Accident Database

Report ID# 624

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description


DESCRIPTION: The North Fork of the Payette River is one of the most difficult runs in Idaho , offering miles of continuous Class V rapids. A road runs along its banks, making it a desirable destination for expert paddlers. Richard Carson, 30, had been paddling since he was ten years old and ran difficult whitewater all over the world. He paddled a Tuppolino and wore a heavy-duty motorcycle helmet and a rescue PFD.  

This account of the accident was written by Brad Moulton, who accompanied Mr. Carson on the fatal day:

I met Richard on August 15, 1999 for the first time at the put in below Smiths Ferry.  We agreed to go down together and I offered to have my wife run shuttle for us. Richard was very friendly and we soon were talking about the Southeast rivers we both knew. The flow on the North Fork was somewhere between 1500-1650 cfs. The weather and water were warm and it was a beautiful place to be. We were on equal terms in the first three named rapids and took turns.  My wife followed us along the road.

I was leading as we came through Nutcracker. I eddied on the right above a large hole; Richard eddied on the left. I skirted right of center, past the hole. Richard went mid-center and dropped right into it. I immediately eddied on the right to watch Richard. He was side surfing mostly upright for approximately 30 seconds. I could only see his paddle working above the froth from the eddy.  Then his paddle floated past and soon afterwards Richard came out. He was conscious and floating feet first but didn't seen OK. I paddled out to intercept him but he did not grab my bow as I met him mid stream. I followed him through the next portion of the rapid and noticed that he wasn't trying to swim to shore.  He was hitting rocks and going under a lot as he floated down. I met him again, screamed his name, and finally got him to grab my boat. The eddies are very small in this entire section, but  I did mange to get him into one.

Richard would not let go of the boat to grab some rocks along the bank.  I was screaming for him to grab hold as we floated out backwards. I think we had entered Disneyland when I flipped.  I hit my head on a rock while upside down; I later learned later that the water pressure had punctured my eardrum. When I rolled up, Richard had let go and was floating free. I paddled to him again, but couldn't get him to grab my boat. I finally pulled him up onto my deck and he grabbed on. I got him to a slightly larger eddy. Again, he would not grab hold of any rocks. 

We floated downriver, my boat half in and half out of the slender eddy, and floated into the next drop backwards.  I flipped again and could feel Richard still hanging on as I tried to roll. My paddle snapped in half mid shaft. I tried to roll with one blade but could only get up part way and had to bail out. I quickly swam to the side and crawled out only slightly bruised.  When I last saw Richard alive he was floating around the bend with our gear towards S-Turn.

I believe in God. The first thing I did when I saw Richard floating away was to pray that if it was God's will Richard would be OK. I knew he was in terrible trouble. I walked up to a railroad on the river left side and started hiking down to a place where I could swim across. It took 10-15 minutes to reach Big Eddy. As I came down to the river I saw people along the bank (a group of ER Nurses) performing CPR on Richard. I swam across to meet them. Richard was blue and cold but didn't have any major contusions or obvious broken bones, but he was dead. The coroner later discovered a slight bruise on the top of his head.

SOURCE: by Brad Moulton, with comments from Frasier Pierce, Chuck Pezeshki, Shirley Carson; all posting to

ANALYSIS (Walbridge):

1. Brad Moulton deserves recognition for the persistent efforts he made to rescue Carson . He continued these efforts despite considerable personal risk. A significant characteristic of Class V rapids is that rescue is difficult and dangerous. I would be proud to perform as well in similar circumstances.

2. It is possible that a larger group would have been able to complete the rescue after Mr. Mouton’s paddle broke. American Whitewater recommends a minimum of three paddlers and two craft, but I personally like 4-5 people in big water.

3. It’s unclear why Mr. Carson was unable to assist in his own rescue, but it’s probable that he inhaled too much water to function well. This is not unusual when swimming in big water.


Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette offers mile after mile of relentless Class IV-V big-water rapids. It was on the upper section, in Nutcracker Rapid, that Richard Carson lost his life. According to his post on, Brad Moulton met Carson on August 15th at the put-in below Smith’s Ferry. Carson, 30, was a very experienced boater from Memphis. He was paddling a Topolino and wearing a full coverage motorcycle-style helmet After a brief discussion they agreed to paddle together.

The pair ran the first few drops cleanly, but at Nutcracker Carson dropped into a huge hole. After a short, violent surf he exited. He seemed dazed and was not swimming aggressively. Moulton moved in quickly for a boat rescue. He eventually reached a small eddy, but Carson would not let go of the boat, and they washed out the back of the eddy. Moulton flipped and rolled in the violent rapids below; he later discovered that the water pressure punctured his eardrum! Carson let go of his boat during the roll, and Moulton tried to pick him up again. Because Carson could not grab hold, Moulton pulled him onto his deck and paddled him into an eddy once again. Again Carson did not let go of Moulton’s boat and get to shore, and again they drifted out of the eddy and into the rapids. This time when Moulton snapped his paddle and flipped. He bailed out and swam to shore just in time to see Carson disappear around the bend.

After catching his breath, Moulton, who had lost his boat, walked downstream on River left to Big Eddy. Here he swam across the river to the highway, and found a group of ER nurses bent over Carson, performing CPR. Despite these efforts, the victim never regained consciousness. An autopsy uncovered no evidence of head injury; indeed, there were no broken bones of any kind. It’s probable that this death was caused by flush-drowning, and that Carson’s helplessness was simply the result of exhaustion. Brad Moulton is to be complemented on his tenacious attempts to perform a rescue despite the obvious personal risk. Doing what he did in big water is very difficult!

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