CHAMPION KAYAKER PINNED IN WEST RIVER
"Lower Run" below the park near Jamaica, Vermont: May 6, 1989
Volume: @2600 cfs (High); Classification: II
SUMMARY: On May 7, 1989 a group of paddlers from Dartmouth's Ledyard Canoe Club began a novice trip on Vermont's Lower West River. The river was unusually high due to recent rains. About halfway down the run Mimi LeBeau, a championship level flatwater kayak racer, capsized above a strainer. The water carried her into the tree where she was separated from her boat and pinned underwater. Her body was not recovered until an upstream dam was turned off.
DESCRIPTION: The West River below the Salmon Hole is a classic novice run. The rapids are clean and unobstructed, with small waves and good eddy lines for teaching. The normally scheduled dam release of 1300 cfs was augmented by substantial inflow from side-streams, raising the flow to twice that figure. This increased the speed and power of the current, but the river is quite wide and unobstructed here, so the difficulty was probably unchanged.
Mimi LeBeau was a Dartmouth Freshman making her first whitewater trip with the Ledyard Canoe Club. A gifted athlete, she was a nationally ranked flat water kayak racer. She had been introduced to whitewater kayaking via a series of "pool sessions" as a member of Ledyard Canoe Club, including basic strokes and roll instruction, and had previously paddled some easy rapids. She had also run easy rivers with people she met before college. She was part of a group which included two very experienced paddlers, several people with solid beginner skills, and a few novices like herself. The group made its way down without incident except for the occasional swim which is to be expected on novice trips.
The group gathered in an eddy to discuss a major obstacle downstream: a submerged tree. Mimi flipped when leaving the eddy; I believe that she was probably floating upside down until she made contact with the tree. At this point she probably came out of her boat and was pinned fast under about 3' of water. Several other students had problems here. Once the group realized she was gone, they initiated a search. They guessed she was pinned in the tree, but it was not until 75 minutes later, when the dam was turned off, that they could recover her body. Her life jacket had been ripped off and her sweater pulled over her head by the force of the water.
SOURCES: Jim Heally, Bill Huber
1) High water covers up obstacles while increasing the speed and power of the river. It makes a flip more likely and rescue much more difficult. Although the river probably looked fine at the put-in, the flow increased substantially over the course of the trip. This added push can be troublesome for marginal paddlers, and although they are more likely to capsize and harder to get to shore, the added water makes swimming less abusive. Calculating water levels under conditions of high inflow can be difficult, and is best done at the take-out.
On the Lower West River, high water did not increase to the difficulty much. But the accident site was the exception. Although not uniformly fatal (several students brushed it; one swain through it) it was clearly an unusual hazard which merited a conservative approach.
2) When Mimi hung in her boat instead of bailing out she unwittingly exposed herself to danger. Being underwater, she could not see ahead and was unable to take protective action. There are two theories: one is that she was trying to roll as she had been trained. The second is that she may have been waiting for a bow rescue. The latter possibility troubles me. Bow rescues are being used increasingly to rescue novices on training trips. They work well in flat water and in the runout of rapids where calm water lies downstream. But the use of this technique on river trips is not, in my opinion, advisable in the light of this accident.
We're not sure if the bow rescue theory is true; none of the survivors made such a pre-arrangement with Mimi, but it could have been a holdover from pool training. Mimi's death has taught us that when the current is continuous and help is far away bow rescues are too risky. The student will be at best exhausted and out of air when they bail out. What probably happened to Mimi is that by bailing out by the strainer she pushed herself underwater just before impact. This resulted in an unusually deep entrapment. Out of air and exhausted, she never had a chance. Every paddler should be taught aggressive self rescue skills, and those who can't roll should bail out at once to maximize their ability to deal with what lies below.
CONCLUSIONS: This was a strong, well-equipped novice trip by today's standards. This was not enough to prevent the tragedy. It's a clear indication of how a "virtue", like hanging in your boat, can work against you in some circumstances. Such behavior is worth discouraging on future beginner trips.
Postscript: Ms. Lebeau's family sued Dartmouth College, whose Ledyard Canoe Club is the oldest collegeate paddling club in the country. The same students who lead this informnal outing also taugfht classes for the PE department., and there were no waivers or policies separating the activity from the student run club, much less the informal "pickup" trips. This failure, rather than any breaches of safety under water, cost them the case.