Accident Database

Report ID# 973

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • High Water

Accident Description


On the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge: December 1, 1994 Gradient - 87 fpm; Level/high; Classification V

DESCRIPTION: On Thursday, December 1, 1994, Portland kayaker Dave Edspeseth was drowned while paddling on the Wind River. This river, less than a 1 hour drive from Portland, runs into the Columbia River on the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge. The upper run, from Stabler to the High Bridge, is a long-time favorite of local paddlers.

There are 2 distinct parts to the run. After a quarter mile warmup, the river drops into a rugged gorge which lasts for about 3 miles. Through the gorge, the gradient is a continuous 100 ft/mile or more. At low and medium water levels, 4 major drops are discernible, but at higher water there is little or no separation between the drops. At its easiest level, the Wind River is Class IV or IV+. As the water level rises, it becomes Class V or better. The gorge ends abruptly at Harvey's Falls (a.k.a. Climax) and from there it's 4 or 5 miles of Class II or III rapids to the take-out.

Edspeth, 35, was a well-known and much-loved member of the Portland paddling community. He had a true passion for kayaking. He was also a talented skier and climber despite having lost both legs below the knees in a solo climbing accident a few years earlier. He recently served as executive director of SOAR, an organization dedicated to bringing outdoor recreation activities to persons with disabilities. He was a strong advocate of the right of the disabled to participate in risk sports, and lived that life fully.

The accident occurred when the Wind was running at a very high level. The 6 paddlers in the group proceeded to the top of Initiation Rapid at the beginning of the gorge section. From their vantage point on river left, they could see the river sweep to the left and then crash down out of sight. Dave was one of the last to leave the eddy (I'm not sure of the exact order). He quickly got into trouble and was forced to exit from his boat. It is believed he got caught in a large hole at the bottom of Initiation.

His companions saw Dave swimming aggressively toward shore and gave chase, but getting close and staying with him in the maelstrom of waves and holes was extremely difficult. At one point, the nearest paddler got close enough to see that Dave had lost consciousness. He attempted to reach out and grab Dave, and thought about attempting to clip onto him with his rescue PFD. Neither option was possible due to the extreme violence of the water. Dave's boat finally entered an eddy and for a moment it appeared that Dave might also eddy out. He was sucked down at the eddy line and went under water. He emerged briefly, then disappeared.

From that point his companions were unable to locate him. Two from the group climbed out of the gorge to find help. Two others proceeded downriver to the takeout but saw no sign of Dave. The sixth member of the group took out below Initiation and hiked back to the put-in.

Later that evening, Dave's body was located by a search and rescue helicopter not far downstream from where his boat entered the eddy. We guess that he snagged on something underwater and became visible only when the river level dropped later in the day.

WRITER: Jim Daly. His account is taken from conversations with paddlers in the group.

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge) This accident illustrates the danger of swimming in Class V water and the difficulty of rescuing someone who is. There was very little margin for error on this run, demanding a careful measurement of individual skill against the difficulty of the river.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!