While loading rafts at the Ocoee River commercial take-out on July 12, 1997, four guides of the Rolling Thunder River Company received word from another rafting company that there was a kayak pinned in the undercut on “Running Rock” below Torpedo Rapid on the lower half of the Ocoee. Guides Tony Taylor, William Towery, Matthew Williams and Ron Browri participated in the extrication. The following narrative is a first hand report.
When I first heard of the reported kayak pin, my first thought was, “Is anybody in the boat?” A flurry of activity ensued; we had to make sure our rafts were secure and our gear was in order. Within three minutes we were on the road. During the drive our discussion leaned toward a plan of action once we arrived on the scene. It was during that discussion that we realized that running rock was at least a twenty minute float from the take-out. That amount of time combined with the ten minutes it took us to get to the scene, and anybody pinned in the kayak would most likely be dead. At that point we modified our plan from a “rescue” to a “recovery”, but moved quickly hoping for the elusive miracle.
When we arrived on the scene, we could see the pinned kayak from the road. No part of the kayak was visible above water, but between the surges of the waves, the telltale shape of the stern of a squirt boat was plainly visible.
We were met on the scene by several rangers, who had also received reports of the trapped kayak. Preparing ourselves for the worst, Matthew, William and Ron quickly unloaded a raft while Tony scrambled down the steep, 30 foot bank to check out the scene. Several passing kayaks were recruited to ferry to the scene and supply us with a better description of the pin, and to ascertain whether or not anybody was trapped.
Three different boaters reported a kayak, but couldn’t tell whether anybody was trapped or not. The swift current and dangerous pinning potential prevented any of the kayakers from providing more than cursory information as to the status of the pin. One kayaker hand signaled that the cockpit was pinned against the undercut; not a good sign.
We lowered the raft down the bank and into the water. Tony assumed the guide position while Matthew, William and Ron provided the power for the necessary cross current ferry to a large eddy behind a boulder on river left, just upstream from running rock. Once in the eddy, Tony moved to the bow of the raft and prepared to scramble on the rock as soon as the boat was in position.
With Ron and Matthew now providing the power for the ferry, William expertly guided the raft back to the middle of the river and into the micro-eddy on the downstream side of running rock. Somehow he placed that fourteen foot long, seven foot wide Riken into the six foot long, three foot wide eddy, and Tony leaped onto the rock, guide strap in hand.
William held his precise angle on the back of the raft while Ron secured a rope to the raft. As Matthew and William prepared for the return ferry to river left to set up a z-drag, Tony reached over the upstream side of the rock. With Ron at his back and his carabiner sprung open, Tony desperately searched for a grab loop on the submerged kayak. After a few tense seconds, Tony popped back up, object in hand.
“CUSTOMER PADDLE,” Tony screamed as he hurled the bright yellow paddle into the river. It was a paddle, a rafting company customer paddle. What looked to all eyes to be the stern of a squirt boat turned out to be nothing more than a brightly colored paddle broached across the undercut.
We ferried the raft back to river right and line portaged it the forty feet we had lost in the double ferry back to the clearing on the bank. We line hauled the raft to the road, loaded it up and went straight to the beer store for a couple of sorely needed cases. The amazing part was that from the time we arrived on the scene until we had the raft loaded and were back on the road was only twenty minutes.
Although the rescue effort seemed to be for naught, it taught us all the value of teamwork. It also showed that if it ever becomes necessary for us to perform as a team in a real emergency, we are up to the task. All of us are trained in river rescue and first aid, Matthew is also a paramedic, but we had never practiced our river rescue techniques together before. We passed the test, and are very thankful that it was a paddle as opposed to a body that we extricated.
Many thanks to the several rangers for blocking the road while we unloaded and loaded the raft, and for their assistance otherwise (and for not laughing too long and hard).
ROLLING THUNDER RIVER COMPANY… We’ll extricate anybody’s paddle, anytime!
– From the newsletter of the East Tennessee Whitewater Club.
by Ron Brown
July 14, 1997.
From The Eddy Line, November 1997