The Upper Blackwater River is a short, but intense Class V+ run below West Virginia’s Blackwater Falls State Park. It contains a number of very technical, dangerous rapids. On March 29, 1998, the day when the accident occurred, the Davis Gauge was at three feet (about 300 cfs). Blackwater regulars consider this a low to moderate level. Sticky Fingers Rapid, where the accident occurred, lies roughly midway through the exquisitely technical two plus mile steep creek, which has a gradient of about 250 feet/mile. It is the second major rapid below Tomko Falls, a prominent landmark. Although not one of the most visually distinctive rapids on the river, it is difficult and dangerous. It has been the site of other close calls.
Tim Gavin was an expert creek boater of wide experience. For many years he kayaked the most difficult and dangerous rivers in the east. He made solo runs down rivers like West Virginia’s Lower Meadow and Upper Blackwater. He helped pioneer hair runs like Upper Red Creek and Seneca Creek. He often boated alone, even under adverse winter conditions. But his accomplishments were not limited to the East. He had soloed both the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado and the “forbidden” Class V Canyon of the Yellowstone. No one could have foretold that he would die paddling a river that he knew well, at a moderate level, on a warm, sunny spring day in the company of a close friend – who is also an accomplished steep creeker.
“Tim had probably paddled the Upper Blackwater more often than anyone,” one friend said. “He knew every inch of that river.” Ironically, Gavin had reportedly been referring to the rock sieve where he died as “Only a Matter of Time” because he believed that it would eventually claim a life. Equally ironic is the fact that during the past year he appeared to have been paddling more cautiously. “He was thinking a lot more about safety,” said one of his friends, who helped recover his boat and body. “There was full floatation, a throw rope, pulleys and a first aid kit in his kayak when he died.”
At low to moderate levels, the conservative line through Sticky Fingers starts with an upstream ferry from river right to a tiny eddy against the shore on river left. After leaving this eddy, the boater crosses back to another eddy on river right, skirting a pour over and an undercut rock sieve. The initial right to left ferry is made in front of a slot, which drops over a ledge just above the sieve. Gavin died attempting to run this slot.
The slot is known to be runnable at higher levels and is regarded by some as a high water sneak. But one expert boater who helped recover Gavin’s body emphasized that the “slot line” is still potentially negotiable at 300 cfs, albeit risky. Reportedly Gavin often ran the slot line, even at lower levels. There is no doubt that Gavin was familiar with the “slot line” and that he chose to run it intentionally.
Mike Moore, an accomplished extreme boater and a close friend, was running the conservative low water line when he realized that Gavin was in trouble. When he reached the bottom eddy, he left his kayak and scrambled upstream. But by the time he reached the site of the entrapment most of Gavin’s boat and his body had disappeared beneath the water. The entrapment and subsequent submersion of the boat and its passenger occurred within seconds. Moore managed to attach his throw rope to a grab loop. He struggled for forty minutes attempting to dislodge the boat, unable to ascertain if Gavin was still trapped inside. He then left the canyon and recruited several other boaters who were in the area. They hiked into the canyon that evening but were unable to extract the boat.
The kayak, and later the body, were recovered from the undercut sieve the next morning by a team that included local volunteers, state park authorities, as well as a number of Gavin’s boating friends. They included Mike Moore, Gary Ward, Ed Radar, Roger Zbel, Jesse Whittemore, Terry Peterson, Ben McKean, Michael “Boomer” Jenoska, and Andy Horton. Jeff Snyder handled the difficult and dangerous in-water component of the recovery. Gavin’s body was subsequently removed from the deep, rugged canyon by helicopter.
SOURCE: Written by Bob Gedekoh
ANALYSIS: (Gedekoh) Tim Gavin’s death has caused many of his friends to reexamine their motives for kayaking extreme whitewater. Last year twenty canoeing and kayaking deaths occurred in the , more than twice the usual number. Many involved well-known experts in difficult rapids. “This just proves, once again, that running extreme whitewater is inherently dangerous, even under the best of circumstances,” one acquaintance observed. “If you tackle difficult whitewater frequently, there is a good chance that you, or one of your friends, is going to get killed. What happened to Tim, could happen to anyone. Being good helps, but it is no guarantee of safety.”
The Upper Blackwater, one of the steepest and most challenging runs in West Virginia, claimed the life of veteran kayaker Tim Gavin on March29th. Gavin, who had run the river dozens of times and knew it extremely well, was paddling with a close friend at a moderate 300 cfs level. The trouble occurred at Sticky Fingers, a dangerous drop with an undercut center chute. Reports by Bob Gedekoh, Mike Moore, and Paul Shelp describe the accident as follows: Gavin attempted the center slot but was shoved into an undercut. His friend worked his way back upstream and saw only 6" of the kayak stern sticking out of the water. He attached a line to the grab loop but could not free the boat. He then boated out and notified authorities and local kayakers. He returned to the scene later that day with a few friends but still could not recover the boat.
The next day a large crew of area kayakers returned. With one prominent paddler performing the dangerous in-water part of the rescue they recovered the body after a long struggle. There were anxious moments as the rescuer's leg was caught in a loop in the rescue line! Gavin's body was removed from the canyon by helicopter. Gavin was paddling a very short kayak. Although these designs allow creek boaters to attempt incredibly congested drops, they Maystuff more easily under logs and undercuts. Others, paddling longer designs, have broached where Gavin was killed, but their boats bridged the gap. The paddlers were held higher and had more time to escape. The same might have been true of the accident in which Scott Hasson, another well-known expert, died on the Lower Meadow in 1997. Again, a very short boat was shoved deeply into a sieve. Hasson survived a similar pinning a year earlier at the same spot in what was almost certainly a longer boat.
This is not an attempt to "blame the boat"; because no two pins are exactly alike. The intent is to suggest, as a number of excellent paddlers have, that length, possibly combined with volume, may have been a factor in a few accidents involving sieves. The optimum length for creeking has been the subject of much debate and these accidents will undoubtedly add to it.