Accident Database

Report ID# 694

  • Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description

From Clay Wright: "Owens, 25, inexplicably got ahead of his companions and ran first without scouting. " There is a cool boof / slot just above this drop. We often boof hard right but land in the seam and backender, but miss the boof and you hit the rock on the left. You get one roll attempt and then have to paddle for the eddy. I heard from a "witness" that Ed washed over that first ledge upside down. Either way, it is likely he didn't intend to be running the rapid without scouting.

Small losses in boat control can cause big problems on Class V whitewater. The first occurred last winter, while repairs were being made to the flume at the Waterville, N.C. plant on the Big Pigeon River. This forced the power company to release water into the Dry Gorge of the Big Pigeon River for the first time in decades. This short Class V run is located along I-40 along the northern border of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. The takeout is just outside the Tennessee border. During the past 30 years"The Dries" has been just that, and it was seldom run until this past season. A rare dry Southeastern winter caused hundreds of boaters to check it out.

On February 1st, with the water level at a moderate 750 cfs, Ed Owens made his first attempt on this section with two friends. At "Chinese Arithmetic" the hardest drop on the run, Owens, 25, inexplicably got ahead of his companions and washed into it without scouting. Jason Kieth, who was at the bottom of the rapid with a friend, saw what happened next. Owens flipped in the top hole, missed two rolls, and recirculated for 3-5 minutes.

Owen's party was preparing a tethered swimmer rescue when he washed out unconscious. Kieth scrambled upstream and arrived just as Owens floated free. He dove into the river, grabbed Owens, then washed over a second, twisting drop into a large eddy. This is a pretty serious swim. Kieth did it to keep Owens from washing into a third drop containing several known undercuts and sieves.

Keith pulled Owens to shore and began CPR. As Keith's friends assisted with resuscitation efforts, Owens's friends climbed the steep bank to the interstate and flagged a passing trucker who in turn called for help. The Haywood County Fire department responded, carried Owens up the steep bank, and transported him to Haywood Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. Owens was a skilled boater who had been running hard whitewater for a while.

It's unclear why he chose to get out in front and run this drop blind. When I ran this section with Lee Belknap in June I wasn't going over any of those blind, obstructed drops without scouting or getting a briefing from Lee. Kieth credits his full wetsuit for allowing him to keep functioning despite the cold. He also would also like to thank the two Dagger reps who were paddling behind Owens's party. They continued downstream, contacted the authorities separately, then returned to the scene. While the Owens and Kieth groups were being interviewed by police they pulled everyone's boats up to the road. A very classy thing to do!


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