One
of the most profound effects of the movie Deliverance was the
ensuing, cavalier attitude of many of the un-informed who were
compelled to try to imitate portions of the story’s adventure, hence
the “Deliverance Syndrome”: Nineteen people died on the
Chattooga River during the four-year period after the movie was
released in 1972. By the same token, many who today come to
experience the river’s challenge and solitude lack the necessary
knowledge and skills, and thus also are vulnerable to the dangers
inherent in the river’s wildness.

The
most recent loss of life occurred this year on June 13th: A young
kayaker made the tragic and fatal mistake of intentionally trying to
swim to a point just above a very dangerous rapid called Left Crack.
He was swept downstream into the rapid and pinned underwater. The
Chattooga is a potentially dangerous river; come to understand this
river, and recognize that caution must accompany the opportunity for
discovery. Also, knowledge of her dangers is necessary for a safe
Chattooga River experience.

The
rapid named Left Crack in the area known as the Five Falls of the
Chattooga’s Section IV can be, under certain conditions, one of the
most dangerous rapids that I have ever seen. Although the “keeper”
hydraulic at the top of Woodall Shoals is probably the most infamous
spot on the Chattooga, there are many other places with undercut
rocks and strainers (downed trees in strong current), all of equal or
greater danger than Woodall Shoals.

Of
all these hazardous spots, Left Crack is outstanding as possibly the
single most dangerous spot on the Chattooga, depending on the river’s
water level. This is my conclusion after paddling rivers in New
Zealand, Costa Rica, Canada and the United States. I also worked a
guide on the Chattooga from 1976 to 1987, and for the last seven of
those years as head guide for Nantahala Outdoor Center, where my
responsibilities included training new river guides. In my mind,
training to handle and/or avoid emergency situations was absolutely
essential.

Training
exercises at Left Crack occurred at low water levels, in order for
guides to see the rock formations at the base of this 5-foot falls.
Here the water flushes down through a very narrow crevice between a
large boulder on the right, and the left hand side of the river which
at that point is a smooth, bare granite ledge. Left Crack is one of
three ways (at most water levels) that water can descend through the
line of boulders across the river at Crack in the Rock Rapid; the
other two options are called Center or Middle Crack, and Right Crack.

Commercial
raft trips run Right Crack at certain water levels, squeezing past a
vertical log jammed in the falls, then punching through the hydraulic
at the bottom of the falls. At water levels above two feet (measured
on the water gauge at the highway 76 bridge), commercial raft trips
portage Crack in the Rock altogether: the backwash at the bottom of
Right Crack is too dangerous. However, the medium to lower water
levels at Crack in the Rock have proved to be even more dangerous,
particularly between the levels of 1.4 – 1.9 feet.

During
guide training sessions at low water, we examined Left Crack’s rock
formations to gain an understanding of how and where a body could
become hopelessly trapped there. We discovered that the rocks that
form Left Crack narrow to a virtual death trap at the base of the
powerful, cascading sluice through the rocks. We impressed upon new
guides the importance of keeping people away from Left Crack, and
also showed them around the area, in the event of an emergency
situation. Should they have to extricate someone who became wedged
in the crevice at the base of the falls, they would have the
knowledge to do so safely.

The
following is a true account of a tragic ending to a young man’s quest
for adventure on the Chattooga River. We offer this account as a
means by which to educate and prepare those who come to experience
the river. The Chattooga River is wild, spiritual, fun and
challenging, and also can be a very dangerous place.

On
August 27, 1989 at about 3:08 PM a drowning occurred in Left Crack at
Crack in the Rock Rapid. By then, I had given up raft-guiding for a
job with the US Forest Service as a River Ranger on the Chattooga.
One of my responsibilities was to coordinate search and rescue
operations on the Chattooga on behalf of the Forest Service.

Earlier
that day, another ranger informed me of an encounter that she had had
earlier that morning. This ranger had warned a seemingly
ill-prepared group of inexperienced rafters of the dangers of Section
IV; however, they had decided to continue downstream. These rafters
were in compliance with basic requirements: they had two craft,
approved safety gear, and had filled out the permit which registers a
float plan. The ranger spoke with the group again at another point
downstream, but was unable to convince them to hook up with more
experienced rafters. I assured her that she had gone above and
beyond her responsibilities as a river ranger. Later, we learned
that the victim was a member of this party.

At
4:15 PM I received a call from the Andrew Pickens District Ranger
relaying a message from the County (Oconee, SC) of a missing person
and possible drowning on Section IV. I was given a contact’s name
and the telephone number of the river guide who had reported the
incident. I radioed for a backup, and requested that the Forest
Service Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) meet me at the nearest
commercial outfitter’s headquarters.

