From March 21-23, 1999 three inches of warm rain fell on mountain snowpack of the Siskyou Mountains of Southern Oregon. The flow in the Illinois River, a multi-day Class IV-V trip, rose from a low of 1700 to a high of over 13,500 cfs. This translates into a fifteen-foot rise in water level!
Since the river is normally run at between 900 and 3000 cfs, this surge caused havoc among weekend river runners. Several parties never launched; a single crew made it out ahead of the surge. One group hiked back to the put-in after the flow doubled overnight. Another chose to stay put and was pulled out by helicopter on Monday. Two parties had flips in or near the Class V Green Wall rapid that resulted in fatalities. Coast Guard rescue helicopters picked up ten people, six of whom had flipped boats and become stranded in a sheer-walled section of the canyon. The story was picked up by CNN and other mainline media and given wide publicity.
Here are descriptions of the two fatal accidents:
Wilbur Byars, 62, a veteran commercial guide, was in one of three rafts. They launched Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and reached the Green Wall by noon on Sunday. Two of the three boats, including one carrying Byars, flipped in a huge 15 foot high wave at the top of the rapid. Two boats were washed downstream. The third boat made it through the first wave and rescued Byars. They made sure the others were safe on shore, then left to get help. When they peeled out, they flipped. After checking the boat to be sure that Byars wasn’t trapped inside, his partner swam for shore. In the distance he could see Byars floating face down. Byars was later spotted by a helicopter, washed up on shore, face up but unresponsive. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer recovered the body. Surviving members of the group tried to climb out of the gorge and were eventually picked up by Coast Guard helicopters.
Jeff Alexander, 37, was a long-time New River guide. On Saturday morning at 10 a.m. he was paddling a small raft with a partner. Three kayaks accompanied him. The group portaged the Green Wall at around 1:00 p.m. Sunday and planned to do the same at the Little Green Wall downstream. Alexander’s raft missed the second take-out eddy and capsized in a pourover, putting him and his partner in the water. Alexander had been using a drysuit neck gasket repaired with duct tape. When he entered the water the seal blew out. Water poured in, making swimming difficult and increasing his vulnerability to the cold. Party members saw him floating under water for long periods despite his PFD. His partner was carried five miles (!) downstream before she reached shore. The group recovered and secured Alexander's body, then two of the three kayakers boated out to get help. A kayaker and Alexander's partner were evacuated by helicopter the following day.
SOURCES: Portland Oregonian; Medford Mail-Tribune; North West Rafters Association newsletter; Dave Bassage
1. Rivers can and do come up very quickly, and whitewater paddlers must be prepared to modify their plans as needed. Many groups did. Both incidents show just how difficult rescues in this type of water can be, and suggest that the best course for most people is to stay off the river when it gets too high.
2. Drysuit gaskets that have been repaired with duct tape are dangerous. Several other fatalities have resulted from using them. If they fail during a swim, survival may not be possible.
Just took this out of todays paper: two men and two boys were rescued from the banks of the Illinois river by a coast guard helicopter, three days after they were stranded during a weekend raft trip. Apparently they were in catarafts and the river was running around 7000 cfs, a extremely high level for inflatables. Apparently they flipped the boats in York creek rapids, which at that level is unrunnable. One of the guy's rescued, Nick Sherlock, 39 of Medford Ore told the searchers that the waves in this section of the canyon were 15 to 20 feet high, noting that they had not even got near the "Green Wall'' section yet!