Accident Database

Report ID# 543

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  • Pinned in Boat Against Strainer
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

On Monday, April 26, 1999, a young couple engaged to be married set out alone in a tandem, open canoe from the Ponca bridge for a float trip on the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. The river was at a medium to low level, and is considered Class I-II. They were about 1.5 miles downstream from Ponca, approaching the Steele Creek campground, when they encountered a downed tree at river center, about 20 yards past the start of a bend to the left. It had been washed down the river about 3 weeks prior during high water. It was about 18-24 inches in diameter and 20-30 feet long. The root-ball was whole and facing upstream, like an open "catchers mitt". Most of the tree trunk was out of the water, with only the root-ball submerged The trunk and branches ran downstream, and almost touch the right bank. There’s an eddy on river left, formed by a gravel bar, directly beside the strainer. The river is about 30 feet wide at this point, and 4 feet deep.

The couple tried to avoid the strainer by going river left, but they were already too far right. They hit the root-ball strainer sideways and flipped. The canoe pinned, and the woman was trapped under the boat, and under water. The man tried to rescue his fiancée until he knew hope was lost. At this point he hiked a mile to the Steele Creek Ranger station for help. He returned with a Ranger and they, along with nearby campers, recovered the body of the woman. She  still pinned under the broached canoe, two feet underwater.

This strainer is easily avoided by experienced paddlers. The current pushes canoes to the right as it sweeps to the outside of the bend. Passing the strainer on the right sends the boat through a few small branches and twigs sticking out of water near the right bank. Going to the left puts your canoe in the eddy, safely past the strainer. The usual route is to paddle to the left to avoid the branches on the right. I watched about a dozen open canoes do it successfully.

As of April 30, the strainer is still there. A Park Ranger told me there were no plans currently to remove it. "The river is in its natural, wilderness condition,” He said, “and it is inherently risky and dangerous."

SOURCE: Jim Burton, posting to rec.boats.paddle

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge) Strainers, even on easy whitewater streams, are always dangerous. They are difficult to escape because the current goes through the branches, rather than around them. Inexperienced paddlers are advised to portage when in doubt.

 

Aida Parkinson wrote:

From the National Park Service ranger report 99-146 - Buffalo NR (AR) - Drowning

A 29-year-old woman was canoeing with a male companion on Steele Creek on April 26th when the canoe hit a rootwad, knocking her into the water. She was caught in the roots and trapped underwater for 10 to 15 minutes before she could be rescued. Repeated efforts were made to resuscitate her, but she was declared dead yesterday morning at Northern Arkansas Medical Center. [Ranger Activities, MWSO, 4/27]

Alan Rost wrote: I have pieced together the following account of a canoe accident on the Buffalo Nat'l River in Arkansas. Confirmation of details can/should be made from the Buffalo River Nat'l Park Rangers. If you should choose to include this accident in the AWA database, please feel free to edit it anyway you like. Safe boating.. Alan Rost 816-455-7361

Kansas City, MO. Buffalo National River, Arkansas This posting is from information gathered from an "involved" camper and a Buffalo R. Nat'l Park Ranger. Names of victims and rescuers are unknown. On Monday, April 26, 1999, a young couple engaged to be married set out alone in a tandem, open canoe from the Ponca low-water bridge for a float trip. The river that day was at 16 inches airspace at the Ponca bridge (2.9 ft. on the Park Svc recording), up from 27 inch airspace (2.0 ft. Park Svc) the day before. At Ponca, a reading of less than 2.4 ft is "low, but floatable", and over 5 ft. is considered "experienced floaters only" by the Park Svc. The river is Class I/II The couple were approximately 1.5 miles downstream from Ponca, just approaching the Southernmost edge of the Steele Creek campground (near where the horse trail fords the river to enter the Steele Creek camp) when they encountered a downed tree in the river. The tree had been washed down the river to this spot about 3 weeks prior during high water. (I saw the tree first hand.) It is approx. 18-24 inches trunk diameter, and 20-30 ft. long. The strainer is river center, about 20 yards past the start of a bend to the left in the river. As often happens to whole trees in the river, the root-ball was whole and facing upstream, like an open "catchers mitt". The trunk and branches run downstream but are angled slightly to the right bank, so its branches almost touch the right bank. There is an eddy on river left directly beside the strainer about 10 ft to the left, formed by a gravel bar. The river is approx 30 ft wide at this point, and 4 ft deep where the tree is. Most of the tree trunk is totally out of the water, with only the root-ball submerged. As canoes float in the current to this area, they are aimed anywhere from dead center at the strainer, to just right of the strainer. Passing the strainer on the right would send a boat into a few small branches/twigs above water near the right bank. Going to the left at all puts a boat in the eddy, with safe passage around the strainer. I observed about a dozen open canoes tackle this obstacle. The current pushes a boat river right as it sweeps to the outside of the bend, and the natural tendency is to want to guide the canoe to river left to avoid the branches on river right. In my humble opinion, this strainer can be easily avoided by experienced paddlers. Apparently, the young couple tried to avoid the strainer by going river left when they were already too far to river right. They hit the root-ball strainer sideways and flipped. The canoe was pinned. The female was entrapped under the boat, and under water. The male tried by himself to rescue his companion until he knew hope was lost. At this point he hiked the approx 1 mile to the Steele Creek Ranger station for help. Other campers saw him walking through the campground, wearing his PFD, talking to himself, and not responding to greetings. When the Ranger and the male victim returned, they were joined by campers to recover the body of the female still pinned under the broached canoe. Her head was 2 feet underwater. Several days later, campers heard that the female drowning victim had shown signs of life at the hospital, and the hospital was able to revive her heart and keep her "alive", but only because of life support systems. As of April 30, 1999, the strainer is still there. The Park Ranger I spoke with told me there were no plans currently to remove it. He said "the river is in its natural, wilderness condition, and it is inherently risky and dangerous."On April 26th a young couple who were engaged to be married launched a tandem canoe on the Buffalo National River at Ponca, AR. A report forwarded by Jim Burton reported moderate water levels on this Class I-II stream. Approximately 1.5 miles downstream their canoe collided with a "root ball" attached to a downed tree. The man washed out of the strainer, but the woman was pinned heads-down underneath the canoe. The man made several rescue attempts before seeking help. NPS rangers and campers made the recovery a short time later. Resuscitation attempts followed, and she was transported to a hospital where she was pronounced dead the following morning. The report noted that the left side of the river was open, and this channel was not hard to reach.

 

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