RESCUE ON THE SOUTH FORK
By Henry Wallace
For an outdoor-oriented young family from Florida winding up a 10-day vacation that included a sojourn in the majestic wooded mountains and green valleys of springtime Eastern Tennessee, what could be more exciting than a white-water run down a section of the scenic Big South Fork of the Cumberland? Well, hardly anything, So Diane Scudder, 33, a paramedic from Port Charlotte, Florida, her husband Frank, a police officer, and their son Randy decided to go for it, although none of the three had ever paddled a riffle, much less a rapid. They took their case to Bob Wheeley, who heads Cumberland Rapid Transit, provider of boats, shuttles and advice to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area visitors. Part of his advice to the gung-ho Scudders was that he didn't recommend going three in a canoe on even Class II water, especially without rough water paddling experience.
But the Scudders were determined, so Bob told them they could try the eight-mile section between Leatherwood Ford and Station Camp. As an added precaution he sent along his 13-year-old son Danny, an accomplished solo canoeist comfortable in up to Class III water who had a day off from school. Among other reasons for sending Danny along as chaperon was that Wheeley wanted to be sure the parents with their eight-year-old son portaged Angel Falls, which on the day of the trip was a mean Class IV cascade. (The Leatherwood Ford gauge was reading around 1,000 cfs). So the intrepid three embarked under Danny's tutelage. All went well until ... They were having a rollicking good time. It all seemed so easy, particularly the downhill paddling not available anywhere near Port Charlotte. Danny coached them through riffles and small rapids, got them portaged around the ominous Angel, and gave them a running canoe-school version of how to keep out of trouble and what to do if they didn't. Then came the "until". In a Class 2 drop about two miles below the portage their overladen canoe hit a hole. It took on water - lots of water - veered and dumped its crew into the 50-degree stream. As parents and son clung to the swamped boat, Danny got their bow painter, attached it to his canoe, told them to stay upstream of their wallowing craft, and headed for a beach on the river left. But Diane, struggling to get upstream, got downstream. Her right leg lodged between the canoe and a rock in a classic pin. She heard a snap and, as a paramedic, gave the educated opinion that she had a broken femur.
I was paddling a vintage Blue Hole into the run-in of the choppy drop, tailed by my grandson kayakist, David Franck, 15, when I noted the Scudder predicament in mid-stream. David took Randy in tow and I took Frank while Danny churned ahead with Diane holding onto the swamped canoe. Finally, we made it to the beach. Rain was pelting down, the air temperature was below 50 degrees and the situation was grim, as rescue was hours away. We knew that four or so miles downstream Wheeley would be waiting with his four-wheeled-drive shuttle vehicle, Danny took charge of the marooned threesome as David and I headed for help. We met Bob at the Station Camp takeout.
Moments later he was headed for the top of the mountain and the first house on the plateau that had a telephone. He called the Park Service at Bandy Creek. Chris Malanka, chief ranger, wilderness rescue instructor and veteran of many area emergencies, took charge as rescue coordinator and participant. In minutes he had a formidable group from the park service and the local Inter-Agency Rescue Team headed for the isolated river bank where Danny and his charges waited, Diane in pain and mild shock, her husband and son in trembling cold.
The rescue team response was rapid, just less than one and one-half hours from the time Wheeley notified the Park Service until the rescuers reached the beleaguered group. They came into the rugged remote area, its trails muddled by recent and current rain, in four-wheeled-drive transportation, including ATVs, and on foot. From river right they sighted the hapless, shivering group on river left, to which there was no feasible land approach. As the rescue team set up for getting a rope across the river, a Park Service raft brought in upstream over an old mining road lumbered into view. Meanwhile, Danny and some other boaters, including fishermen, who had come upon the stranded whitewater runners had made a fire, boiled water for coffee, turned the canoe upside down and draped it with a tarp as a family shelter from the rain and cold. Ranger Malanka's team, now numbering 10, including Wheeley, who had hiked upstream from Station Camp, got Diane into a traction splint, treated her for shock and incipient hypothermia, loaded her on a litter and paddled the raft to river right. >From the raft Diane's stretcher was attached to the frame of a one-wheeled rugged terrain rescue apparatus, which with three persons on each side to balance and push, made the laborious trip to he top of the mountain.
Once on the plateau the injured adventurer was transferred to a four-wheeled drive truck that was met by a Scott County four-wheeled drive ambulance, her final conveyance before reaching Scott County Hospital in Oneida, Tennessee, roughly four hours after rescue operations were initiated. Diane was treated and released. The family headed for home in the Sunshine State in their vacation van, as the rescuers returned to their more mundane chores, and Bob Wheeley paddled his shipwrecked canoe to the takeout. Reached by telephone a couple of days later in her home in placid Port Charlotte, Diane reported that she had suffered torn tendons, damaged right knee and many bruises but no break. What did she think of the rescue? "Wonderful!" Would the family return to Tennessee whitewater? "Of course we'll be back. We loved it." Meanwhile David and I reached our takeout at Yamacraw, Kentucky. How was out trip? Cold.