FATAL ACCIDENT 0N THE NORTH FORK OF THE FEATHER RIVER
Near the Butte - Plumas County line, California: September 27, 2003
SUMMARY On September 27, 2003 a group of five people were paddling a raft on the North Fork of the Feather River during a scheduled whitewater release weekend. Their raft flipped against a large rock in the middle of a class IV rapid, dumping all five paddlers into the river. When the swimmers reached shore a head count revealed that one rafter, Yannick Meraud was missing. A hasty search began at the point last seen, a large shelf of rock on river left. These attempts were unsuccessful. The water was lowered, and the body was recovered by a rescue squad the next day.
DESCRIPTION: The Cresta Run of the North Feather is a class III-IV run with classic Sierra Nevada granite, pool and drop rapids. The rapid where the incident occurred is class IV, with a large rock in the middle of the river with fast-moving water piling against it. The configuration of the rapid forces rafts to paddle around the rock broadside to the current, which increases the chance of flipping or pinning. Beyond here the river is fast-moving for another 20-30 yards before reaching a pool. On river left, along this run-out, a huge granite slab slopes down into the river. The slab is cracked and where this split occurs the downstream portion juts out into the current. The current is very fast here, and although the majority of the water flows past the undercut, anyone attempting to swim to the left shore here is in danger of being swept underneath it.
Mr. Meraud was a first-time paddle rafter who was part of an experienced crew. The paddle captain was reported to have ten years of rafting experience. One member of the group said in a later interview , "There were more experienced people along that day, than I can remember seeing on any other trip. " The same person also reported that his group had stressed safety, and given the victim a thorough safety briefing before the trip. Several other boaters in the area witnessed the incident. One saw Mr. Meraud being swept under a large undercut slab along the shore of the river and spread the alarm. Rescuers were able to get to the undercut and a rescue drag line was quickly set up to snag the victim. The rescuers could not see the victim but continued to work with the rope.
As time passed it became apparent that the situation was desperate. Someone was sent to call 911. Eventually the rafters realized that their friend was probably dead and the rescue attempt was discontinued. Mr. Meraud's body was recovered under the slab the following day, by rescue divers from the Butte County Sheriff's Department. The river had to be dropped to an extremely low flow, before the divers were able to safely swim under the slab. They described entering a large underwater cave with several chambers branching off. During whitewater flow levels, the river is nearly 25 feet deep at the mouth of the underwater cave. Divers also reported that a large boulder rose up from the river bottom in the mouth of the cave, further complicating current dynamics. The body of the victim was found floating freely in the cave rather than being pinned. His PFD and helmet were still on and there was no sign of trauma or signs of pinning or foot entrapment. The divers suggested that he was simply held in the cave by the recirculating eddy current.
SOURCE: Eric Petlock, a local whitewater expert, was the principal investigator for American Whitewater. This report was written by Charlie Walbridge and reviewed by Major Tim Kelly, American Whitewater Safety Chair.
ANALYSIS: This was only the second season of scheduled white water releases which are part of FERC re-licensing agreements. Except for rare unscheduled spills, the river was seldom paddled before the scheduled releases began in 2002. Although some paddlers suspected that the slab might be undercut, it looked like the slab extended to the bottom of the river. No one suspected that a large underwater cave existed. Paddlers swimming past the slab might have an unpleasant time here, but it didn't look like anyone would become trapped. But because the water flows into the cave beneath a deeply undercut slab a deadly swimming hazard exists.
The victim's group did many things right. They were experienced running whitewater and used a good quality raft and proper safety equipment like PFD's, helmets, and ropes. A second boat, as recommended by the AW safety code, might have quickly recovered the swimmers. A more experienced boater might have recognized a potentially dangerous situation and swum away from the slab. All paddlers must know how to swim a rapid safely. An inexperienced participant can be told how to do this before the run; commercial rafting outfitters often have participants swim an easy rapid early in the day. These precaution might have saved Mr. Meraud?s life. Our knowledge and experience are the most important safety tools that we have. We must recognize that when paddling new runs or when accompanying inexperienced boaters a heightened level of caution is appropriate. Warnings may help remind us of the dangers, but group and individual safety awareness are the primary methods of reducing accidents.
CONCLUSIONS: This tragic incident shows once again that whitewater rivers are not amusement rides, and that safety on the river can never be taken for granted. These risks are voluntarily assumed by all river travelers, experienced or not. Hopefully we will all learn from this, and avoid further problems at this site. Respectfully Submitted, Charles Walbridge AW Safety Committee