On the second day of the Coastal Canoeists’ Labor Day weekend trip, 1978, that was September 3rd, a group of twenty-one boats put in on the Gauley River immediately below Summersville Lake . It was 9:30 AM. A dam release was in progress. The Corps of Engineers was discharging slightly more than 1000 cfs. As trip leader, this was the water I wanted . . .
Sweet’s Falls drops ten feet with little incline. Most of the water flows right over the middle of this drop. There is a tongue in the middle of this drop. It flows down and into a very swift-moving pool below the falls. There is very little backwash here, no keeper: but the pool is too deep and the current much too swift to stand in. This is where my trip ended in disaster.
Don Bowman and Jim Magurno both swamped at the foot of this rapid. I made the third attempt. I’m not sure but that over-confidence was probably a factor. The rescue lines were out, there were boats and the water below me there were twenty good men on the water, and I was having a great day.
My entry into Sweet’s Falls was too far to the left. Drawing right, I lost forward momentum. The bow of my boat planed out over the pool below, dropped, hit the riverbed with the impact of a sledge hammer, and stuck fast. I pitched forward hard. Somehow I got my right leg over the thwart in front of me. That thwart caught me in the crotch as my left leg slid under it. The Gauley River was now breaking over my back and head, pinning me to the thwart. To complicate things further, my boat collapsed partially under the force of the water---enough to assure that the thwart had a vise-like grip across my left thigh. I was trapped and I was scared.
Old Man River was doing his best to force my head into the water, gathering in my boat and further collapsing my boat into the river below me. I gripped a thwart in front of me to hold my head and upper torso erect---and the water continued to pound away at me. After screaming and whistle blowing, I realized that the group was aware of my predicament, and I settled down to await help. Sure enough, a rescue line entered the current and reached me. They had stretched a line across the river and lowered it to me, hoping I could get my arm over it and that they could thereby pull me from the boat. Not a chance! My boat had to come out for me to come out. While hoping they could get the end of the rope to me to tie to my boat (no one else could possibly reach the boat to do it). I remembered that my own rescue line was within reach, bag tied to the thwart I was braced against. It was a lot of work to tie that rope to the thwart, and I realized that hypothermia was coming on rapidly. (The Gauley, being dam controlled, has cold water even in the summer). I threw the rope downstream and waited.
Another half-hour passed. Things didn’t look too good. I was not in a state of panic or shock. I was going to die that afternoon. The cold water was beating me. It was just a matter of time. I was mentally and emotionally prepared to die, but determined not to give up. There were twenty good men out there pulling for me. After a while, I slumped forward propping my head up on one hand. I rested, hoping to conserve energy. Time passed, I got a second wind. I know I had been motionless for a long time and thought, “Those guys think that I am dead!” I sat erect, reached as thigh as I could, and felt my hand break the water. I later learned that this signal was extremely encouraging to my friends.
The number of rescuers had increased now by two more groups of paddlers arriving at Sweet’s Falls. Between rest periods I raised my left hand two more times.
The Corps of Engineers had cut the release from Summersville Lake by 300 cfs at 1PM, so perhaps the water had dropped a little. Maybe the boat had shifted a little, perhaps the group had moved it slightly. Several men were now pulling the rescue rope from river right. No good! They were pulling the rescue rope from river right. No good! They were ready to have a line ferried to river left when Randy Perkins noticed that something had changed. He ran to the water’s edge, waving and exhorting, “Pull!” and pull they did. My boat rolled free. This brought me around in a real hurry. I was able to kick and wiggle loose. My life jacket kept me afloat; and, when the group saw that I could hold my head up, twenty men cried.
Two kayakers reached me in seconds. I didn’t know them but I’d never been happier to see anyone.
They towed me into six inches of water, but I couldn’t stand or walk; I was carried out. My appearance must have been frightening; face and lips, blue; eyes recessed; joints swollen and aching. I was shivering uncontrollably. Dan Hix, Jon DeBoer, and Bill Edmundson were just returning. They had paddled and hiked out to a phone to have the Corps bring the dam release to a halt. They had also notified Police and Rescue Squad. Time: 4:20 PM.
One of the late arrivals, Carl Lundgren, took charge of hypothermia treatment and bandaging and splinting. We were all thankful for his presence. Carl’s knowledge of emergency first-aid treatment was most helpful. A litter was improvised from my canoe and nine men carried me down the railroad tracks that led out of the gorge. We reached a point where we expected an ambulance to meet us. Wrong again. Soon two troopers showed up on dirt bikes. One left to report our location and after a lengthy wait a railroad company vehicle picked us up and took us to the Peters Creek take-out, where the ambulance was waiting. We reached Summersville Hospital at midnight, ten hours after the ordeal had begun. I’m a very fortunate young man. I suffered only muscle and tissue damage to both legs, several stitches in my right ankle, and crutches. I could be dead.
The lessons we learned that day are numerous. Without Carl Lundgren I would have suffered more. The emergency first-aid training and experience of the other participants on that trip was very limited. My group tired everything possible, within and beyond reason, to get me out of there; yet, some of us feel that the rescue operation needed a leader. I wasn’t well prepared. Had someone else been trapped and had I needed to go for help or to notify the authorities, other than the Peters Creek take-out, I didn’t know a way out of that gorge. My personal attitudes towards river paddling have changed. I’ll probably paddle the Gauley River again.
But on all rivers, I’ll look at each rapid with a, “What if something goes wrong?” or “What can go wrong?” attitude, as opposed to the “I stand a real good chance.” Or “HE ran (or swam) it; I can do that well.” Or “There are good safety and rescue personnel out here today.” Or “I’ve been having such a good day.” Points of view.
MORE COMMENT ON THE EVER-IMPORTANT RESCUE LINE
My entrapment on the Gauley River proved to be a feast for thought. A rescue line, my own, played an important role in that incident. The lessons learned from my accident are numerous. In Sweet’s Falls on the Gauley River , I fell prey to a vertical pinning of and entrapment in my open boat. The options for rescue were limited and consisted of:
Pulling me from the boat.
Pulling the problem-causing thwart from the boat.
Pulling the boat from the rapid. With a leg pinned under a thwart, pulling me from the boat was out of the questions. The second choice never entered my mind. The third choice saved my life.
Many paddlers carry their rescue lines secured to the bow or stern seats or under the bow or stern deck plates in their open boats. Many paddlers also have never considered the throw bag for “self -rescue”. The throw bag should be secured within easy reach of the chosen paddling position.
In the case of my entrapment, outside help could not reach me. Had my throw bad not been within reach of my central kneeling position, the time I spent in that rapid would have been prolonged, lessening my chances for survival. The throw bag should be secured for a one-handed quick and easy release.
Pain and panic make it difficult to think clearly. When I tied the rope to my boat, I never thought that my rescuers might pull the thwart out of the boat. This could have had two results. Had I secured the rope to the thwart pinning my leg, and if it were removed, this should have freed me. Because it was easier to reach and work with, I tied the rope to another thwart in front of me. Had this thwart been pulled free, bingo! No rope. The thwart held and the boat was pulled from the rapid. The fact that a rescue line may be needed for self-rescue justifies having every paddler carry one.
The throw bag type rescue line is more practical than a coiled role. It is less likely to become tangled or knotted while in transit, and it throws quickly, farther, and more accurately than a coiled rope (practice is highly recommended).