RIVER DEBRIS CLAIMS NOVICE KAYAKER
Tuckaseegee River Near Bryson City, NC: July 9, 1989
Volume: High; Classification III
By Slim Ray for the Nantahala Outdoor Center
SUMMARY: Roger Stallings, 30, of Greenville, TN, drowned
while paddling a kayak on the Tuckasegee River near Dillsboro, N.C., July 9,
1989. Stallings was taking a beginner
kayak clinic from the nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, N.C. He drowned when his kayak became pinned and
folded on a large conveyor belt caught in the middle a small rapid. Efforts by the two NOC instructors to free
the kayak were unsuccessful.
DESCRIPTION: The clinic put in below the dam at Dillsboro
and moved down the river about a mile and a half. A hundred yards below the Railroad Bridge
Rapid (Class II), a small island splits the river, narrowing it to a channel
perhaps seventy feet wide with a fast chute of current and several standing
waves about a foot high. The last wave
breaks back to form a small hole. On the
river right of the chute is a large rock some four feet in diameter which
sticks up out of the water about three feet.
Below this rapid (it is stretching things slightly to call it Class II),
is a deep pool, then the river broadens and becomes very shallow, then deepens
again and is split by another island.
The lead instructor took two students with him to run down
through this rapid. The rest of the
students were to follow him single-file through the wave train. The assistant instructor stayed above the
rapid to assist the remaining members of the group. Stallings was the next to last boat
down. His boat stopped abruptly in the middle
of the last wave, then began to fold with the stern climbing into the air. In less than a minute, according to
witnesses, the stern folded over, forcing his head underwater.
Stallings pinned, as later investigation would show, on an
industrial conveyor belt lodged underneath the rock on the right. The belt looped out into the current more
than halfway across the chute and was hidden in the wave/hole at the
bottom. The belt was some 18" wide
and made of an extremely stiff rubberized material. Its length is still unknown, and efforts to
remove it have not been entirely successful.
The belt faced edge-on to the current and moved dynamically up and down
in a random fashion. There was no
surface signature or warning of this deadly snare. Only a half-hour before another kayak clinic
had traversed this same rapid with no problems.
The bow of the kayak (a Perception Dancer) evidently became caught in a
loop of this belt. Clearly it was a
matter of timing; Stalling's bow plunged down into the wave at the same time
the belt surged up.
The two instructors began rescue efforts immediately, but it
was nearly ten minutes before they were able, at considerable risk to
themselves, to attach a rope to the boat's grab loop and begin to pull the boat
free. During the rescue, Stalling's body
washed out of the boat and was not recovered until several days later.
ANALYSIS: This is the type of accident that haunts every
kayak instructor. The hazard was
invisible, unexpected, and deadly. The
instructors did not know until the next day, after an investigation by rescue
squad members, exactly what had caused the pinning. A local outfitter claims to have seen the
belt upstream and to have tried to remove it during a prior river cleanup
trip. In his opinion the belt moved
downstream during the period of high water in the week before the
accident. The Tuckasegee flows through
several small towns and has some industry on the banks and tributaries. There is a fair amount of junk in the river,
although most of it is harmless.
Certainly it is irresponsible (although unfortunately common) to throw
things like conveyor belts in the river.
Rescue efforts by the instructors were quick and effective,
but a situation like this simply points up the lack of time in a head-down
pin. Rescuers have only 3-5 minutes, at
most, to assess the situation and extricate the victim. The only possible criticism of the rescue was
that both instructors exposed themselves to a great deal of danger in their
attempt to rescue Stallings.
The boat, a Perception Dancer, folded just forward of the
cockpit. It appears from examining the
boat that a loop of the belt slid up the left side of the boat until it was
stopped by the cockpit. It is worth
noting that a releasable safety deck would have been of no use in this
situation, since the belt would have covered the deck. Similarly, a European bulkhead design would
have most likely have folded even sooner, because the belt pressed against the
unsupported side of the boat rather than against the bow. A fiberglass boat with a breakaway cockpit
might have broken enough to let the paddler get free, although this is by no means
certain. In short, the vertical wall
system favored in this country worked about as well as anything could have been
On the bright side, cooperation between the Jackson County
Rescue Squad and the Nantahala Outdoor Center for the recovery of Stalling's
body was exemplary. The river-wise
paddlers from NOC handled most of the water searches, while the rescue squad
contributed their equipment and expertise in support and overall management of