Some of you have asked how I was able to escape the hole. How I did is contained in my account below. Just keep in mind that it does not mean that what I did would have worked for Paul. Luck more than anything is why I was able to swim out. It’s with a heavy heart that I post this, but I do think that it’s important that I do so. This happened to an experienced group of boaters on a very familiar stretch of river for us on what is normally considered a Class III rapid. In my 10+ years of paddling, there are only 2 rivers that I have logged more runs than on the Tellico. You can never be too careful on any river and don’t take anything for granted. My account of Paul’s tragedy is from unique perspective. I was running sweep and followed behind Paul into the rapid and was also stuck and swam the same hole at the same time as he.
After changing at Turkey Creek, we scouted the major rapids, Jarrod’s Knee & Baby Falls, on the way up to the put in. The Knee had just a few inches of water going over it suggesting that the river level was at what American Whitewater considers a Medium runnable level. Most of our group had experience at this level and at higher levels. So the call was made that the river was good to paddle as long as we stopped before reaching those significant rapids to scout again to see if the water had come up even more. The incident did not happen on either of these “harder” drops. It happen on the very first rapid called “Top Ledge” on what American Whitewater rates as a Class III Rapid. According to American Whitewater Tellico Page, “The Top Ledge is a six-foot drop that shouldn’t present any problems, although river right should be avoided because a pinning potential exists”.
As we are entering the first drop on the standard “left of center line” & just seconds after putting on, I notice that the normally large river right eddy was nearly non-existent. This suggests to me that the river has risen significantly since we drove by just a few minutes earlier. Because we are now entering the rapid, it’s too late to take off until we at least clear the first set of ledges. We still did not expect this rapid to cause us any significant problems. I followed sweep behind Paul over the ledges & notice as we are clearing the first ledge of the rapid that a normally exposed mid-stream rock that it just downstream of the first ledge is covered with water. This confirms to me that the river is flashing. Everyone, including Paul clears the first part of the rapid successful and enters the 2nd part in the same spot.
Gavin, Bill, & Bartec all clear the second part successful. However, Paul melts down into the Hole and is getting window shaded. Unable to stop, I enter the rapid doing my best to avoid him. This gets me stuck in the hole as well. I am upright and side surfing at first, but Paul is already upside down as I enter the drop. I am soon upside down as well and am unable to roll because Paul’s boat was blocking my roll set up. It is unclear to me if he was still in his boat at this time. At that point, I quickly choose to do a wet exit while I still had the energy to swim out. After exiting my boat, I am trapped in the hole with both boats. I grab onto my boat for floatation & it actually helps me pull myself free of the curtain. However, I quickly let go of it for fear of it getting me pulled back deeper into the hydraulic. I then decide to ball up and go deep in hope of catching a deep water downstream current. However, the deep water current seemed to be pulling even harder back upstream and into the hydraulic. Not at all what I was expecting. I then start swimming aggressively downstream to avoid getting pulled back into the hydraulic. I am able to keep myself from being pulled back in and underwater, but am unable to free myself. I then look around notice that there seemed to be some downstream surface flow more towards the river’s center(River Right). I then start swimming parallel to the ledge and towards the downstream flow. Once I reached the downstream flow I was washed out of the hole and was able to swim to a midstream rock just downstream of the ledge.
At this point, I could see Gavin heading upstream along the river right with a rope thinking that he was coming for me. I also saw Bill & Bartec a good bit further downstream & thought they were rescuing Paul. Gavin kept pointing upstream towards the ledge but all that I could see were the two boats being recirculated. I did not see Paul and still thought that Paul was downstream with Bartec & Bill. After a good bit of time, I eventually saw Paul surface and was able to throw a rope to him from the mid-stream rock that I was on. It landed across his chest, but he was clearly unconscious and unable to grab it. He was recirculated at least few more times after that before he was eventually washed out and began floating downstream face down. Bartec & Bill were quickly able to get him to shore and began CPR. I then swam to safety on the River left and flagged down a bystander to call 911.
In just few minutes, Dru & Kaylan Ellis and several other boaters rushed to the seen. Dru, along with another person, ferried there boats across the river to eventually relieve Bill & Bartec from their CPR efforts. I was on the opposite bank, so I think that the CPR effort details and river transport details are best to be described by Bartec & Bill and others coordinating that on the other side of the river. Our side of the river helped with the river transfer ropes and the eventual transport to a van that met an ambulance further down river road.
A few thoughts…
1) It would have been nearly impossible for Gavin or anyone on the riverbank to have been able to get a rope to him. Paul was not visible for much of the time and was too far away from either bank for a rope throw. I believe that he was trapped behind the curtain. I was in a unique position stranded on a mid-stream rock and with my rope(Salamander Retriever) around my waste that allowed me to actually be close enough to try and get him a rope. Having a rope around my waste instead of my boat was the only reason that I was even able to attempt to get him a rope.
2) The American Whitewater Website Tellico Page states “The Top Ledge is a six-foot drop that shouldn’t present any problems, although river right should be avoided because a pinning potential exists”. We all ran the standard, left of center line. However, I believe that the Terminal Hydraulic was created in that section due to downstream rocks(the ones that I was stranded on) blocking the outflow from the hole. This may explain why I did not find a downstream current when going down deep. The rapid increase in water level magnified this hazard creating a Terminal Hole.
3) We did not have Paul’s Emergency Contact Information. While this would not have changed the outcome, it did create a significant delay in being able to notify his family. Please be sure to exchange emergency contact info with your fellow paddlers.
4) A Gauge at the put in Bridge instead of 13 miles downstream would be more helpful in determining the actual levels of that River at the put in. I am not sure why this has never been done. With the gauge so far downstream, 3 Feet and rising is a very different level than 3 feet & falling even under a more “normal” water level increase rate. Regardless, always be extra careful on rising rivers! It’s hard enough to predict the rate that they are going to fall & it’s nearly impossible to predict the rate that they are going rise! Especially in mountainous terrain! Even if there was an upstream gauge, it’s still possible to get caught in a Flash Flood if you paddle pass the gauge before the water catches up with you. So it’s still not a sure thing.
5) The cooperation of the 30 or more paddlers that eventually arrived on the scene was outstanding. Everyone was doing something and it was well organized. This along with the outstanding CPR efforts gave Paul a fighting chance. He had a pulse when he arrived at the hospital and this was likely because he received effective CPR.
By Rob Strangia
January 5, 2011