.m.

 

The Silver Fork of the American River near Kyburtz, CA is a small, steep tributary of the South Fork of the American. It contains many Class V drops. Dugald Bremmer, 41, was an expert kayaker, river guide, photographer. The Silver Fork was running at a moderate level on June 3, 1997 when Bremmer and three of his friends decided to run it. Part way down they encountered a very steep ledge drop. The other members of the group elected to portage as Bremmer prepared to run the drop alone.  

The water pouring over the ledge obscured a network of faults and cracks. Much of the flow was actually going through the bedrock, creating a dangerous sieve. When Bremmer entered the current, his boat dropped into a submerged fissure. His bow pitoned a rock, and his stern was shoved down into the crack. The pin initially seemed stable, and Bremmer asked a nearby friend for help. Eric Brown waded out into the river across shallow shoals, expecting that the kayak needed a slight nudge to come free. But as he did so, the pin deteriorated. The current pushed the stern down, and forced the boat tighter into the crack.

Brown then straddled the crack and grabbed hold of Bremmer’s life vest. As he pulled, Ralph Michlisch worked his way out towards the accident only to fall into a hidden sieve and wash out through an opening in the rock downstream. Bremmer continued to sink lower, and as he did the current pushed hard against his back, making it impossible to exit his kayak. Then the stern slipped deeper, the bow nosed skyward and Bremmer’s head was pulled under water. Brown, who was holding Bremmer’s hand, felt it go limp. In the end, only two feet of the kayak now protruded above the surface. Bill Morse, who had just rescued Michlisch, jumped onto the  boat and braced himself against the bedrock. He pulled hard first on Bremmer’s life vest, then on his helmet. Both pieces of gear came off, and Morse was also washed into the sieve. He had to chimney out, hand-over-hand, up Brown’s legs.  

After these heroic efforts, the three survivors paddled out to notify authorities. The body was recovered the following Sunday when a team lead by paddlers Eric Magnuson, Lars Holbeck, and Mike Weiss joined forces with the sheriff’s swift water rescue team. First a tyrolean was set up, then both Lars and Eric were sent out to the pinned kayak. Lars cut a hole in the bow and was trying to locate Bremmer's feet when his body came loose. He was recovered about 40 downstream, where it snagged in a tree. He was placed on a litter and carried to the trail head, arriving at about

8:00 p.m.

SOURCE: Scott Thibony, Boatmans Quarterly Review, as published in the February, 1998 Paddler Magazine; The El Dorado County, Ca. Mountain Democrat;  Keith Gershon, posting to rec.boats.paddle  

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge)  

1. Whitewater contains an element of uncontrolled risk, and even the most expert paddlers cannot spot all the hazards. Sieves are often found on steep, obstructed streams. Because they are difficult to spot, you don’t know where they are until it is too late. Chuck Kern’s death in1998 and two previous fatalities at Initiation Rapid on the Gauley show a very similar mechanism.  

2. The Mountain Democrat reported that Bremmer elected to open his spray skirt at some point during the rescue. His high-volume creek boat filled with water immediately, and was sucked deeper into the sieve before Bremmer could eject. The timing of the sprayskirt opening and the absence of float bags may have contributed to the speed with which this situation became unmanageable.