I
arrived there at 4:20 PM, where we spoke with the guide. He told us
that at about 3:00 PM he and his private float trip were just below
Jawbone Rapid (the next rapid in the Five Falls, immediately after
Crack in the Rock) when eight people came running down the river bank
to ask if he or any of his group had seen a person swim through
Jawbone. He had not. They told him that one of their rafts had
overturned in Corkscrew Rapid, just above Crack in the Rock. All
swimmers had made it to shore — except the missing person. This
individual was last seen by one member of the group who had flushed
through the rapid between the boulders which form Center Crack. He
reported last seeing the missing person immediately above Left Crack.

The
group went back up to the point where the victim was last seen and
searched, to no avail. After approximately fifteen minutes, the
contact departed to get help, and the Oconee County Sheriffs office
called the Forest Service. After gathering this information from the
witness, I requested assistance from the managers of the outfitters.
I asked for two crews of experienced guides, one to go to the scene
by raft with ropes and rescue gear, and the other to go to the lake
with a motor boat, below the terminus of the free-flowing river.
They responded immediately.

At
4:30 PM the LEO and I asked the River Manager to go to one of the
other outfitters to get more help. Some of the guides who responded
were ones I had trained. On the way to set up an incident command
post at the lake, the LEO gave me a good radio and I began the two
mile hike to Left Crack. On the way in I heard on the radio that the
local rescue squads had been notified, and were on the way as well.

I
arrived at Left Crack at about 5:20 PM. We found a long stick and
began probing at the base of the falls for the victim. Soon crews
began to arrive. What we found with the stick felt like a body, and
others thought they saw “something red” just under the
water’s surface. The radio was working in the gorge (where
communications are often difficult), and I radioed that all efforts
would be concentrated in the Left Crack area.

Soon
one of the more experienced guides joined me in attempting to get a
“tag line” under the body. He jumped to the boulder
between Left and Center Crack, making absolutely sure to jump below
the danger point. The tag line consisted of a bag filled with rocks
and attached to two ropes. I threw him a line, and we worked from
opposite sides of the sluice, stretching the tag line across and
below the drop, attempting to get the rope under the victim. The
water’s current was too strong, and this attempt failed.

One
of the outfitters had just arrived with the raft, which we began to
rig with ropes. Meanwhile, we made a second attempt with the tag
line, which was successful in snagging the body. At 5:35 PM we
secured the raft in a position directly below Left Crack, with
volunteers pulling the raft upstream with ropes from a safe location
on shore above the drop. Working from the front of the raft I
reached down, shoulder deep, into the water. The victim’s hand,
swept by the heavy current to and fro, met my own hand and I grabbed
it. This is something I will never forget: the sadness, the coming
together of years of training, the compassion, and above all the
realization of the danger of this place.

Several
ropes were attached around the victim’s torso. Rope-and-pulley
systems known as “Z-drags” were also used to pull the body
up through the strong current, but the water’s force was too great.
Finally, the angles of the haul lines were adjusted through a “vector
pull”, to change the angle on the load lines. This effort freed
the body, which was propelled out of the water with much force. The
victim fell into the eddy above the falls. Everyone simultaneously
turned their heads away. Several guides trained as Emergency Medical
Technicians placed the victim in a body bag, and it was transported
to the command post at the lake where the victim was pronounced dead
at 7:45 PM.

The
following day the District Ranger approached me with a grim task.
The victim’s parents were in the conference room and wanted to know
the details of the drowning. I told them that everyone had done
everything they could do for their son, and tried to comfort them as
much as possible. Then came the dreaded question: Is there anything
we can do to prevent this from happening again; maybe altering the
rapid so it would be less dangerous? I explained to the best of my
ability that the intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is to
preserve places where risk would be accepted as a part of the
wildness of the place. After a very uncomfortable pause, the father
looked me in the eye and said “I think my son would have said:
Leave it wild”. I was very touched by these words, in light of
the family’s terrible loss.

Subsequently,
proposals have been made to alter the river bed to eliminate the
danger. Fortunately, wiser minds have prevailed. Where would this
alteration end? The river must remain wild. Our real obligation is
to preserve the river, the beauty and wildness, and even the danger.
Another part of this obligation lies with educating the public. The
river is not an amusement park ride. The Chattooga can be a
dangerous river, and this is an integral part of its wild beauty.
Learn about the Chattooga River, respect it, and enjoy it.

by
Buzz Williams
From The Eddy Line, December 1996

Reprinted
with permission from the Summer 1996 edition of the Chattooga
Quarterly, a quarterly publication of the Chattooga River Watershed
Coalition