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).
Whoa, Chris - glad you made it out, bet you're glad you had removed those thigh
You're the 3rd person I know of this year who saved his life by choosing to
exit his boat. I'm beginning to think this should be a general "rule" when you
hit a rock sieve - and is also a big incentive to paddle a boat with a large
keyhole cockpit on creeks (or rivers) known for such phenonema.
> Boating, especially hair boating, is an inherently selfish activity.
>I've thought this a long time but never said it before.
You're absolutely right. YOU may be ready to flow with Tao into the essential
oneness of being, but choosing to have a lifemate and a young child *should*
influence your river decisions. I think choosing to step back a bit, or to
choose a more forgiving craft now and again would make you more of a man, not
> 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.
Not only that - the mind is kind, and for some reason even when we're slapped
in the face with our own mortality - it's hard to keep that "in front" of us.
>Reading frequent accident reports and
>the accounts of those left behind leads to more informed choices.
Chip Mefford and I were discussing a similar subject a couple weeks ago and he
made a statement that I thought rang so elementally true. " There is no "rash
of deaths among expert boaters," he sez, "people die, they always do."
- Mothra (aka Kathy Streletzky)
"Any river you're on beats any river you dream of being on." - Space Canoe
Life is to short to be stressed out all the time!!
Relax, have fun, and paddle hard!!
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> You're the 3rd person I know of this year who saved his life by choosing to
> exit his boat. I'm beginning to think this should be a general "rule" when
> you hit a rock sieve . . .
Actually, I had no choice in the matter. The moment my body eased into
the flow under the rock it was yanked almost entirely out of the boat.
Remember that I had made a decision not to pop my skirt because I was
concerned about my boat filling with water and then folding on me. I
have no idea when my skirt popped -- I didn't do it myself. All I knew
was that I was on my back, underwater, with a tremendous amount of force
pushing against my boat and that something bad was going to happen if the
boat didn't move. At that point there is nothing I could have done to
make my situation worse, so I just pushed against my boat as hard as I
could and tried to get it to move. It did and I got sucked out of it
by the force of the water.
There is a slot that I occasionally run that I think is in the rapid you
described, I was wondering if it was the same slot. The slot I'm thnking of, I
call it Deathslot 2000 (not to make light of it) is kind of to the left of
center fo the rapid but not far left. It is formed by two offset ledges, the
ledge on the left slightly downstream of the right ledge. If run correctly,
one boofs off the right ledge, angled slightly right, landing just below the
slot with rocks all around. The approach is tricky in that it pushes left into
the left ledge which is (slightly???) undercut. Is that the same one?
In article <6upn7s$ja3$1...@craggy.unca.edu>,
Chri...@my-dejanews.com (Chris Bell) wrote:
>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
Very glad to hear you made it home to hold your daughter.. peek in at her while
sleeping just to watch her breathe. That's as beautiful and earth shattering a
feeling as any white water experience I've had yet. Peace.
I'm wondering about two things here:
Is there any clue as to the location of that sieve (just tried to
explain the location of a sieve on sunday, and I realised that I
knew of its location mainly because of seeing it at lower levels),
that can be seen by reading the water?
> You're the 3rd person I know of this year who saved his life by choosing to
> exit his boat. I'm beginning to think this should be a general "rule" when you
> hit a rock sieve - and is also a big incentive to paddle a boat with a large
> keyhole cockpit on creeks (or rivers) known for such phenonema.
What happens if you get out of your boat and get sucked into the
sieve even further: i.e. get wedged in between your boat and the
sieve? I know that your lungs will probably burst before anyone
gets close enough to be able to help, just wondering about the
pro's and cons of bailing out.
We tried training to get out of pinned boats once, and a keyhole
cockpit made it possible to get your knee out and then put your
foot on the edge of the cockpit to push yourself upwards, or
upstream towards the light. How can you possibly train for a sieve,
where there is probably hardly any way to move alongside the boat.
> > Boating, especially hair boating, is an inherently selfish activity.
> >I've thought this a long time but never said it before.
Come to think of it, I'm glad I'm single (in that respect)... makes
it easier to decide on such painfull things.
> > 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.
> Not only that - the mind is kind, and for some reason even when we're slapped
> in the face with our own mortality - it's hard to keep that "in front" of us.
I think that it's wiser to try to relive those nasty memories
consciously a couple of times, as this helps you get more or less
at ease with them (takes some concentration, as your mind would
rather avoid it). Otherwise it could get in the way of getting out
of a comparable nasty situation in the future.
