As many people here know I lost a close friend, Paul
Abraszewski, on June 24 of this year in a fatal kayaking accident on the Blackfoot River in Eastern Idaho. When I posted the news I made a plea that people refrain from second guessing and analysis out of respect for my friend and those who loved him. I said that it wasn't the proper time, which implies that there is a proper time. Maybe that time is now. There may be lifesaving lessons to be learned from taking a look at what happened. I do not intend to disclose all details of the accident, some of the things that were told to me by the people he was with are personal and will not add to this discussion. I know that one of the four men who were with Paul lurks here, another has a user ID and posts. If they want to add to what I say that is up to them.
Below I will give a description of the accident and I will include photos of the rapid to help give some perspective. My purpose is to stimulate discussion of safety issues, including whether anyone even thinks this kind of an analysis in such a public place is proper. I do not know the answer to that question, but if a life is saved or boating is made a little safer as a result then I'll take the heat. I'm throwing this out for that purpose and I'm quite willing to accept any criticism for it. By that same token, please remember that there are some raw emotions connected with any fatal accident such as this. It is not my intent to establish a cause and certainly not to lay blame. It is also not my intent to second-guess any decisions that were made. I wasn't there.
I have never run the reach of the Blackfoot River where the accident occurred. In the original AW description it was listed as class III-IV. After discussing it with local boaters including the four others who were there that day, I wrote to Charlie Walbridge to advise him and AW that the page needed to be updated. Their reaction was swift. They slightly edited my e-mail and published it on the page for that reach of river. Any information I'd give here would be second-hand, but I know that there are regular visitors to this forum who have run it and I hope that they'll weigh in to correct any errors I might have made in my description of the river.
The Blackfoot River lies in Eastern Idaho east of the city of Blackfoot. It empties into the Snake River below the city of Blackfoot. The river is empounded for irrigation on the plateau east of the Snake River floodplain. There are several sections of the river, both above and below the reservoir. The AW page for Idaho lists the descriptions here:
The section in question is Wolverine Canyon, now listed as class V. The section runs through rolling farmland in a steep sided basalt canyon carved by the river as it descends to the Snake River floodplain below. Around the canyon the area is arid and practically treeless. In the canyon there are stately stands of pine and lush riparian shrubbery.
The rapid is refered to by the locals as the first of the class V rapids in Wolverine Canyon. They call it "Teller Tube" because the river placidly approaches a horizon line, then plunges over 40 vertical feet producing the kind of accelleration that the tube in the pneumatic system at your local bank branch does. The run requires a left-to-right move across the face of a green drop, then work back left to center missing a huge pillow on a large boulder on river left and then a must make eddy on river right, indicated by the crudely drawn circle on the photo below. There is a small last chance eddy below this, but the consequence of missing the eddys is to be swept into a boulder field blocked by logjams. Once the eddy is made you can either ferry across the current and work down far river left, or you can bump down the sneak on river right, which is the prefered line.
The photo only shows about half of the rapid. I took it from the canyon rim with a small digital waterproof camera that had limited wide angle zoom. River flow is from left to right in the photo.
In addition to Paul he was accompanied by four other expert boaters, all of whom had experience running this reach of river. One was a nationally known SRT intructor trainer and outdoor specialist, the second was the head of whitewater instruction for a large unversity, the third was a river guide with extensive class V experience and the fourth, in addition to being an expert class V boater was an emergency room physician. It speaks to the calibre of the group that when I've mentioned to other locals the people Paul was with, a typical reaction was, "He must have been a great boater then because those guys don't let just anybody boat with them."
Paul chose his Pyranha H:3 245 creekboat for the run that day, one of his stable of about five various play, creek and utility boats. He was wearing a drytop, full coverage helmet, 16 lb flotation PFD and was carrying a break-apart paddle under the seat of his H:3. He also had a throwbag, pin kit, and small first aid kit in the rear of his boat.
