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Outstanding Rescue on the Upper Nantahala: Sept 30, 2012

Posted: 03/28/2013
by Charlie Walbridge


The accident occurred during a scheduled September water release on North Carolina’s fast-moving Class III+ Upper Nantahala River. A kayaker who pulled over above a downed tree didn’t realize that the current there was still powerful enough to cause trouble. Her boat was pushed into and under the log where both disappeared. Fortunately Rob Kelly, a quick-thinking whitewater guide, was driving the NOC Shuttle Bus and witnessed the entrapment. He pulled his bus over and started wading across the river. His narrative continues below: 

“Reassessing the situation, time, and options at hand, it seemed safe enough to continue. My footing was good, and the rapid below was not too aggressive if I had to swim. There were people starting to gather at the bridge, including boaters and ropes. My travel to the tree was diagonally downstream heading into deeper, swifter current. If it had been lateral or upstream it would have been difficult to approach and maintain locomotion and footing. At the very last part of the walk my footing was poor, but I had options to avoid the strainer.

“Not until (I was) at the tree could I see any of her boat. The stern tip was about a foot under water and was difficult to make out. I reached along it and felt the tree contact, and continued until I felt her. I was able to swing her torso around the tree and bring her head to the surface. My position ran out of reach and leverage doing that. I let go, reset with my body against the log ( but sure to keep my hips above the water line). This time I was able to bring her up to the surface ( still in the kayak). . . . . based on small observations like eyes/skin etc., I thought there was little chance of a rescue. Training, instinct, and hope all made it a no question to give a few rescue breaths before going back to getting her free. . . . .

“At that point it seemed that (my) upward efforts were not going to free her. The tree was like a cantilevered leaf spring and had water and her surface area pushing up, while it's resting shape was pushing down. So we had to go down to get out. With three to four shoves and torques of the kayak she drifted out, still in the boat. I looked up and saw that people were ready below and signaled and shouted to them that she was floating downstream . . . .”

Meanwhile, members of her group and other paddlers had pulled over and were ready to help. They swam out, pulled her ashore, and began CPR. She regained consciousness quickly, but was still very weak. She was taken to a hospital in Asheville and released two days later, after her lungs had recovered from their ordeal. This rescue is shown in several excellent photos taken by Rick Thompson. Full accounts from everyone are available in our Accident Database

Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV

Associated Rivers