On May 22nd The mighty Cheat River Canyon in Northern West Virginia gave five private rafters from Harrisburg a hard lesson in the danger of high flows. According to an article in Splashes, the newsletter of the West Virginia Wildwater Association, this group had paddled the standard Class III-IV Eastern whitewater runs for many years. They paddled long, narrow SOAR inflatables that are sort of a cross between a ducky and a raft. They were wearing life vests and wet suits and used kayak paddles for propulsion. When the Lower Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park was closed because of high water the group decided to try the Cheat Canyon. An Ohiopyle outfitter strongly advised against this and gave them directions to the much easier (but still challenging) Narrows section just upstream.
In Albright another outfitter warned them against launching. When they put in at about 1:00 pm the Cheat was running at 6.5'. This is over 15,000 cfs, well past the cut-off point for commercial outfitters. Both of the group's boats flipped in huge breaking waves in Decision Rapids, less than a mile from the start. Everyone swam ashore except David Probst. This 48 year-old man, who weighed over 325 pounds and had a scar on his chest suggestive of heart surgery, was overcome by the violent water and washed downstream.
Several of the survivors worked their way back upriver to Teter's Campground and called 911. Since two members of the group missing, local rescue squads asked guides from Mountain Streams and Trails and a group of local kayakers to help with the search. The two inflatables were found in Beech Run Rapids; the dead man and his nephew were found above Big Nasty on river left. By now Mr. Probst had been in the water for over two hours. They did CPR for about 15 minutes before one of the kayakers, a physician, pronounced the man dead. The outfitters then loaded Mr. Probst on a raft and ferried him across the river. There they tied him to a backboard and carried him up a very steep slope to a trail. After meeting the rescue squad they returned to their rafts and finished the run just before nightfall.
Most of us know the frustration of being confronted with high water after a long drive. There are lots of stories about groups in this position who tried a river which, in retrospect, should have been left alone. This experienced group should have been carrying a guidebook. There were many Class III-IV rivers running at reasonable levels that day, including the Casselman, Laurel Hill, Upper Big Sandy, Dry Fork, and of course, the Cheat Narrows. This knowledge could have saved their lives!