Accident Database

Report ID# 66

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Does not Apply
  • Failed Rescue
  • High Water

Accident Description


"Lower Run" between Rt. 19 and the Gauley River

September 12, 1989

Volume: 2500 cfs (Very High)

Gradient: 95 ft/mi; Classification V-VI

SUMMARY: On Gauley Festival Weekend three expert boaters attempted the Meadow River, which was running high from recent rains. One of the group, John Dolbare, came out of his boat above an unrunnable drop after a nasty surf in a hole. Despite solid attempts at rescue, he washed into the rapid below and disappeared. His body was found days later some distance downstream.

DESCRIPTION: The Lower Meadow is one of the most difficult runs in West Virginia, featuring huge rocks in a very narrow streambed. It is normally run at levels between 500 and 1200 cfs; no one had ever attempted it with the 2500 cfs it was carrying that day, Most of the rocks are undercut, and several drops are frequently carried. The team attempting it was extremely strong. Dean Tomko and Denise Handrich had been boating Class V for years, including numerous runs in California and Idaho at very pushy levels. Dolbaire was strong and competent; a precision paddler with a racer's background.

The group met at the Gauley Festival and arrived at the put-in to find the water level higher than the river had ever been run. They discussed the danger posed by the high water and the resulting difficulty of rescue, and elected to go on. Tomko describes the drops leading into the area where the accident happened as "similar to the Upper Yough at between three and four feet"; in other words, very pushy, powerful class V water. Nonetheless the group handled it well.

The party regrouped above "The Brink of Disaster", a steep, difficult drop with only a short pool separating it from a seldom-run class VI rapid. Everyone knew what was coming up and how to deal with it. The drop required that a paddler start left to avoid a huge hole, then cut right to avoid some nasty pinning rocks. Tomko ran first, taking up a position in the right eddy.

Denise went ahead and set up a throw line. John made his run, but was unable to avoid a large hole. The hole surfed him violently for about five minutes. Denise offered to throw him a line, but he refused. Finally he washed out of the hole, flipped, and ran up against a rock. Dolbaire bailed out, and shot into the current. A line throw hit him, but he didn't notice.

Downstream, Dean Tomko moved into position. There was only 100 feet of fast moving pool separating the two drops. Dolbaire grabbed his bow, so he couldn't make good headway and had to spin around and back paddle instead. Suddenly Tomko's boat broached on a small rock; Dolbaire could not hold on and was pulled into the current. Below lay a huge class VI rapid "The Room of Doom", featuring a huge suck-hole and massive undercut rocks. It is here that Dolbaire was carried. Tomko scooted to shore, portaged the drop, and searched the area thoroughly for over two hours without success. The boat and body were found two days later some miles down river.


SOURCE: Dean Tomko


1) Much is written about the risks of class V+ river running, but few incidents define the danger so clearly. The AWA Safety Code defines Class V water as follows: "Swims are dangerous, and rescue is difficult even for experts." This is a clear indication of what that phrase can mean. The group was behaving responsibly, taking all precautions, and still lost a member of their party.


2) The party involved in this accident was extremely strong and experienced; they knew that Class V water can be pretty intolerant of error. Tomko categorized the accident as "a class III mistake in class V water";  It is very fortunate that Tomko himself was not dragged to his death with Dolbaire as a result.

3) Dolbaire's refusal to accept the rope while in the hole, although understandable, was, in retrospect, a mistake. Normally a good boater would not consider such assistance, but the danger of John's position was unusual. Others who find themselves in similar circumstances may wish to accept this kind of help.

4) Squirt boaters have suggested that a lower volume boat would not have been caught in the hole. This is probably true. But I also suspect that a low-volume kayak would have not handled well in the several miles of pushy water the group negotiated upstream. In choosing a boat for a run, you must consider all its advantages and limitations for the entire run, not just isolated circumstances. Dean Tomko, who normally paddles a low-volume C-1, switched to his creek boat for this run. The other boaters were in Dancers, a reasonable choice in my opinion.


Those who push the limits expose themselves to added danger. The extremes of paddling difficulty are now quite difficult and dangerous; the risk of death is clear. Experts must realize that in extreme water only a boater's skill and judgement stands between him and disaster. Those who cannot accept the risk must decline to run. (CW)


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