Near Misses

Three Brushes with Whitewater Death
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People who spend time on rivers constantly face risk; injury—and death—are often only moments ahead.

How many rivers, including our favorite and most familiar ones, are free of places we need to avoid, especially when water levels are high? Few, if any. But skill and experience, judgment and luck, training and good paddling partners—all these combine to keep us—not out of danger, for danger is an integral part of our sport—but maybe out of trouble.

Only about half as many near-misses are reported in the River Safety Task Force Reports as fatal accidents. But the near-misses are written by paddlers who have survived to tell the story— to tell what worked.

This first account, by Jim Brooks Smith, tells of his pin and rescue on the Piney River in central Tennessee.

Jim Brooks Smith
"Our group put in on February 2, 1991. The Piney is a steep, technical run falling off the Cumberland Plateau south of Knoxville. Air temperature was to get into the 50's; water temperature was about the same.

"I was following the group when I came upon the rapid. I chose a slot to the left of a rock just left of center. I was not paddling hard enough to launch the boat, and I was not leaning back while going through the slot. I felt the bow catch; then the stern immediately dropped into a slot just past the lip of the drop. The water was flowing over my back and head; my boat was at a steep angle and well pinned. My first move was to wiggle my boat with my hips, but there was no change. Breathing was okay, but the water was flowing across my face. I tried to stand straighter on my footpegs, but the water coming down on me made me feel as if I was being driven against the boat harder. Breathing was much more difficult in this position, causing me to swallow more water. I was surprised, scared, and wondering what would work to get me out of the boat. I began testing putting weight on one foot and trying to lift one knee up above the rim of the cockpit.

"About that time Victor and Andy were on the left bank, and Jim Conerly had made it to the right. They quickly got a rope across and in front of my life jacket, against my chest. Shortly afterwards, the other Jim got to the right bank, and they got the rope secured. Looking to my left I could see Victor and Andy. They looked confident, and that reassured me. I could not turn to the right because the water was immersing me more that way. I yelled to Victor and Andy, 'What can I do next?' but they couldn't hear me. I knew they had done all they could to give me the opportunity to help myself. By pushing off my toes and leaning onto the rope, I could lift my left knee a little. The rope against my shorty life jacket constricted my breathing. I had thrown my paddle away because I needed both hands to push against the cockpit. The boat felt rigid and was not turning at all, despite my twisting movements. I swallowed more water doing this, and I cupped my hands over my mouth to keep water out.

"I think after a few unsuccessful tries, I began to quit, and panic. I remembered walks with my wife and wanting to see my daughter in the science fair. I think I teared up a little bit even with all the water rushing over my face.

After a few seconds, I returned with renewed efforts, determined to free myself. Somehow, I got my left knee above the rim of the cockpit. I could hear a cheer from everybody. That helped. Again I tried, slightly twisting to the right, and I got my left knee upon the cockpit rim. Quickly I pushed upright, bringing my right leg up. I had to get out of there, or I knew muscle cramps would occur. I wanted to go faster and just wrench myself over the side, but I was unsure of my balance. I had been in the water a while; my hands were numb, and I had swallowed as much water as air. Finally, I was crouched on the cockpit rim with my feet under me. Someone threw me a line, and the line on my chest was loosened. I looked, wrapped the new line under my elbow, and jumped. The water was frothy but shallow where I landed. I just held on as Jim pulled me into the eddy. He got me on a rock with my head lower than my feet, and I immediately belched out water.

"The other Jim, Victor, and Andy were looking for my boat, which had disappeared. At that moment I knew I would be okay, but I wondered how I would get out of there and what it would mean to all of us. They tried moving a throw rope over the place where my boat was. Later, Andy told me they could see my boat under the water.

"Andy found a large flat rock with which he and Victor weighted the throw rope and sunk it above the boat. After throwing the ropes across the river to loop the boat and pulling on them, they freed my kayak. Andy caught the boat, which had its stern bent up toward the sky. He jumped up and down on the boat, which straightened it some and ferried it across the river to me. Victor hung it between two rocks, and we sat on the boat's bottom. This straightened it enough to paddle. My sprayskirt had washed off along with an airbag, throw rope, water bottle, and paddle. Jim had a breakdown paddle, and Andy found my sprayskirt. We estimated that I had been in the water twelve to fifteen minutes, and we had used another hour getting the boat out, so it was about 2:00 p.m. We got moving.

"My paddle and throw rope were around the next bend. I was very apprehensive and paddled conservatively the rest of the way to the takeout. However, I had a heightened sense of the beauty of this river gorge. We took out about 5:30 p.m.

"In retrospect, I thought of other things I might have done. I had been clumsy starting out; I should have paddled hard and leaned back going over the ledge. I might have used my paddle as a pole to help pry myself out of the boat. My throw bag should have been tied in more securely and near my grasp; then I could have used a carabiner and hooked it to the broach loop in the front of my cockpit. At one point near the end of the ordeal, I thought I had swallowed too much water and I was weakening. I'd read it was better to use all your strength for one great attempt to free yourself. I guess that's a judgment call.

"That morning I had taped a weak ankle and decided to leave my breakdown paddle in Chattanooga. I had driven hundreds of miles and had four hours sleep. At my age, I cannot rebound as quickly as I used to. I let too many details slide by. I am glad I have the opportunity to paddle another day.

"The other paddlers acted immediately and stabilized me. There was no wasted energy and confusion in their efforts to rescue me. They were poised and encouraging. If you get in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had better be with the right people. I am thankful I was with some competent, well-trained paddlers to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I hope this report will help warn and instruct others in some way."

Others must have thought the same things Jim thought, others who were vertically pinned listening for encouragement from their would-be rescuers, feeling ropes come and go, trying to understand the hurried rescue efforts from their own constrained points of view. Darkness followed for many, or light, or whatever comes after, but not for Jim. And not for Cris Leonard, who tells in the next account of his lengthy pin at Sweet's Falls on the Gauley—in an open canoe.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 31 Aug 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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