On Saturday, June 6, 1981, a commercial raft trip entered the Cheat River at Rowlesburg, WV , after having cancelled the usual “Canyon” run due to high water. Unbeknownst to the trip leader, the river level, already uncommonly high for June, was rising to unprecedented levels. Several rafts came to grief a few miles into the trip, and one customer was marooned on a rock. The guides could not extricate him easily, and were hampered in their efforts by a local Civil Defense Squad who “closed” the river and “took over” the site. The victim was eventually removed by helicopter.
The Cheat River is the largest free-flowing river in the East, with no dams of any significance on its headwaters. Because of its large drainage area, it can rise or fall quickly for no apparent local reason. The “Canyon” from Albright to Jenkinsburg Bridge is a classic white water run, which is used frequently by many commercial outfitters during the Spring season. The “Narrows” upstream between Rowlesburg to a point several miles downstream along WV 7, is easier and more accessible, and is frequently used as an alternate run when the river is too high to attempt the Canyon safely. Between the canyon cutoff of 6.0 feet and the maximum “sane” level (in the author’s opinion) of 10 feet, the “narrows” is broad, fast, and uncomplicated, with huge waves and boiling eddy lines. There are few dangers and rescue is generally quick and easy.
The outfitter is one of the oldest and most experienced on the river, and has never had a river-related fatality in over a decade of operation. This report is based on interviews with their River Manager and other guides who were at the scene.
The Cheat River on the weekend of June 6 was rising rapidly, even for a high-water year like 1981. On Friday morning it was just under 2.5’; by 11 PM it was at 4.5’ and coming up fast. At 6AM Saturday the river had reached 6.0’; by 8AM, with the river running close to 8’, a decision was made to transfer the trips to the Narrows .
The river was still coming up, but no one expected it to continue to the point where trips would be endangered. The Cheat seldom got over 8’ in the early season, much less in the spring and summer when growing vegetation slows and absorbs the runoff. The company had successfully handled the river at levels up to twelve feet; the river was to crest at over 14’ later that day, and the fast rise was to draw considerable debris into its swift waters.
When the company arrived at the put-in, it was evident that the Cheat was still on the rise. Quantities of debris, including whole, uprooted tress, were floating down the river. A raft, which was originally placed near the shore, soon became awash in the surging current. Soon after the first trip launched a raft collided with a floating log, puncturing a raft tube and banging up one of the guides. These people were swiftly recovered by the rest of the party. At this time the second trip, moving hard on the heels of the first in the quickening current, capsized a raft in a series of huge waves. All hands were picked up except for one person, who found himself marooned on a midstream rock (this rock is found on the shoreline at normal flows!) By this time the outfitter, having observed the rising gauge at Albright and witnessing the problems on the river, drove up to the put-in and cancelled all further trips.
The problem was now to remove this person from the rock. River manager John Lichter maneuvered his kayak into the eddy below the victim, and did not like what he saw. The river was continuing to rise, and as this happened the safety zone was shrinking. Just downstream was a massive log jam which would make any approach by raft to remove the victim extremely difficult. In addition, all of the snakes trapped in the area were also clinging to the rock, and the presence of these creatures (who were too preoccupied with survival to be very hostile) was nerve-wracking, to say the least! By this time, too, the Rowlesburg Civil Defense, which serves as a rescue squad for the Narrows , had “closed” the river down and mobilized its men. Any action by the trip guides would have been in defiance of this local authority. A helicopter was in the area, and was called by the rescue squad. Shouting across the water, they discussed the Lichter the alternatives. The victim was banged up and badly shaken. The approach to the rock was treacherous even for an expert kayaker, much less the raft, which would have been required to remove the victim. The “Chopper” was the best alternative, and Lichter waved his agreement. The machine, deftly piloted by two local men, came in and landed as Lichter took to the river. The pilot placed one skid on the rock, and hovered as the victim entered. Minutes later they landed safely at nearby Camp Dawson , a National Guard training area.
The sequence of events leading up to this incident shows how even experienced rivermen can be caught off-guard by unusual conditions. The Cheat seldom gets over 8’, much less to a level when it is unsafe to run the Narrows . However, 1981 was a high water year in Northern West Virginia , and although the guides were accustomed to these above-average flows, they clearly did not realize how quickly the water was rising to unreasonably dangerous levels.
Sudden surges of high water can cause the river to pick up huge bits of debris, and can uproot marginal trees and carry them downstream. Many of the problems associated with this rescue were the result of debris, and the first capsizing was a direct result of it. When large quantities of trash are afloat in a river, it is a sure sign of danger, even for experts. Everyone, regardless of ability, is advised to wait until the water’s crest has passed unless they must get on the water to save a life. Debris-laden water is too unpredictable to offer good sport!
Although the rescue turned out well, there was little cooperation between the rescue squad and the outfitter. This might have caused serious problems in other circumstances, particularly if the helicopter had not been available. The jurisdictional and technical squabbles are best resolved beforehand by both parties meeting in an atmosphere of minimal pressure and mutual respect. Most rescue squads are not familiar with modern techniques, and are unaware that local outfitters can be a valuable resource for them. Outfitters are also likely to be less knowledgeable about the lay of the land, access, and other possibilities well-known to locals. The Cheat River outfitters owe it to themselves to arrange a meeting with the local authorities. You never know when they’ll need each other.
This accident had a happy ending. Hindsight tells us that certain actions might have prevented it; however, that is not the point. We must learn from it so that similar miscalculations by experts do not have more serious results.