Accident Database

Report ID# 779

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • High Water

Accident Description

On April 28 a strong group of local paddlers attempted the Bemis to Bowden section of Shaver's Fork of the Cheat River in West Virginia. They knew the river well, but on that day water levels rose rapidly from an early-morning reading of 500 cfs (low but runable) to a crest of over 12,000 cfs! This translated into a six foot rise at the Bowden gauge!

According to a report in "Whitewater Splashes," the newsletter of the West Virginia Wildwater Association, the river was rising sharply when they put on. The "Class III" rapids they expected were huge! Thirty year-old Joe Steffl flipped, missed his roll, and washed downstream. A friend quickly reached him and tried pulling him towards shore, but was forced to back off above a big drop. Steffl was not responsive when they reached him at the base of the rapid. A member of his group bailed out of his own boat, and with support from his group, swam the man to shore. They performed CPR for over an hour without success.


This is a limited account of the kayaking accident that occurred last Sunday on the Shavers Fork River below Bemis, W.Va. The purpose of my post is not to give a super-detailed account of what happened or to question what happened, but mainly to hush the rumor mills and to dispel any misinformation that may be circulating.

A group of 6 paddlers, all from the Elkins, W.Va area, set out to do a high water run of the Bemis to Bowden section of the Shavers. Everyone with the exception of myself and my girlfriend had paddled this run before. Joe Steffl, an experienced paddler who lived at the takeout to this run, died as a result of a flush-style drowning shortly into the nine-mile wilderness run. The entire group had stopped after we saw Joe hit an eddy on river right about a quarter mile into the run. He soon appeared swimming down the middle of the river. I approached him and offered my loop,which he took, but it was not a good place to head to shore.

He let go and continued down through large powerful waves. I stayed within close sight of him encouraging him to start heading for shore. He may have been panicked and he stopped responding to me, regardless he wouldn't take my grabloop again and wasn't making much of an effort to get to shore, but was still conscious. I stayed with him encouraging him to take some type of action, be it grab onto my boat or start stroking for the bank. He went through a set of 7 foot high waves, hit a seam and went under for about 4-5 seconds. When he resurfaced he was unconscious. Another member of our group had caught up with us by this time so I ditched my boat grabbed him and swam him to shore, where we pulled him out, found no pulse, cleared his airway and started cpr within minutes. My girlfriend paddled up seconds after cpr was started and was sent to call 911. CPR was performed for 45 minutes to an hour, with us never finding a pulse. EMS failed to revive Joe as well and continued cpr to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Everyone on this trip was well aware of the dangers involved with paddling this section at roughly 12,000 cfs. It didn't flash on us, the water was there when we put on and we all discussed the inherent dangers of paddling this river at flood. It was very clear that swimming was not an option. Joe's friend who questioned if the run was over his head, bailed and ran shuttle for us. This is typically a class III run, but at the level we ran it at I would rate more around IV-V and this was evident and mentioned at the put in.

Joe was a Physicians Assistant who dedicated his life to helping rural West Virginians maintain a quality, healthy life. Though I didn't really know him that well, it was very clear that paddling was a large part of his life and he loved it with a passion that so many of us do. He was well known throughout central West Virginia and people were lined up around the block at his viewing to say their goodbyes.

Joe's family wishes that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Friends of the Cheat, PO Box 182, Bruceton Mills, W.Va. 26525.  Also, at the request of Joe's wife Robin, there will be an informal gathering this Saturday (@2 p.m.) on the Arden section of the Tygart. Friends, paddlers and whomever are encouraged to come and say goodbye, drink some beers, surf and remember Joe at his favorite run.

-Shawn Hartje-

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