KAYAKER DIES ON THE BLACKWATER RIVER
Lower Run Near Thomas, WVA: March 25, 1989
Level: 10"; Difficulty: IV-V; Weather: warm and sunny
SUMMARY: On the last Saturday in March four experienced paddlers began a late afternoon run on the Lower Blackwater below "North Fork Junction" after an unsuccessful attempt on a steep tributary leading to the same spot. During this run Charlie Deaton, an experienced Ohio paddler, flipped above a large hole and hit his head. The impact eventually rendered him helpless, and despite the alert reactions of his companions the rescue failed and he was swept downstream. By the time the group caught up with him, he was dead.
DESCRIPTION: The Lower Blackwater River is one of West Virginia's classic expert runs. The run starts off as steep and continuous class IV-V, with the most difficult drops occurring at the start. The victim, Charlie Deaton, 59, was an solid paddler with wide experience in West Virginia. The other paddlers, Whitney Shields, Jim Snyder, and Eric Lindberg, were also extremely strong and had run the river the previous day when it was a few inches lower.
The group had begun the day at 10:30 with an attempt on the North Fork, a small tributary of the Blackwater which parallels the railroad tracks leading to the put-in. Once committed to the run they found the creek to be an endless series of unrunnable waterfalls. After many hours of portaging they retreated hundreds of feet back up the steep bank to the railroad tracks. Working steadily, they arrived at the put-in at 3:30. There they had lunch. Charlie Deaton chose not to eat; he had recovered from colon surgery and was afraid the food would upset his stomach. It was a late start, but not unreasonable if the group adopted a no-nonsense approach which included quickly portaging, rather than scouting, the major drops.
SOURCE: The following description on the run and the accident that followed was submitted to me by Jim Snyder.
"We quickly portaged the first of five big rapids. The next drop, a five foot ledge, was visible from there. We had to run down a short ways and catch a left eddy to portage. I got there first and found a sneak route......I was coming around the drop when I saw Charlie coming over the falls......at the base he paddled really hard and was able to pull away from the hole a bit before he flipped and bailed out. I was right there when he surfaced; he grabbed my boat and I paddled him to shore. He held on to his own boat and paddle, minimizing rescue efforts. He sat for five minutes on shore before continuing; he said he was tired, but he wasn't breathing hard and was quick to get back in his boat.
"In a short while we reached the third big rapids, Rock and Roll. We eddied out on the left, then ferried to the right side of the river to scout. Charlie lost his ferry angle and was swept into the rapid. He paddled extremely well to the bottom, where he pinned between two large rocks. He righted himself, got out of his boat, pulled his equipment free, grinned, and shrugged his shoulders. I warned him that he needed to be more careful about catching eddies, but he told me that he knew that, and that I should "lighten up" and not worry about him.
"I described the next rapid to him, a class III approach above a couple of class IV holes. There were four eddies to catch and I pointed them out. In his run he made the first three, but he fell over trying to cross the river to the forth, right above the first large hole. I was with him and tried to bump his boat into shore as he set up to roll. He rolled most of the way up, but his paddle was on the upstream side and the current pushed him under. I couldn't follow him, so I watched as he ran through the first two holes and exited his boat. I paddled down next to him and told him to swim to the right to avoid being swept into Slide Rapid just downstream. He swam very hard into water 6-12" deep, but was too tired to get his footing. He slipped and washed down the slide.
"I knew that the slide was shallow (less than 5" deep through most of its 100 yard length) and assumed he would eventually stop in the shallow water. Eric arrived, nearly hitting Charlie's boat as he ran the hole next to it. The boat popped free as he passed and he pushed it, full of water, towards me on the right. I knew I wouldn't be able to complete the rescue in my boat, so I jumped out and chased Charlie's kayak down the slide and picked it up near the bottom. Eric was committed to the slide after pushing the boat over, and I yelled to Eric to look for Charlie. He thought Charlie was on shore upstream of the slide where I had landed, and could not really hear the question over the roar of the rapids.
"Just then I saw Charlie wash or swim onto a large rock several hundred yards downstream of the slide. He was seemingly sitting calmly, but his head was rolling from side to side. I yelled to Eric to give chase, but he still didn't know Charlie was in trouble and thought I was pointing out his paddle. It was very hard to see because the river runs due west into the glare of the setting sun. After about twenty seconds he slipped off the rock and disappeared. Whitney and I ran the slide only to meet Eric heading upstream with his spare paddle for Charlie to use. It was only then that he found out that Charlie was in trouble downstream.
