FATAL ACCIDENT ON THE CHATOOGA RIVER
Section IV south of the Route 76 Bridge near Clayton, GA
Date: Wednesday, May 15,1991
Gauge Reading 2.3; Class V Difficulty
SUMMARY: On May 15 a group of Richmond, Virginia paddlers arrived to attempt Section IV of the Chatooga, which was running high from recent rains. The victiM, Chris Booker, swam in an attempt to run crack-in-the- rock, swam to safety, then fell into the hole in an attempt to recover his boat. He was carried through the remainder of the run and found floating in the lake below.
DESCRIPTION: Section IV of the Chatooga is one of the best known rivers in the South. The "FiveFalls" section where the accident occurred is quite steep and obstructed, and gets considerably more difficult with rising water. While the river has been run much higher, 2.3 feet is an extremely challenging level. That flow was almost certainly augmented by higher-than-average flows from feeder streams.
The Victim, Chris Booker, had been paddling only a few years, but was comfortable in expert-level whitewater. He and other members of his group had run the river so far without incident, scouting and running the major drops. They had just come through Corkscrew and were scouting Crack-In-The-Rock when one of the group's boats started slipping off shore and into the water. Someone grabbed the boat, but the paddle fell out of the cockpit and into the river. As the paddle's owner headed downstream, Booker jumped into his boat and attempted to run Center Crack. Here he was hammered by a bad hole and forced to exit his boat. He got out on the rock between right and center crack. His boat was recirculating in the hole, so he reached over and tried to pull it out. In doing so, he lost his footing and fell into the water, where he was sucked under and held for five seconds before reappearing some distance downstream.
His friends believe he was conscious at this point. One of them made eye contact with him, and yelled for him to swim to shore. He made no effort to do so, and was swept into Jawbone Rapid, the longest and most difficult drop in the five falls. The group, fearing the worst, got into their boats and gave chase, portaging the drops. Arriving at the lake backwaters without finding trace of him, they began a thorough search of the rapids upstream. As darkness fell they began to paddle out across the lake; they found him floating face down in the water just before the lake begins to widen.
SOURCES: Steve Searboro, Bob Taylor, Mike Beswick
1) The major cause of this accident was poor judgement on the part of the victim. The Chatooga at this level is extremely dangerous, and demands the greatest respect from those who try it. This is especially true when making a first run at such a high level without the presence of someone who knows the river.
2) The hole at Center Crack is notoriously difficult at these levels, and this drop is frequently portaged. Perhaps urged on by the runaway paddle, Chris Booker made a snap decision to run center crack without downstream backup. This set up the predicament which led to his death.
3) After coming up on a mid-stream rock surrounded by holes and rushing water, Chris made a second unfortunate decision by attempting to recover his boat. It pulled him back into the hole for a serious thrashing. Locals familiar with the drop at low water indicate that there are shallow rocks in that area. Considering his dazed state after his swim and the coroner's report of head injury, the theory is that he was dazed from the impact from an underwater rock. Both of his mistakes were occasioned by a desire to rescue gear. While risk-taking can be justified when a life is at stake, more caution is in order when only gear is involved.
4) Booker's decision to run the drop in the absence of downstream safety minimized the rescue options available to the group. An expert paddler familiar with the river suggests that there might have been time to effect a swimming rescue in the pool between the drops, but that would have been extremely dangerous because of the high water and lack of back-up from the rest of the group. The group exercised good judgement in not chasing the victim downstream through unfamiliar rapids, although at the lake searchers might have been sent in both directions rather than just upstream. It's doubtful that this would have made and difference, however.
Despite advances in equipment and technique which make expert rivers more accessible to newcomers, the dangers are undiminished. On rivers like the Chatooga, it is easy for small mistakes to have awful consequences which may not be fully understood by those just beginning their experience with white water of this difficulty. (CCW)