The
following article is condensed from three separate articles in the
Tennessee Valley Canoe Club newsletter. It is published here in the
interest of promoting river safety through education. The article
makes some good points about boat design, equipment, and making group
decisions on the river. – Editor.

Todd
Smith loved to kayak. He enjoyed the challenge, the mountains,
rivers, creeks, and mostly the friendships he made on these rivers.
His wife Tina loved all these experiences too. Todd was with friends
his last day to paddle.

Todd
was a very experienced boater who had paddled the North Chickamauga
Creek, Upper Gauley, and Upper Little River Canyon in Alabama many
times. He was on the Ocoee several days a week all through the last
three summers. He paddled the Russell Fork for the first time this
past fall and again the next day. Todd had been down Little Possum
Creek twice before. He would look at a drop, discuss it, make up his
mind, and either run or carry. Normally he was quiet about his
choice.

On
Sunday, December 1, seven of us, including Todd, set out to scout
what water to run following the heavy rains the previous two days.
The other kayakers besides Todd were Jon Lord, Jamie Casson, Eric
Zitzow, and Paul Shoun. There were two solo open boaters — Allen
Raines and Jim Hampton. All paddlers were experienced at difficult
creek paddling.

When
we checked the gauge at Possum Creek that fateful Sunday, the reading
was 5 feet. We decided that was a dangerous level, as our previous
runs had been at the mid-3 feet zone. So our convoy left and we went
out to scout some other runs near Dunlap, which turned out to look
unrunnable. So two hours later we rechecked the Possum gauge. The
new level had dropped a foot and was now at 4 feet. As our previous
runs had been too shallow at the bottom, this level promised to be
just right.

Tina
helped drive shuttle to the top. The big drops near the top were all
run with no problem. Then we flew down the race course of minor
drops for several miles. The two canoes had to pull over after most
rapids to dump, so we broke into two groups. I was the lone kayaker
to hang back to watch the open boats. On a tight creek, a little
room to eddy out is not a bad thing, and not running into each other
in a hole was another good reason to split the group. The remaining
rapids were mostly class II-III with a few Ivs.

As
the second group approached an area that had a small drop that had
caused me trouble on a previous run, I could see that efforts were
being made by the first group to free what I assumed was probably a
stuck boat, so we proceeded to eddy out upstream of the problem to
help. It never entered my mind that a great friend was in a
life-threatening situation. The area of the drop has a nasty
undercut on river left. We had been walking this spot until the tree
that had caused my problem had washed out, and we had begun to paddle
it again.

Evidently
the four kayakers had eddied out and one by one ran this squeeze.
The creek here is forced into the right bank where several large tree
limbs were overhanging the water. These limbs, along with sharp eddy
lines, caused three of them to flip, but all rolled up okay. A short
pool then narrows into the 4-foot drop where I had been stuck against
the tree previously. The creek goes from being 20-30 yards wide to
about 5 to 6 feet, thus tremendous pressure is against the undercut.

Jamie
rolled up and went through forward. Eric rolled up and went through
backward. Todd rolled up and his paddle, a lightweight Lightning
paddle, broke in half. Unable to steer or stroke for speed, he went
off backwards into the undercut. The boat didn’t flip but was
pressed up against the undercut rock. A log was under his cockpit,
and the water force buckled the Dagger Freefall LT down onto his legs
and wrapped it toward the log. The bulkhead was lying on its side
inside the boat.

Despite
quick action by his friends, Todd couldn’t be saved. Twice Jon got a
hold on him by jumping in, but the force of the water was too strong.
They had been trying everything with ropes, pulleys, carabiners and
personal courage to free Todd before our arrival, and we continued by
trying everything from Z-drags on both banks at the same time to
holding the legs of someone as their body was underwater reaching
down.

We
then decided to send Jon down to call the rescue squad. Almost two
hours had passed since Todd had been under, so we all knew he had
drowned. The shock of this loss had us all devastated. Tina was
waiting at the take-out.

