This post could go in any of a number of current threads (the "please don't
clutter American Whitewater with reminders that whitewater is
hazardous" thread, the "please don't remind me that playboats aren't the best
choice for creeking thread," and the "please post your first-hand accounts of
near misses" thread, just for starters). So how's about I just start a new
thread, the "Close Call on the Upper Gauley Sunday 9/27/98" thread?
Close Call on the Upper Gauley 9/27/98
by Chris Bell
Just in case any of you were wondering . . . the obvious really fun-looking
twisting slot on river left in the first rapid downstream of the pool below
Insignificant (Upper Gauley, WV, USA) is not a good place to be, at least not
at a slightly lower than normal release (2800 cfs) like the one we had Sunday
I've run this slot several times and never had any trouble. As I came around
the corner leading back out into the main current Sunday morning, I noticed a
little ridge of rock just under the water's surface. It ended with a little
knob that stuck up in the middle of the channel. I like to cut turns pretty
sharp, and if I'd cut my turn as sharp as I would have liked I'd have been to
the right of the knob in what I remember as the deepest water in the channel.
Instead I was off my preferred line by maybe a foot and heading for the knob.
Rather than work to get back to the right of it, I intentionally changed my
line a foot or two to scrape over the shallow spot to its left. No problem,
right? Not quite as aesthetic, but no big deal.
Well, it turned out to be a big deal. In retrospect I realize that the
shallow spot was probably a ridge of rock that was deflecting a significant
amount of water into a sieve I had never noticed before. The sieve consisted
of current feeding under a large flat rock I thought was part of the shore.
Bouncing over the shallow spot lifted my bow and caused my RPM's tail to catch
enough current to stern squirt me against the large flat rock. My stern then
settled back into the sieve. I wasn't too happy -- I was stuck, a lot of
current was pushing against the right side and stern of my boat and I didn't
feel particularly stable -- but at least I was head-up. I tossed my paddle
onto the flat rock and decided that rather than pop my spray skirt and risk
folding my boat or flipping into a heads-down pin while climbing out onto the
rock, I'd just swallow my pride and wait for the other three people in my
party to rescue me. At this point my boat was pinned at what I'd guess to be
about a 45-degree angle against the flat rock with a lot of current pushing
back into what I still did not know was a sieve.
Within seconds I was to learn that my situation was much more precarious than
I had thought. The boat began to settle and then got sucked into the sieve.
I'm not really clear on what happened from this point on because I was under
both water and rock, but I can remember feeling tightly wedged with my boat
and a lot of water pushing me into rock. I can remember thinking that my wife
had a premonition that something bad was going to happen before I left (I
can't remember her ever saying this before) and that there was a good chance I
was going to drown. I thought about Pablo Perez, who died boating with good
friends of mine on a river 35 minutes from my house last February.
I definitely didn't want to drown, and I started to push against the current
with all my might. When nothing happened I started thinking about my
nine-month-old daughter and how much I wanted to see her again. The boat
moved a little and my upper body eased into the main current flowing through
This current was strong enough to suck me most of the way out of my boat; I
would have probably come all the way out had it not been for my knee brace.
I've worn a knee brace since surgery last spring to repair an anterior
cruciate ligament I blew out playing soccer 14 years ago; I'd pulled the
thigh braces out of my boats to make it easier to get in and out with the knee
brace on, but it still hung up on something (maybe the cockpit, maybe rock).
So now I was caught at the knee, underwater, in the dark, with a very powerful
current (a good sign actually) trying to wash me farther under the flat rock I
had thought was part of the shore. A little wriggling, however, and my knee
came free. I was moving! At this point it was very dark and for the first
time I began to wonder how much longer I'd be able to hold my breath. Just
then I saw a little patch of yellow and began to swim for it.
Think I was pleased when I popped to the surface? You bet. And you can't
imagine how happy I was to be able to get up every hour or so last night, walk
to my daughter's room, and help her settle back to sleep.
So what have I learned? Since this all happened less than 24 hours ago and I
haven't had time to completely process the experience nor have I had the
opportunity to talk in detail with the folks who saw parts of what happened.
At this point most of what I've "learned" just reinforces stuff I already knew
but don't always like to remember:
1. Boat designs influence the risks boaters face. Low volume scooped
sterns like the RPM's are really fun but significantly increase the risk of
stern pins. If I'd been paddling my Freefall or my Gradient, I probably would
have bumped right over that ridge of rock and never known what lay unseen
below the water's surface. This isn't "blaming the boat;" I chose the boat I
chose, and I chose the line I chose. But it wasn't an ideal boat for
creeking, and that was, in essence, what I was doing running that twisting
2. Boating, especially hair boating, is an inherently selfish activity.
I've thought this a long time but never said it before. Yes, I know: most
boaters are great people and we constantly help each other out on the river.
But we are constantly making little decisions with great consequences without
consulting those who are going to pay the greatest price if we screw up. I
suspect that if I had gotten to the point that I couldn't hold my breath any
longer, the pain of my guilt at leaving my daughter without a father would
have been pretty much unbearable.
3. Making little decisions with great consequences is inherent to our
sport. It is what makes it so fun and so powerful an addiction. Most of the
time we get a free pass, even when we screw up. Look at me. My only mementos
of a close call that nearly killed me are thighs that are really burning this
morning (ever hear those stories about women lifting cars to get their babies
out from underneath them?), a couple sore spots on my calf near where four of
the five one-inch wide Velcro straps attaching my knee brace to my leg were
torn loose, and a PFD that has this dark green grime ground into the back.
But despite the free passes, every once in a while, no matter how good we are,
one of those countless little choices or tiny screw ups has the potential to
really bite back. Either Woody or Risa Callaway -- I don't remember which --
likened top paddlers to "right stuff" pilots in an "American Whitewater"
article a few years back. Little screw ups are going to happen, and the best
boaters have the ability to make choices with high probabilities of success as
they go from plan "A" to plan "B" to plan "C." Note my careful choice of the
phrase "high probabilities of success" in this last sentence . . .
4. Experienced boaters have a deep understanding of the risks inherent
in playing in a dynamic environment for which their bodies were not designed.
They make their choices after weighing their willingness to accept the
consequences if something goes wrong. Reading frequent accident reports and
the accounts of those left behind leads to more informed choices.
5. The twisting slot on river left in the first rapid downstream of the
pool below Insignificant is a lot more dangerous than it appears as you go
flying through it. I have learned today that at least two others (and
possibly a third) have pinned in this slot, all video boaters. The two pins
about which I have the best information (a friend called this afternoon and
spoke to one of the victims) occurred the same day in the fall of 1996. Like
Sunday it was a day when the water was a little lower than the standard
release -- approximately 2400 cfs. One victim required help to get free and
the other washed all the way under the rock while still in his boat. The
victim who required assistance was paddling an RPM; I don't know what the
other victim was paddling but it was almost certainly a playboat as his video
camera was wedged between his legs (a very scary place to have your camera in
a pin . . . ).
6. Remember who's waiting for you at home when you choosing your rivers,
your boats, your lines and your paddling companions (no regrets about my
companions Sunday; I'd only met them the day before but all were great and as
helpful as they could possibly have been in a situation that unfolded so
quickly -- a big tip of the yak to Keelhaulers Brent, Angie and Dave, and
another to the two folks on the Shredder who came to my assistance).