Paul had been boating about 7 years. He was in a pool class that I helped instruct as a practical assistant in St. Louis. When I first met him he was finishing his fellowship in cardiology and he had moved to Pocatello with his wife after he finished to join a cardilogy group there. Part of the reason they chose Pocatello was the opportunities for outdoor recreation, especially kayaking, that are available there. He had been very active in boating, polishing his skills, and was extending the scale of his boating. He had run Wolverine Canyon once before with most of the same boaters he was with that day, but he had chosen to shoulder his boat that run at "Teller Tube". He was enthusiastic about challenging his boating, but he was properly prepared for this run and had chosen his boating companions well.
All five boaters got out at "Teller Tube" to scout. Paul chose to run first. One other boater had already decided to shoulder his boat and was doing so, but all four set safety on the riverbank for Paul to make his run. Paul made the first move at the top of the rapid easily (1), that kind of move was his signature. He was flipped in the first hole below the entrance drop (2) and tried to roll back up. When he failed (I don't know how many times he tried) he exited his boat somewhere between (2) and the must-make eddy at (3) and was swept into the logjam lodging at point (4).
Below is a closeup of point(4). The circle indicates the log, mostly underwater, where Paul lodged.
Paul's companions, at great risk to themselves, attempted first to provide Paul with an air passage. While that was going on the others joined the first one to him in trying to lift him out of the water. Failing that they improvised a rope to tie around him, continuing attempting to rescue him. They set up a "Z" drag, but the current held him far too tightly. After more than an hour of this they decided that they were no longer in a rescue but rather a recovery. Paul was finally freed after about an hour and a half. The authorities were contacted, and here the storys diverge. The four with him told me that they removed Paul from the canyon climbing up the talus slope on river right to the road above. The police report stated that Paul was still in the canyon when the police first arrived. I tend to think that the story Paul's boating companions told me was accurate.
Paul was well prepared for the run, the moves he had to make were not above his abilities, he chose his companions very well for the run. The rapid was obviously runnable, he had been present when it had been run before. The margin for error was razor thin though. I will not make conjecture on any of the decisions that Paul or his companions made. The nature of class V boating is that your companions are there to support you, not to make your decisions for you. This was a terrible tragedy, one that I can find little to pin blame on other than fate. In hindsight, the only thing I can see that might have been done differently is that once the decision was made that they were in recovery rather than rescue mode, they might have called in the professionals to do it. Evidently that issue came up for discussion among them and they decided that since it was only two weeks or so since they themselves had held the training for the rescue squad that would have responded, they were as, or more, qualified to execute the recovery. The only thing that the authorities might have been able to do that they couldn't was request that the penstocks on the dam be closed draining the river.
One thing at issue here is the nature of the rivers we run. Over the last two decades the envelope of what is runnable has been pushed ahead. Some older guidebooks rate Lesser Wesser at class V, now most people begrudge it a low class III. Paul loved to watch extreme boating videos. He had several DVDs that he watched on his computer and he admired the boaters in them. Is it wise to establish that kind of thing as a goal of the sport? If that is what we aspire to, what is the baseline? At what point does it become irresponsible to expose the public and the boating community to the extremes of the sport, or does it at all? I have no interest in that kind of boating, not even to watch it on a DVD. Paul used to get frustrated with me because I bored easily and lost interest when he wanted me to watch them with him. I told him that it didn't represent anything that I identified with. Granted, my version of boating is pretty sedate compared to what many here on this forum enjoy, and I'm not trying to judge them or that level of the sport. But is that part of it overemphasized to the neglect of other levels that many people, including me, enjoy?
I'm not implying that the above contributed to Paul's accident. I am asking for some thought to be given to how far and how fast we arrive at that level. That said, the only other boater I knew personally who drowned on a river died on a class II southeast river in a strainer. Accidents can happen anywhere at any time. But a word of wisdom from another friend's high school age kid, (an excellent boater) when asked why he hadn't tried to tackle some of the harder, more extreme runs said, "One secret to a long life is to avoid doing the things that shorten it."