Recovery at Raven Chute
By Buzz Williams
She drowned in the Chattooga River at Raven Chute Rapid on Memorial Day 1999. Rachel Mae Trois was four days away from her 17th birthday when she slipped while wading above the rapid, and was swept down by the current into a chute in the heart of the torrent. The most likely scenario is that she was slammed by the river into a "strainer," a piece of wood lodged in the rocks in heavy current, and pinned against it by the rushing river, helpless to reach the surface. She drowned in a matter of minutes.
Rachel was the 35th death on the Chattooga River since the Forest Service began keeping records, which date back to 1970. Soon, I would know more about Rachel than any of the other victims who were on the Forest Service’s list, with the possible exception of two fellow river guides. I learned from the L. A. Times that she wore a bright orange dress to her high school prom two days before the accident. Many friends in the little town of Leesport, Pennsylvania, where Rachel grew up, sent e-mail messages telling us about her and how much she was loved. They told us about Rachel’s exploits as a star athlete, as catcher on the Schuykill Valley girls softball team and on the high school field hockey team.
They also let us know that they held us, the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition, and the Forest Service responsible for delaying the recovery of her body. One message read, "Let them retrieve their daughter from the icy grave you have her in now." I strained my eyes while staring at a grainy fax of her photograph in a local newspaper, trying to see what she looked like. When I finally saw a good picture of Rachel, it was easy to understand the affection that so many people felt for the attractive young woman with the effervescent smile. But it was the unlimited love of a mother and father, driven by an intense campaign to bring the body of their daughter home, which triggered a chain of events resulting in the largest and most controversial search and rescue/recovery operation in the history of the Chattooga River watershed. In itself, this obsession was only natural for parents; yet, it precipitated bureaucratic decisions and misguided political intervention that caused the huge controversy.
Approximately thirty minutes after Rachel disappeared at Raven Chute, Tom Cromartie, an intern with the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition (CRWC) arrived at the scene. Tom likes to paddle in the evening, when most paddlers are already through for the day. He said that when he paddled up at around 6:45pm, two young men were running up the shore yelling, "There’s a girl down there!" These young men were Chuck Yoder and his brother. Chuck was Rachel’s boyfriend, a seaman with the U. S. Navy stationed at Charleston, South Carolina. The three of them, along with the Yoder boys’ parents and a couple friends, had hiked to Raven Chute Rapid to play in the river and see the 120 foot precipice called Raven’s Rock, which is 200 yards downstream of the rapid on the South Carolina side.
Raven’s Rock is a striking feature of the lower section of the Chattooga below the highway 76 bridge. Here, the Wild and Scenic River Corridor combined with the surrounding national forest lands in South Carolina and Georgia comprise enough acreage of remote land to be considered as a stand-alone wilderness area. On the South Carolina side, it was once known as the Long Creek Roadless Area. That was before the Forest Service hacked it up with a system of logging roads to get to the timber, back in the 1980’s. The ancient bedrock that forms Raven Chute is typical of the whole watershed. The gray, granite gneiss is patterned with parallel rippling streaks formed during a metamorphosis driven by tremendous heating, melting and cooling of the rock during multiple geologic events over millions of years. Many rocks are worn smooth, polished by eons of current to accent the various shades of gray and white streaks. Some rocks are undercut—overhanging and facing the current—and riddled with "potholes" drilled out over time by sand-laden waters. These potholes are of various sizes, with some tunneling completely through solid bedrock. It is these undercut rocks and potholes that make the Chattooga so dangerous.
Water level is also a big factor. The Chattooga is not impounded above Lake Tugaloo, and therefore its water level fluctuates with rainfall. Consequently, the Chattooga can change from a raging, flooded river to a creek-like mountain stream within a few weeks. It is the lower to medium water levels where most accidents occur since the undercuts, strainers and potholes lie close to the surface beneath the deceptively strong current. Often we hear the uninitiated say, "It doesn’t really look that dangerous." The water level on Memorial Day was at one of those low/medium levels that tempt disaster.
