Accident Database

Report ID# 73

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • Failed Rescue
  • High Water

Accident Description


"Black Rock" section near Golden, Colorado: June 16, 1990

Gradient: 100+ ft/mi; Volume - High; Classification V

SUMMARY: On Sunday, June 10 Ted Graff capsized while kayaking the "Black Rock" section of Clear Creek with two friends. After repeated roll attempts he bailed out, and was assisted by one of his companions. The victim could not hold on to his friend's kayak due to the continuous and turbulent nature of the river, and eventually lost consciousness. When his group got him to shore and began CPR it was too late to make a difference.

DESCRIPTION: (Alesch) "Clear Creek is a small but dangerous river flowing out of the mountains just West of Denver. It is considered Class IV except for the Black Rock section, which is generally rated as Class V. With a gradient exceeding 100 feet per mile it becomes a very pushy stream, and is technical even at high water. Rivers had gone from low to very high due to hot weather in the first week of June, resulting in three fatalities in a short time span"

Graff and his friends were experienced boaters who had run the river many times. He apparently dropped into a large hole and capsized. After repeated roll attempts he bailed out. He was picked up immediately by one of his companions; a newspaper photo shows him holding on to the bow of a kayak with his paddle in his other hand. His boat is visible in the backwash of a hole. The river is extremely steep and studded with holes, making it impossible for Graff to hold on. He became separated after dropping into a large hole in a steep section of river. Thereafter he lost consciousness, and began floating face down. The group got him to shore a half mile downstream, and began CPR. Rescue squads were notified, but had considerable difficulty getting to the far shore where the victim was being worked on.

SOURCES: Ric Alesch, AWA Rocky Mtn. Regional Coordinato.; Denver POST 6/24/90; Rocky Mountain News 6/12/90


1) Ted Graff was not using a seat belt in his kayak to hold himself in the boat as rumored. Proper outfitting should make this sort of arrangement unnecessary; muscle power, not straps, should be used to stay in a craft in big water.

2) Newspaper accounts report that one of Graff's companions described him as choking. He speculates that this was caused by cold water in his lungs, a common occurrence, which caused choking, cramping, and disorientation. I have no information on whether the victim was wearing a wetsuit or drysuit; clearly their absence would have contributed to the victim's problems.

3) An unconscious "floater" in a river presents a severe rescue problem. On easier rivers it is possible to bail out and swim the victim to shore in a cross-chest carry, but it would have been too dangerous to do so on Clear Creek.


In the AWA definition of class V this statement is made: "Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to above average endangerment" and "Swims are dangerous, and rescue is difficult even for experts." Unconscious swimmers are especially difficult to rescue, and the group clearly did all they could. This accident illustrates these problems fully; those who run this kind of water must be ready to accept these risks.  

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