FATAL PINNING AT BLOCKAGE RAPID
Town Creek Canyon near Guntersville, AL: December 29, 1993
Gradient 65 fpm; Volume 560 cfs; Classification III
ACCIDENT DESCRIPTION: Town Creek is used by many Northern Alabama paddlers as a training ground for steeper, more technical rivers. The run is mostly Class III except for "The Blockage", also known as Sleeping Giant Falls. This drop is thought to be unrunnable. The victim, Dick Johnson, was an advanced intermediate making his first run of the river with more experienced friends.
The five boaters in the group were proceeding cautiously on December 29, 1993, describing the upcoming rapids to newcomers and scouting from the bank when needed. At about
the paddlers entered the class II+ lead-in to The Blockage. The more experienced paddlers eddy-hopped to the take-out so they could point out the route. Several of the group were at the take-out eddy; one person sat here while the others began the portage. Dick approached the eddy, but apparently hit an obstruction and almost flipped. He braced back up, losing time and distance. He paddled aggressively towards the bottom of the eddy, but about 5 feet from the lip of the drop he hit a barely submerged rock, flipped his C-1, and bailed out.
Johnson's head appeared briefly above the surface before he disappeared over the edge. The boat broached at the top of the drop, then pinned below. His helmet and life vest appeared downstream. The group searched for him, probing the drop with paddles and logs, but could not locate his body in the murky water.
The group decided to split up. Several paddlers swept the river downstream in the hopes that he had been washed free and was waiting below. The others abandoned their boats and walked out. They notified authorities, and the Guntersville Rescue Squad began a search of the area.
RECOVERY OPERATION: Steve Gowins, president of the Birmingham Canoe Club, learned of the accident that evening. He contacted local authorities and offered to provide them with paddlers experienced in swift water rescue and the necessary equipment to support their effort. He rounded up a group of experienced paddlers and met at the Guntersville MacDonalds early the next morning. They met the rescue squad and were shuttled to the accident site by four-wheel drive vehicles. Static lines were set across the river, and divers began to sweep the area below the drop. BCC members ferried equipment and personnel across the river and assisted with rigging and safety back-up. These efforts were halted by darkness.
The next morning the Birmingham paddlers returned with a raft.The Guntersville Rescue Squad directed the overall operation, with paddlers and vertical rescue teams working the drop. The body was finally located under a rock, but the group was unable to attach a line. Again darkness intervened.
On New Year's Eve they contacted Mike Burgess at Alabama Power Company, asking him to fabricate a "pole hook", a giant shepherd's crook made out of 1 inch aluminum conduit. The rescue squad also brought along a sheet of plywood to divert the flow around the drop. These two tools, combined with falling water levels on New Year's Day, allowed them to attach a line to one wrist. A Z-drag was used to pull the body upstream and extricate it from the entrapment.
Johnson's body was lowered downstream by raft where, after an unsuccessful attempt to remove him by helicopter, he was paddled down to a four-wheel drive access.
SOURCE: Stephen Gowings and Jim Brown, Birmingham Canoe Club
1) Although the approach was not difficult, it was clearly intolerant of error. The group did all they could to prepare the way for the first-timers, but could not paddle the boats for them. Paddlers should be extremely cautious and alert in these situations, and mentally prepare alternate "scrambling routes" to safety for use if plans are disrupted.
2) There was excellent cooperation between the Birmingham Canoe Club and the Guntersville rescue squad. This group of paddlers was able to convince authorities of their ability, and was able to work within their command structure. This should serve as a model for other groups caught in this situation.
The boater who died there at the blockage was paddling a closed C1. He was a very expeirienced paddler. His name was Dick Johnson. He was paddling with his 15yo son Travis that day. He eddied out just above The Blockage and popped his skirt. He lost his balance while exiting his boat and was washed through a log jammed chute and became trapped and drowned. His body was recovered 4 days later. He and his son were close personal friends of mine and paddling buddies.
Dick was a great guy and taught his 3 sons Scott, Aaron, and Travis to paddle. Dick had a paddling resume that was almost unheard of at the time. I know it seems trivial considering the amount of info on AW but I think if you included some info that described the accident a little better it might take the story from folklore to a real warning about The Blockage.