The next day, which was a Sunday, the water level was still too high to reach into where Rachel’s body was believed to be trapped. By then, the "Swift Water Rescue Team" had been convened to attempt a recovery. This team was formed under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) drawn up by the Forest Service. The group consisted of Rabun and Oconee County Rescue Squads, Sheriff’s Departments, coroners, the Forest Service and the commercial outfitters on the Chattooga. Forest Service guidelines require the agency to adhere to its Forest Plan, which clearly abrogates the ultimate authority for search and rescue to the local authorities. Initially,the Swift Water Rescue Team tried to locate the body using Search and Rescue Dog Teams (SARDOG). These dogs are trained to detect airborne scents, and were taken as close as possible to the base of the rapid in a raft. The strong reaction from the dogs was interpreted to indicate that Rachel’s body was lodged in the rapid.
The following day, a Tyrolean system was constructed across the river. This consisted of a cable stretched between two trees, from which a Forest Service River Ranger was lowered in a harness close to the suspected entrapment spot. From this position, he used a long aluminum pole to probe underwater. Later that day, rescuers used two pieces of plywood to attempt to divert some of the current away from the entrapment area. Both efforts failed to produce results. The following Saturday, an underwater camera mounted on the end of the pole was used from the front of a raft to scan the rapid. In the images obtained from this camera work, rescuers believed they saw the image of a body lodged in the center of the rapid about eight feet below the surface, in heavy current.
After these recovery efforts, the Swift Water Rescue Team made a pivotal decision to abandon any further attempts to recover Rachel’s body. The Trois family was informed that the rescuers had exhausted all means to recover her body. It seemed that Raven’s Rock Rapid would be Rachel’s final resting place. The Trois family returned to Pennsylvania, but speculation continued about where Rachel’s body was and if there were any unexplored methods of recovery. Some felt that an incident a few years ago at a rapid called Left Crack was a factor in the decision to abandon recovery efforts. Left Crack is located at the third rapid in the Five Falls area of Section Four, and is a death trap at medium water levels. Swimmers in Corkscrew rapid, which is immediately upstream, risk being swept over the five foot falls and lodged in an hour glass shaped formation of rocks at the base of the falls, where the body is jammed tighter and tighter beneath the pummeling water. In the incident cited above, the victim was wedged so tightly that when rescuers tugged on the ropes attached to his body, it was pulled apart.
One eye witness was so moved by the horrible scene that afterwards, he joined with the victim’s family in an unrelenting campaign to force the Forest Service to alter Left Crack by dropping a concrete plug into the rapid to prevent future drownings. This proposal caused another huge controversy. Finally, the Forest Service sent out a scoping letter asking for public opinion on the matter. Overwhelmingly, the public opposed such measures. Their reasoning was that any action to alter the river would set a precedent leading to never-ending attempts to make the Chattooga "safe." But the list of dangerous spots was essentially endless, including well known rapids such as Bull Sluice, Woodall Shoals and Sock-em-Dog—all were places where one could argue that bedrock alteration might prevent future deaths.
The Left Crack question had been put to rest by public opinion, but there was also another factor. In 1989, after the proposal to plug Left Crack, the Office of General Counsel ruled that alteration of bedrock in the Chattooga River would be a violation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. This Act mandates that these wild places must be left unaltered by the hand of mankind, and managed for an experience to include challenge, risk and adventure. Joe Trois went back to Pennsylvania, but could not let go of his fervent desire to bring his daughter’s body home to rest. He searched on the Internet for resources to help, and found a company located in New Jersey called "Portadam." The company representative offered his services for setting up a portable dam to divert the Chattooga, to facilitate recovery efforts. This was what Rachel’s father needed to begin a campaign to revive recovery operations.