Wilko van den Bergh quibus(at)worldonline(dot)nl
Sociology Student at the Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Whitewater Kayaker AD&D Dungeon Master
No man is wise enough, nor good enough
to be trusted with unlimited power.
I intend to walk back up from the eddy below and take a look the
next time I run the Upper Gauley. It is possible I will be able
to see that a lot more water is entering the top of the slot than
is coming out the bottom. This would be a clue that a lot of
water is unaccounted for and must be flowing out somewhere . . .
like a sieve. Another clue is that even though the slot makes
a sharp left-hand turn, there isn't much of a pillow on the big
flat rock. These visual clues would be of some use if you could
see them before you entered the slot, but much of it is blind
from main part of the river due to the slot's twisting nature.
Once you're in the slot you're committed (it isn't very wide)
and on successful runs you're pretty focused on making the
moves needed to stay on line and don't have a lot of time for
much else. The natural question is why one would enter such
a slot without scouting it, and my answer is that it is such
an obvious move that many people must have done it and that
if someone had gotten into trouble the word would be out. Well,
two, and perhaps three, very good boaters got into trouble
in this slot before me and the word never got out past the
world of the Gauley video boaters. Hopefully my posts will
make the nature of this slot better known. Yeah, it's not
very bright using yourself as slot probe. It's also part
of the exploratory nature of high-end boating. Thank goodness
all of us dumb probes so far have gotten off with free passes.
No, I'm talking about a blind, twisting slot on extreme river left off the
main channel of the river. Paddling through the slot you are in a mini-canyon
I have been very careful when it comes to undercuts, sieves and
cyphons (sp?), but I have sometimes found that it's pretty hard to
recognise what's under water, especially when it's under a rock.
Any (subtle) clues that I can get here I add to my inventory. I
find these discussions very interesting, both as examples to less
experienced paddlers as well as to me.
I too have stood there looking at some heinous looking undercut
with someone standing next to me explaining what they have
experienced while they were caught underneath there. I am pretty
confident about my skills, but I respect the water too much not
to treat things like that with a lot of care.
> Hopefully my posts will
> make the nature of this slot better known. Yeah, it's not
> very bright using yourself as slot probe. It's also part
> of the exploratory nature of high-end boating. Thank goodness
> all of us dumb probes so far have gotten off with free passes.
Glad it worked out okay, and that you're here to inform the rest
I missed the original post in this thread, but when this topic comes up,
I like to relate a story that a friend told me. This was back in the
days when he still lived in Europe and Schlegels (sp?) were the paddle
of choice. Ernst and his friends were on a section they had done many
times before. There was a midstream pile of rocks, and I think they knew
that water had to be running under those rocks, but they never really
thought about it. (Ernst teaches river rescue now, but when he started
paddling, he and his friends learned it all the hard way--by
experience.) Anyway, one day, someone got broached on this pile of
rocks. The paddler came out of his boat and disappeared, and then
reappeared downstream of the pile. When they got him to shore, he had a
paddle in each hand (both were Shlegels). Someone asked him why, and
apparently he didn't even realize he had two. On closer inspection, one
of the paddles had clearly been underwater for a while. Presumably it
was lodged in the shute that the guy went through, and he grabbed it. He
was lucky; it could have been lodged more securely, blocking the passage
The roulette chamber rolled up full of bullet that day and I have been trying
to repay my debt of life to the River Gods ever since.Consequently, I have
sworn off the RF Gorge at least until the kids are out of college. It's not a
matter of confidence - I had run the RF Gorge numerous times before. It's
rather a matter of conscience.
It's healthy to have my alertness dial cranked from "casual" to "cautious".
And I'm grateful you are OK, Chris.
I'm really glad that you were able to get out of this situation relatively
unscathed .... fyi, last fall (1997) my group helped retrieve a guy who pinned
in this same slot, at the standard 2800 cfs release. I can't remember now
whether or not he had stayed in his boat the whole time - both he and the boat
also escaped unscathed, but the point is that this slot isn't any safer at
I watched in horror this year as 3 guys in playboats played follow-the-leader
through that slot ... all of them made it through without having the slightest
idea of the bullet they had just dodged. A lot of folks just don't realize
that the dangers on the Gauley (Upper AND Lower) are in the little slot moves -
not out in the middle of the big waves - and as boat volume decreases, the
chances of having a problem in one of these places increases.