MEADOW RIVER CLAIMS A SECOND EXPERT BOATER
"Lower Run" below the Rt 19 Bridge: Sept 22, 1991
Volume 915 cfs (Moderate/Optimum)
Gradient 95 ft/mi; Classification: V
DESCRIPTION: The Lower Meadow River is one of the East's most difficult whitewater runs. The drop/pool character of the rapids, combined with the huge size of the boulders in the riverbed, makes the river much harder than its gradient would suggest. The victim, Whitney Shields, was paddling with a group of experts from Washington, D.C. He was one of the best paddlers in the East, and had run Great Falls of the Potomac dozens of times and the Lower Meadow "four or five times" before. Eric Lindburg, who attempted the rescue, had a similar background.
Eric Lindburg's narrative begins:
"Everyone was a little tense at the put-in, but once in our boats we settled down. We carried the major drops - Brink of Disaster and Coming Home, Sweet Jesus - and stopped for lunch at the head of an island downstream.
"Approximately 2.5 miles downstream we came up on a drop that both Whitney and I recognized as a tough one to run clean. The drop is at the end of a large island and has three distinct channels. The normal line is to the far left through a narrow slot with a sharp right turn into a rocky runout. The total drop is about eight feet. Two other slots exist: The center which looked like a boof off a set-up wave down a four foot ledge to the runout, and the right which is two ledges of roughly equal height. We discussed our line from the eddy above, and Brian decided to scout from a dry rock left of center. I ran the line about two feet left of where he thought was best. The run seemed clean. Brian signalled Whitney to run more to the right.
"Whitney's line was identical to mine on the approach. As his boat went off the drop his bow dove deep and pitoned. (Described to the editor as "missing his boof move. CW) At that point his boat was nearly vertical and completely submerged. It was a critical situation.
"We had one person on a rock about four feet from Whitney. Chuck was in the eddy above; I was in the eddy below. Chuck and I immediately got out of our boats to assist; Brian immediately got his rope out. At that point I crossed the flow to get into position to help. Chuck threw a rope to Brian and belayed it to a tree. Taking a rope from Brian, I was able to get to the rock.
"The stern of Whitney's boat was visible under about 4" of water from the rock we were on. Using Chuck's rope for support I dropped down over the downstream side of the rock we were on and attempted to get under the curtain of water to help Whitney. The force of the water was too great; on the second or third try I slipped off the rock and fell straight down about 2-3 feet, landing in the water just out of the flow. I landed on what I first though was a log, but on examination was the bow of Whitney's kayak! I took a carabiner and clipped it to the bow. Once we had a line on the boat we were able to pull it free. Whitney was unconscious, but we could not get to him due to the flow around him. Brian and I pulled him onto a rock and started CPR. We continued for over an hour without success."
SOURCE: Eric Lindburg
1) This accident clearly illustrates the penalty for small losses of control in expert-level whitewater. It should be noted that Shields knew and accepted these risks, and that the group had no way of knowing that this particular drop could be so dangerous. Perhaps Shields "let down" for a second, since he was nearing the end of this run. We'll never know. (CW)
2) Shields was paddling a high-performance boat with a low volume stern and a medium-volume bow. To gain speed and maneuverability, he sacrificed pin resistance and stability, a poor choice in this case. When Shields missed the boof move his bow went straight for the bottom, and the low volume stern offered little resistance as it was pushed underwater and slammed against the ledge. This is a weakness of all boats with low-volume, squirtable sterns.
Europeans, who have run water of this difficulty for decades, use high-volume, blunt ended boats because they resist this type of pinning. They use large, "Keyhole-sized" cockpits, and paddle with rescue life vests, paddle hooks, and other gear. I suspect we have much to learn from their careful approach. Other boats can be used, but not without added risk. (CW)
3) Paddlers should be aware of their choice of footwear. Whitney's shoes, hard-sole sneakers, were stuck in the boat, making it difficult to pull him out. He actually had to be pulled free of his shoes (EL). I suspect that the fit of the boat may have been too tight for an easy escape. (CW)
4) The rescue was extremely fast and competent; the whole thing took about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, you just don't have much time in heads-down entrapments. Rescue life vests might have been helpful. A tag line, set up quickly, might have bought more time to act. It's possible that a broach loop, combined with an accessible rescue bag, might have allowed Shields to clip in and throw a rope to his companions. This is an interesting, but for now, unproven concept. (CW)
5) Local sherriff's offices were somewhat unresponsive due to confusion over jurisdiction in this remote area. The river serves as a boundary for two departments; local authorities need to develop contingency plans and protocols for handling these matters. Help took four hours to arrive. Once the Park Service took control, the things started to happen; had the sheriffs worked through them the evacuation would have proceeded more quickly. (EL)
CONCLUSIONS: It's clear that despite exceptional skills and the presence of experienced rescuers, running Class V whitewater is dangerous. Rivers like the Meadow must be treated with the utmost respect even at "perfect" levels.