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Accident Description

On April 24, 1999 there was a fatal guide training accident on the North Fork of the Yuba near Downieville, CA. It occurred at a Class IV rapid named Two Pair during a spring training session. All present were trained as Class III river guides, with  more experienced boatmen acting as trainers for those with less experience in Class IV. Boats consisted of a 4-man paddle cataraft, a self-bailing oar-rigged raft, two self-bailing paddle boats and a 1-man oar-rigged cataraft. All the usual rescue gear was on hand. 

Two Pair rapid has a Class III lead-in followed by two channels separated by a narrow (15 feet wide) rocky island. The larger channel is to river right and drops fairly steeply through boulders and holes into a 60 foot long pool. Water in this pool is moving at a reasonable rate leading to a second drop, about 4-6 feet, between the river right shore and a very large rock in the center of the river. Beyond that is the runout. The channel to river left is narrower and has less flow. It inclines more gradually at first, then steepens and finally constricts (to less than a raft's width at the flow then present) where it goes over a 4 foot vertical drop. Most of the water plunges deep at this point, but some goes over a rooster-tailed rock jutting up on the river left side. Beyond this is a 30 feet long pool of turbulent, highly-aerated water. Some water spills from the right channel into the left, towards the downstream end of this pool. At the end of this pool, a very large rock in river center and two smaller rocks perhaps 3 feet out from the river left shoreline flank a drop of perhaps 2-3 feet into the runout of the rapid.

The last raft down, a paddleboat, bounced against the rock island and ended up in the river left chute. It came down to the constriction, slid through with the river left tube tilted up, then hit the rooster-tailed rock. The river-left tube came up and over, the raft flipped, and all seven people fell out. Neither raft nor people moved from the original flip spot quickly at first, but they suddenly accelerated and came through the pool and into the runout.  The other four boats were waiting downstream to pick up swimmers. The overturned raft  was righted quickly by the oar boat crew in midstream very quickly. All visible swimmers were recovered.

A nose count quickly revealed one person missing. People ran back upstream to the accident site. There was no sign of the missing person. A search commenced. We felt certain that the missing person must still be in the rapid because many people had been watching the runout and saw no sign of the missing rafter.  Rescue and first aid gear were brought up from the 1-man cat (which was acting as sweep). One boat was sent across the river to the highway to flag down motorists and summon emergency aid. We began probing along the river left shoreline with paddles and an oar. In the meantime, the kayaker went out to the center island, and an rope was thrown across. While the probing continued (concentrating on the two small rocks where at least one person probing felt "something give"), the rope was weighted with a rock-filled bag in an attempt to drag the bottom along the island-side shore of the pool below the flipping site. None of these attempts were successful. The water was opaque due to the high degree of aeration, making it impossible to see the victim's location.

While this occurred at the incident site, two-man search teams were sent down each bank. The oar-rig also left to search the river below the accident site. This was just in case we had missed the victim.

Soon private boaters with catarafts and the Downieville Fire Department arrived and took over command of the scene. With the Fire Department’s 300 foot rope, they rigged a high-line was rigged across the river and set up a Telfer Lower using a cataraft. Areas along the island side of the pool, then around the two small rocks at the river-left foot of the rapid, were probed with an oar from the cataraft. A search helicopter swept the canyon below accident site. At about

6:00 p.m.

, the victim's life jacket surfaced, at the end of the turbulent pool. The operation was called due to darkness, but the Telfer set-up was left in place.

Recovery operations resumed at

11:00 a.m. 

on April 24th. The body was found at around

2:00 p.m.

, wrapped around two small rocks on river left under 4 feet of water. One bootie was missing.

SOURCE: Mathew Buynoski via email


1. (Buynoski) I believe that the victim was caught in a deep underwater foot-entrapment in the vicinity of the drop, after which the body slipped out of the bootie downstream to wrap on the two rocks.

2. (Buynoski) The coroner found that the victim died from a broken neck, and did not aspirate any water. It is presumed (can't be proven) that the victim's neck was broken during the initial flipping of the raft, via impact with rocks.

3. (Walbridge) This accident would have been hard to prevent. The victim, it appears, was just unlucky. The rescue and body recovery was run in an efficient and disciplined way, and the cooperation between the fire company and the rafters was excellent.



On April 24th a guide training fatality, the first that I've encountered, occurred at Two Pair rapid on California's North Fork of the Yuba. A report from Matt Buynoski summarized the incident as follows: Boats entering this Class IV drop must chose between a right and a left chute part-way down. Most people go right, but the last raft in the group hit the head of the rocky island that splits the current and was pushed left. They hit a rooster-tail rock at the base of the drop and capsized, spilling all seven occupants into the river. The other boats in the party quickly mobilized to pick up swimmers and collect the overturned raft. A head count revealed that one person, a woman, was missing.

The group began an intense search, which included dragging the run-out with a snag line. The Downieville Fire Department arrived and set up a telfer lower using a cataraft and a 300' high line. At the same time a helicopter searched the canyon downstream. A PFD was found, but the body itself was not located until early the next afternoon. She was pinned on river left, wrapped around two small rocks in 4 feet of water. This probably happened soon after the flip.