"I gave chase and ten minutes later found Charlie's body. It was caught between two shallow rocks, belly down under water. He had a bad bruise over his right eye from an impact with a rock. I quickly jumped out of my boat, recovered the body, and began CPR. In the next 5-10 minutes Whitney and Eric showed up to help. We worked on Charlie for 20-25 minutes before it was clear that the concussion was fatal. There was no sign of water in his lungs.
"It was then approximately 5:15, 45 minutes after the accident. It would be dark in a little over an hour, and we had eight miles of whitewater to run. Whitney had lost his paddle in the confusion and would have to walk out. We brought Charlie's body to the right shore. Whitney hiked to the tracks, marked the spot, and headed downstream. Eric and I finished the run at 6:00 and notified authorities. The body was evacuated by 11:00, taking over an hour to reach the tracks 300 feet above the river."
1) Snyder believes that the victim hit his head in one of the two holes above the slide, and believes it was probably fatal. The impact centered on the right cheekbone and temple area; massive swelling and bleeding from the right eye indicated a very serious and possibly fatal injury. The lightweight Ace helmet was intended for racing and easy paddling was too light weight for the Blackwater. The impact, however, was across the face, and not the area protected by the helmet. I feel that a helmet with additional front overhang and side coverage might have reduced the injury. Doctors say that a victim of a concussion is often O.K. initially, only to lose strength and consciousness as internal bleeding puts pressure on the brain. Although there was no autopsy, Charlie's initial strong self-rescue efforts followed by helplessness is consistent with this type of injury.
2) In the light of this accident, the victim's decision to attempt the run appears questionable. While sufficiently skilled and experienced to run the Blackwater, doing so after a strenuous day of portaging on the North Fork was more than he could handle. The victim's age, combined with health problems which limited his food and water intake made sustained strenuous activity difficult. As the day progressed he became increasingly tired. He missed the approaches to the portages around two of three major drops, and his lack of boat control contributed directly to his injury. Backing out of a run, especially in a deep gorge with poor access, is always difficult. But this option should have been taken once it was clear that he could no longer control is boat.
3) During the rescue the difficulty of the river made communication between the rescuers extremely difficult. The group lost sight of the victim for a very short time. Had he not hit his head this probably would have made no difference, but in this case he needed fast assistance and did not get it. Both Snyder and Lindberg had good reason to believe that Charlie was on shore with someone else in the party! If a group this strong can "misplace" someone for a few minutes it can happen to anyone. Even when paddling with an experienced party there are times when you are on your own, out of reach of help.
4) Since a key rule of rescue is to assist people before recovering equipment, the boat rescue at the head of the slide is open to question. I believe that the steps taken by the group were reasonable. The opportunity to snag Charlie's boat quickly when it came in reach did not slow pursuit by more than a few seconds, and is a reasonable action on a steep, technical river. In rescuing the kayak both Snyder and Lindberg were also moving quickly downstream to offer assistance. Lindberg pursued with all possible speed by running the slide without scouting, something that not every boater would attempt. Snyder himself ran down the slide on foot. A less experienced party would have been less aggressive and significantly slower. To keep a constant eye on a swimmer in such difficult water is not always possible, and is one of the risk of attempting such runs.
5) Once the victim was found, CPR began quickly. In a wilderness setting, the prognosis for anyone who does not respond quickly to this treatment is not good, since advanced life support becomes necessary due to chemical changes in the victim's body.
To have stayed longer with nightfall approaching held risks of its own for the survivors, who barely got out before dark. As it was it took five hours after the accident was reported to effect an evacuation via all-terrain vehicles travelling along the railroad bed.
The primary cause of the accident was Charlie Deaton's willingness to continue the run despite his physical problems, inability to eat, and skill-reducing tiredness. Runs of this difficulty demand uncompromised skill; to attempt them in impaired physical condition is impossible without grave personal risk. In hindsight the accident could have been prevented if the group had recognized Charlie's debilitating exhaustion and insisted that he leave the trip. This is an unusual step for a trip undertaken by adults of equal ability, and paddlers should not rely on others to make these decisions for them.