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Accident Description


Arroyo Del Valle near Livermore, CA : February 23, 1993

DESCRIPTION: The Arroyo Del Valle is a small creek that runs only at the peak of the rainy season in a wet year. It was probably last run in 1987, before the current drought. I had very little information, but expected a 15 mile long class IV+ run with a lot of brush.

On Saturday morning February 23, 1993 myself, John Dunlop, and Bob Booth met in Livermore and drove to the take-out at Del Valle Lake. At the put-in I noticed that John had a loose flap on the back of his life jacket. This was part of a pocket used to carry a short throw-bag for quick access. He had ripped the pocket the previous weekend and meant to fix it, but never got around to it.

We put in at about 10:30 on a slow-moving river crossed by several barbed wire fences. About three miles downstream two creeks came together. The combined flow was 400 cfs and had the feeling of a full river. The next seven miles ere easy class II-III. Most of the river was clean; in some places it was choked with brush but always had one or more runnable channels. Then we encountered some Class IV rapids with trees growing behind boulders. We could scout the rapids from our boats and pick the safest route. I usually ran first, then  eddied out below any particularly dangerous, tree infested stretch. Everything was going well except that John had flipped a few times and missed his first roll. He should have gone to roll practice, but couldn't because of night classes.

After lunch the tempo increased, with many IV's and an occasional class V. As the river began to gorge up the rapids consisted of more boulders and not as many trees. In the heart of the gorge where a powerline crosses the gradient increased to 120 feet per mile. Here we encountered several Class V rapids; we ran some and portaged others.

It was around 4:00 PM. The sun had set over the ridge an hour earlier, but we still had a couple of hours of daylight left. As we crossed under a bridge I remember saying that we must be getting close to the take-out. At around mile 16 of what turned out to be a 20 mile trip we encountered a class III rapid cluttered with live trees 2-8 inches in diameter. I ran down the center, then worked towards the widest channel on river left. The current was pushing towards the center and left, into the trees, making the move more difficult than it looked.

After making it through, I turned around to see Bob braced downstream between two trees. I eddied out and paddled upstream. John was coming around the corner floating upside down. Bob could not get free and John was heading for trouble. I jumped out of my kayak, grabbed my throw rope, and scrambled upstream on river right.

Bob saw me with the throw rope and shouted that he was OK. John was now pinned against two trees set close together, making a V, about 25 feet upstream of Bob. His hand was gripping a tree limb coming from below the capsized boat; I assume he was trying to right himself and get some air. The way the water was rushing around him the possibility of an air pocket seemed remote.

I waded out into the river in a futile attempt to reach John's boat. The river was only 3 feet deep but it swept me off my feet and broke my grip on a tree limb. As I scrambled back to shore Bob, watching me float by, yelled for me to stay calm, and that he was OK. After a few minutes I saw John's grip on the tree limb falter. I knew he was losing consciousness. My body trembled in frustration and fear, and I wanted to throw up. The remaining options were dangerous to all of us. I could swim or paddle into him from upstream, hoping to pivot around the trees. Either way I was risking becoming pinned or making the situation worse.

I realized that I was losing hope. My best friend and kayak buddy was drowning 25 feet from me and I was helpless. All my emotions surfaced at once: frustration that there was nothing more I could do; anger that he put himself in this situation; guilt from being unscathed while John died; responsibility from being the group leader and from choosing this run; anxiety and confusion about what to do next. I watched, helpless, as he let go. Those few moments seemed like an eternity. I relive them still, months after the accident.

Now I focused on saving Bob. I went downstream, ferried my boat across the river and carried it upstream. I ferried across with my kayak, close to him, shouting for instructions on what to do next. He replied, "What? I can't hear you!"  I forced my boat into a group of trees just downstream where a boulder created a small pillow. This protected me from pinning as I vaulted out of my boat and wedged it into the trees. Clinging to willow branches, I waded along the shallow river bottom towards Bob. By this time Bob had popped his sprayskirt in an attempt to work loose. He was hoping that swamping the front end would pivot the kayak free, but it made the situation worse. I tried lifting the tail end, and on the third attempt we hoisted the kayak around the tree. We worked the boat into an eddy just below.

