A 23 year-old Maryland man died on the Shenandoah River near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia on June 29th. According to a report published in “Splashes”, the newsletter of the West Virginia Wildwater Association, Jesse Heise was paddling with two other people when he flipped and swam at Bull Falls, a Class II+ ledge. The river was running 4.2’ that day, which is medium-high.
He was floating down a wave train, holding onto his boat and paddle, when his sprayskirt caught on a submerged log. The snag was deep in the water and not visible from upstream. A group of paddlers and river guides formed a human chain. They were not sure how he was caught at first; they thought it might be a foot entrapment. Once they figured out the mechanism, someone passed a knife to the lead rescuer who quickly cut Mr. Heise free. After using a cell phone to contact 911, they floated the victim down to the Route 340 Bridge. Because of some unexplained confusion the ambulance didn’t arrive for almost an hour. It’s not clear that this would have made a difference, however.
Because the Shenandoah River is popular with novices, the hidden snag was not forgotten. About a month later, when the river dropped to 2.8’, a group of river guides arrived at Bull Falls to remove it. The snag was almost completely hidden in a standing wave. After several hours of fancy rope work they removed an 8” diameter tree, complete with its root ball. This is almost certainly what snagged Mr. Heise’s sprayskirt.