Joe contacted his congressman, Representative Holden from Pennsylvania, who in turn contacted Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Senator Thurmond made a strong request on behalf of the Trois family that the Forest Service issue a permit to Portadam for installing a diversion device on the Chattooga. I learned of these plans to bring in a portable dam on Tuesday June 22nd, and immediately met with the Forest Service District Ranger in South Carolina to find out the status of the recovery efforts. This was not something I wanted to get involved with, as in my former professions as a river guide and a Forest Service River Ranger, I had had my fill of search and recovery operations. As Executive Director of CRWC, it was not my business, unless it involved violations of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and other conservation issues. Soon,my fears about this operation were realized. The contract with Portadam included a clause allowing the use of a jackhammer to drill holes in the river bedrock, to secure the dam. The Ranger assured me that this would only be used as a last resort. I protested on the spot. Furthermore, the diagram for the dam seemed suspect, as it was attempting to divert the whole river counter to its natural flow. However, I thought that the dam was worth a try, but only if it could be installed with more benign methods to anchor the dam’s frame, such as sandbags and devices often used by rock climbers called chocks and slings.
I had anticipated that this plan would use a more reasonable approach; however, I learned later that the issues got very polarized during a planning meeting held by the Swift Water Rescue Team the night before. Here, a shouting match between some individuals had ensued over the use of the Portadam. Back in the CRWC office on Wednesday, telephone lines were jammed by calls from people concerned about the issue of bringing in a jackhammer to drill holes in the bedrock of the Chattooga River. We decided to hold a public meeting on June 24th to air the facts. Here, the crowd of mostly river guides was adamantly opposed to the decision to permit Portadam. I explained our position that the CRWC was not opposed to the device per se; however, we were quite concerned about the precedent of permitting bedrock alteration. There were those who questioned our decision not to pursue litigation to stop the action by obtaining a temporary restraining order from a federal judge. I explained that this would have been virtually impossible, and that our most viable strategy was to work with the rescuers and offer assistance in setting up a diversion that would safely and effectively accomplish the task without drilling holes in the bedrock.
Early the next morning, I hiked to the river by way of an old logging road on the South Carolina side. Immediately upon arriving at Raven Chute, I was met by four river guides who told me that Portadam was running the show, and that the jackhammer was being brought down to the river. When asked if Portadam had considered other methods of anchoring the dam, they told me the rescue officials estimated there would be about 40 holes drilled to secure the device. Meanwhile, it was raining with no sign of clearing, and the water was rising. I borrowed a life jacket and swam across the river, where I met two old friends assisting the Swift Water Rescue Team whom I had worked with as a river guide. They were glad to see me, and we exchanged handshakes. However, I was there to protest the violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and when I stated this to the nearest Forest Service Ranger, my friends turned away. They were a part of the operation, and did not want to break ranks. Later, I was told that turning over control of the recovery operation to Portadam was the biggest mistake made that day.
On May 29th Rachel Troy, 16, and her boyfriend attempted to wade across the Chatooga River just 20 feet upstream of Raven Rock Rapid. The river was running low, at 1.2', but despite this the pair lost their footing and were swept into the rapid. Ms. Troy was washed into an undercut rock where she became pinned under 8 feet of water. Her boyfriend, who survived, borrowed a PFD from nearby boaters and initiated a series of heroic rescue attempts. On his last try he dislocated his shoulder. Several area rescue squads worked for days but were unable to touch, much less release, her body. However, and underwater camera was used to pinpoint it's location.
The girl's distraught parents applied considerable political pressure to continue the recovery efforts. By doing this they collided head-on with defenders of this Wild and Scenic River who wanted to make certain that the area would not be damaged during these attempts. In late June, following pressure from South Carolina Senators Strom Thurmond and Earnest Hollings, a portable dam was carried into the gorge by convict labor and erected to divert the water. This involved drilling a number of small holes into the riverbed. Dennis Kerrigan, a long time rescue instructor and extrication expert, was flown down from Maine to assist. The effort was not successful. Later, after confusing reports from the rescue team and the Forrest Service regarding the actual location of the body, a second attempt was successfully made with a larger portable dam. Reportedly, no new holes were needed.