Accident Database

Report ID# 755

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

Accident Description

Jeff Ellis, an expert kayaker was killed on Shakelford Creek in Northern California’s Klamath River Drainage on May 3, 2003. He was paddling with a group affiliated with Ashand Mine Productions, a whitewater video production company in Oregon. According to the Medford, Oregon Mail-Tribune, Jeff ran a 15-foot waterfall successfully, but was pulled back into the reversal from a downstream eddy. The article noted that his boat was full of water, making control very difficult. His friends threw him a rope and eventually one of them swam in after him. But despite all this, he drowned. Details of this incident are still sketchy, and anyone knowing more is encouraged to contact AW’s Safety Committee.

Tragedy on the river

By Sean Wolfe
Ashland Daily Tidings

An heroic rescue attempt by his friends was not enough to save the life of 23-year-old kayaker Jeffery David Ellis, who has lived in Ashland for the past two years. Ellis died Saturday at Shackleford Falls, a 15-foot waterfall on Shackleford Creek near Fort Jones in Siskiyou County, Calif.


It was the end of the day, and Ellis was accompanied by his friends - all whitewater experts known for their love of conquering unnavigated streams throughout the West, and in Central and South America. It was also not considered a particularly challenging fall by the group, which routinely takes on waterfalls considerably higher, and had conquered this body of water on past occasions.

According to friend and former roommate Ben Stookesberry, the group had hiked in to shoot the fall, and Ellis was preceded by four others.  Then it was Ellis's turn to come down the chute. He landed - "boofed" in river parlance - while a comrade was still attempting to get out of the eddy. "Jeff looked at me, and said he was not able to make it out because his boat had too much water in it. So we threw him a rope," Stookesberry said.

As the party started to pull Ellis free, his boat flipped, and he started to attempt a maneuver known as the Eskimo roll, in which an inverted kayaker uses a paddle to return to an upright position. "He tried five or six rolls, but on every roll his boat inched closer to the falls, and where the eddy recirculated," Stookesberry said. At that point, Ellis righted himself and grabbed the rope, but was then plunged under the falls, where he lost consciousness, and released the safety line.

Another whitewater comrade Tristan Ragsdale jumped into the water without his safety gear and attempted another rescue. Ragsdale managed to grab Ellis' lifejacket, and another safety line was thrown in, which Ragsdale seized. But Ellis was too heavy for Ragsdale, which sent another man - Devin Knight - scrambling to grab both Ellis and Ragsdale. The kayakers formed a human chain, but it wasn't enough. Ellis slipped from his lifejacket, and went under a third time, before the river flushed him free of the eddy.

Dragging him from the river, the group applied CPR for a half-hour before authorities from the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department arrived. According to Susan Gravenkamp, public information officer for the department, the death was ruled an accident, and deputies investigating the scene had high praise for Ellis' fellow kayakers.

"The officers commented that the other members of the group did everything as they should have. The CPR was excellent, and they were prepared as much as they could be from a safety perspective," Gravenkamp said. His father, Jim Ellis, also had high praise for his son's compatriots. "You have to understand that Ben, and all those guys are awesome people. They're pro kayakers, and some of the best in the world. Tristan jumped in without his safety gear on to rescue Jeff," Jim Ellis said.

Besides Ragsdale's efforts, Jim Ellis singled out Ben Stookesberry, Devin and Ryan Knight, and Andrew Gerdes for their personal courage and heroism. "I can't tell you how much we appreciate everything they did. These kids are heroes as big as anyone during 9/11," Jim Ellis said.

Known to his friends as "The Bear," Ellis was a big man. According to his father, Jeff stood 6 foot 4 and weighed 260 pounds. His friends said he was the kind of guy that was an asset to a defensive line in football, and in baseball, became a savage pitcher on the mound. But despite an offer of a football scholarship to Lewis & Clark, once Ellis discovered whitewater he left all other sports behind. He had three years of experience, and spent a third of the year on a variety of rivers with his friends.

Ellis' friends are affiliated with Ashland Mine Productions, a video production company that produces quarterly videos of "extreme kayaking" throughout North, Central and South America. The company takes its name from a house on Ashland Mine Road, where the whitewater afficionados all quartered. To support his river habit, Ellis took a job as a waiter at Outback Steakhouse, and took health writing classes at Rogue Community College.

While his size gave him the strength to fight his way through some of the toughest rapids in the world, when it came to his rescue at Shackleford, his size became a liability. Ellis' friends and family returned Sunday to Shackleford Falls, where a flaming red Japanese Maple was planted in his honor. A plaque made by his cousin Joe Ellis will also be mounted at that location.

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