Any
fears that we had failed our friend in rescue were allayed by the
fact that the rescue squads took more than 3-4 hours with 30+ trained
members to extract him. Basically, the water level had dropped far
enough to get him out. We thank the agencies that responded to our
call to this remote area. You don’t appreciate those good folks ’til
they are needed.

Todd
Smith will be missed and prayed about for a long time.

A
Short Safety Look at the Accident

Paul
Shoun:

Terrible
events can happen to great people and very good paddlers. Certainly
the bad luck of the paddle snapping can be looked at. Although a
good blade, the Lightning is now, in our opinion, too flimsy for
creekin’. Todd had broken one before and had waited for six months
to be mailed another one. There is no way of knowing if he could
have stroked some speed or braced his way through the squeeze had the
paddle not broken.

The
splitting of the group was not discussed; it just sort of happened.
The four other kayakers were all very strong paddlers. I feel that
the accident would have happened whether we were 4 or 7 boats. Once
it happened, no amount of manpower was going to overcome the water.
Still, I do think that groups in the future should always stay
together unless the whole group agrees to the split. Often on
difficult runs, after the big rapids are over, someone will need to
go to work early or meet someone and we agree to split, so one group
leaves faster. This practice should be thought about more in light
of the “what if” rule of safety to make sure all are safe
and discourage splitting up.

Should
the rapid have been run in the first place upon hindsight? After
running all the big rapids upstream, this squeeze and drop doesn’t
jump out at you at all. Our previous run after the tree had
apparently washed out had been fairly easy. The drop can surprise
you somewhat by how fast everything happens. Still, taking the whole
creek into account, this rapid was a class III-IV with a danger on
river left. I know if I ever do run Possum again (which I can’t even
think about now) I won’t run that rapid because my friend is there in
spirit.

The
skills of this group were very strong, so no argument there. We had
all been to safety schools over the years with TVCC and practiced our
skills while paddling for years.

Eric
Zitzow:

Near
the washout of Little Possum is a tight right to left move to avoid a
log hanging off the right bank. Todd’s stern tagged the tree as he
came through this move. This nipped him. His paddle was broken as
he came into the next drop backwards but right side up. The paddle
having broken gave him no time to line up for the next drop, which
was only 3 feet high, but was a left to right move that was undercut
on the left. His boat jammed in the slot.

There
was also a small six inch diameter tree jammed in the narrow slot in
a near vertical position. The boat folded down onto the log at the
cockpit, instantly pinning Todd in the boat facing upstream,
completely submerged, and not even visible.

There
are a few things that I would ask the boating community to consider.
Todd’s skill level was not a factor in his death. He was not on a
river above his skill level. He knew the run and was having very
good lines that day. Speed of response or safety gear was not a
factor. We were in a tight group of four.

During
our rescue attempt, Jon had attempted an extremely risky swim through
twice while Jamie & I set up a tag line. We also had Z-drag
gear. This death was not on the steepest section of the river.

In
this case, our group had split into two groups at the washout. This
was not a factor in Todd’s death, considering the extreme severity of
the pin, but it could make a difference to someone in another
situation. I have noticed a trend of boaters loosening up the group
at the run-out of steeper runs. In many cases the run-out is still
class IV/V.

A
new focus should be made on the danger of even smaller diameter logs.
The log that completely wrapped Todd’s boat was very narrow in
diameter but still could not be moved by a 3-point Z-drag. There has
been a cavalier attitude about logs lately. With some of the new
moves like jumps and slides on logs, I think we have forgotten just
how dangerous they are.

The
wrap that started the boat folding started in the cockpit, halfway
between the seat towers and the start of the front wall. I would
like to see a discussion on what can be done to strengthen this area
of the boat. On larger cockpit boats there is no support from the
wall in the cockpit area. This instant crushing of the cockpit is
what held Todd’s legs in the boat. In this case the seat towers did
not crush, but the front wall did (the front wall actually stayed
inside of the retaining tabs but crushed in an S-shape).

by
Paul Shoun

From
The Eddy Line, February 1997