ALASKAN KAYAKER KIILLED IN LONG SWIM
Little Susitna River near Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Date: June 18, 1991 Gradient: 150 ft/mi
Gauge: 6.4' (High Water) Classification: IV-V
SUMMARY: On June 18, 1991 a two-boat party was making a run down the Little Susitna River when one of the group capsized and swam. His partner immediately attempted rescue, but the victim was unable to assist and was swept downstream. His partner paddled ahead for help, finding construction workers who radioed police. His body was found just upstream of the bridge.
DESCRIPTION: The Little Susitna River is a steep, boulder choked Class V run known for its continuous rapids with few large eddies. Like most Alaskan rivers, the water is extremely cold. The victim, Tom MeAssey, was an experienced kayaker who had run the river "between 70 and 80 times" and five or six times during the previous week according to news reports. He had apparently injured his back shortly before his death and may not have been boating to capacity. His partner was equally experienced.
MeAssey was in "Death Ferry" rapid when he flipped. He recovered his equipment, and was slammed into downstream rocks. When his partner got to him he was dazed and unresponsive, and unable to grab his boat. His swim was to go on for miles; he was in the water for fifteen minutes. After a while he started floating face down. His partner, after making numerous attempts to effect a boat rescue, raced ahead to places where the current was slower and tried to pick MeAssey up without success. Realizing that a construction crew would be working downstream at a bridge, he sprinted ahead. He was able to flag a car parked along the riverbank, and by the time he got downstream state police had been called. Working upstream, the group found McAssey about 200 yards above the bridge. CPR was started without success.
1) "Death Ferry" is clearly a serious drop; one in which you forget your gear and swim like crazy for the safest side of the river in the event of an unplanned swim. It's unclear if this would have made a difference, but the victim might have been better able to protect himself without having to worry about his boat and paddle.
2) Rescuing an unconscious swimmer in fast-moving water is extremely difficult. You almost have to abandon your boat and attempt a swimming rescue, bringing the victim in on a cross-chest carry. This is a very dangerous procedure for a single person on a river of this difficulty. With more back-up it might have been tried in some of the slower spots.
Rivers of this difficulty carry with them considerable risk of death or injury regardless of the paddler's ability. A missed roll can have serious consequences which must always be weighed beforehand.