Bob asked me where John was. I said,"Don't worry about John" and glanced upstream, trying to hold back tears. Bob looked upstream and let out a wailing "No...!" We could both hardly believe it was true. Bob said he would save John but I knew that 30 minutes had elapsed, and it was probably too late.

Once ashore we emptied our boats and carried them upstream, 50 yards above where John had broached. The plan was to catch an eddy below a large boulder just upstream of John. Originally we were both going to get out on the rock. I caught the eddy, bounced out of my boat, and pulled it up on the rock. Bob missed the eddy and washed backwards into some trees. He was in a good position for me to pay out a rope with a carabiner attached for him to clip into John's bow grab loop. Bob managed this feat, then wrestled his kayak free and paddled to river left. I ran the rope  around some trees just upstream of the rock. Bob climbed back upstream, dove into the water, and swam out to me.I reached my paddle out and pulled him into the eddy.

We tried to pull the boat free using a prussik for a brake, but after a half-dozen heaves knew it was time to construct a Z-Drag. As we were setting the Z-drag the line went slack; the boat had floated free of the trees and John's body was free of the kayak. I scrambled into my boat and chased him for over a mile before getting him to shore. Bob, who had stayed back to retrieve the line, arrived 20 minutes later. We placed John under a tree on a grassy terrace. We stuck his orange life jacket high in a tree where it would be visible to a search party.

We headed downstream and paddled for about fifteen minutes in fast moving water before reaching a ranch house where we called 911. The local police arrived first, followed by paramedics, rescue teams, and a reporter. We pulled out maps and showed them where the body was located. At 2:00 the search team had retrieved John's body and brought it to the house. Only then could I assemble the nerve to drive his car to my brother's house in Berkley .

SOURCE: Ken King, in the Paddlers News Bulletin of the Sierra club River Touring Section.

EPILOGUE: Joe the caretaker of the ranch, set a date two weeks after the accident to retrieve the boat. But after they spoke with the owner, he told me it was too dangerous. They would not let me sign a liability waiver, drafted by my lawyer, accepting all responsibility while retrieving the boat. They told me to contact the Sheriff's Rescue Team, who told me to contact Alemeda County Park Service Search and Rescue, who in turn told me that if they retrieved the boat it might cost $1000 or more. They would not let me be there while they retrieved the boat for liability reasons.

Three weeks later, despite the landowner's objections, two friends and I retrieved John's boat. To prevent a confrontation we walked up the road, then bushwhacked along a hill when the house was in sight. Beyond the house we came back to the road and continued until we saw the kayak. It could have been recovered by a couple of boy scouts; we did not require ropes or difficult climbing. We took photos and video of the accident scene, then searched for the kayak paddle. We found a prussik loop on the boulder where the recovery took place. We roped the boat up the hill for safety, then carried it out the road. We decided to risk being arrested for trespassing and stayed on the road during the walk out. Close to the house a truck and bulldozer passed; we waved at them, and the drivers waved back. Other ranch hands stared as we came into view. Again we waved, then they waved back and went about their business.

It was finally over. So one outside of family and friends understood how important it was to retrieve that kayak. As long as it was there I could not get on with my day-to-day routine. It was as if part of John was left there and the landowner and authorities didn't care.


1) (King) Looking at the pictures and thinking about the accident many things don't make sense. John had a death grip on a tree limb, but why couldn't he bail out or pull himself up? Could it be that the torn pocket on his back acted like a parachute in the current, or was the power of the water itself sufficient. Why did he flip? Did he see Bob pinned and panic? The only rock he could have hit was 200 yards upstream.

According to the pathologist's report he died from a blow to the head. Did this happen in the rapid above, while he was pinned, or in the long swim after the recovery. The report also found no water in the lungs or stomach, indicating a "dry" drowning. Did he hold his breath too long, or did the blow to the head cause his throat to shut down? Did his unrestrained camera choke him, hit him, or contribute to the difficulties in another way? Watching him slowly lose his grip leads me to suspect that the blow occurred sometime during or right after the pinning.

Many questions have haunted me since the accident that will probably never be answered. But one thing could probably have prevented the accident - a fast first-time roll or a solid brace to prevent a flip. Please keep that in mind the next time you decide to run a Class V river.

2) Ken King did an excellent job in keeping his head and making a series of difficult, but correct decisions that allowed him to safely rescue one of his two trapped friends. (CW)