Paddler A and B were on the fourth day of a packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead at low water (a hair above 500 cfs at Twin Creeks). They passed through the intro rapid right below the normal Meadow Creek takeout and arrived at the first serious rapid 1/2 mile later around 12pm. This rapid is recognized by a gravel island visible in satellite photos that becomes very large at lower water. All of the serious rapids in the gorge are formed by bedrock limestone formations, and thus the nature of these rapids change drastically from lower to higher flows. Very low flows reveal spectacular fins, curved chambers, fluted corridors, and alter the location of cruxes within rapids. In this case, low water reveals bedrock fins and sieves in the river left channel, making this line borderline unrunnable even for small craft, and certainly hazardous. Paddlers A and B identified a small cobble island partway down the bedrock channel after the two channels come together, and agreed to run/line the shallow right channel, which dumbed steeply into the main channel in a way which made stopping potentially problematic. The paddlers agreed to stop at the cobble island to regroup and potentially scout further. The right channel proved paddleable, and both boaters were able to eddy out immediately before the channels came back together, where they reaffirmed their plan to paddle the ~100 yards to the cobble island.
Paddler A negotiated the several waves and holes in the first half of this stretch, entering the swift and narrow but uncomplicated second half, nearing the cobble island before looking back upstream and seeing paddler B pushed into an obstruction river right and flip upstream. Paddler A paddled to the cobble island, secured boat and paddle, before wading 20 yards back upstream to grab paddler Bs boat, which was visibly floating downstream. When paddler Bs boat was close to paddler A, paddler Bs paddle became visible ~20 yards upstream of the boat. Shortly before paddler A was able to secure the boat, paddler Bs water bottle and hat became visible in the water, and then paddler B floating prostrate in the river.
Paddler A rapidly secured the boat and paddle on the cobble island, and returned upstream in knee deep water to grab paddler B. Paddler B was floating face up in the river, eyes partially open, and nonresponsive. Paddler A dragged/floated paddler B to the cobble island and checked for a pulse and breathing. A pulse was present and strong, breathing was present, but irregular. Paddler A dragged paddler B clear of the water, and removed the PFD to better assess breathing and injuries. No bleeding or gross trauma was evident, and breathing remained present but irregular. Paddler A then administered two rescue breaths, with the second visibly and audibly inflating paddler Bs lungs. Paddler B became first visibly and then audibly responsive over the next 5 minutes, and was able to verify sensation in all limbs. Paddler A palpated and further checked for fractures and bleeding, which were not present. Paddler A then transported all gear through the short, swift, thigh deep channel to the bank, and then assisted Paddler B in walking through the same. Paddler B was placed in a sleeping bag to rewarm, reporting full and normal sensation after 1 hour. Paddler B vomited 3-4 times over this span, discharging ~2 cups of milky liquid in total.
Paddler A secured all gear in and to one backpack, leaving water and snacks accessible, and assisted Paddler B in the steep bushwack up to the trail, and the ~1.5 mile walk on trail back to the trailhead. Paddler B reported feeling weak and light headed throughout this, taking approximately 2.5 hours to walk from the riverside to the trailhead.
While paddler B was rewarming paddler A walked up to examine and photograph the site of the pin and flip. Paddler B was flipped against a bedrock wall on river right, which took up not quite half the width of the river. A tooth of rock, which from downstream appeared as a detached boulder, was actually part of the wall, and separated by a small crack through which a small amount of water was able to flow. It appeared, both from the rim and from paddler Bs recollections, that the wall may have been undercut below the surface. Paddler B recalled first fighting to keep hold of and then discarding the paddle, in an effort to have more resources to get above water. Paddler B recalled fighting to get left and free from the rock wall, but lost consciousness first. Paddlers A and B think it possible, indeed probable, that paddler B was flushed loose, possibly down, after losing consciousness. The time between the boat flipping and paddler B being flushed free was between 60 and 90 seconds.
Looking downstream; paddler B was flipped and pinned against the large wall on river right.
Looking down at the place paddler B flipped.
Looking upstream from midway down the rapid, with the pinning wall readily visible. This photo shows the extensive erosion of the limestone bedrock which forms undercut and dangerous features which emerge at low flows.
Looking upstream from the end of the rapid. The cobble island where paddler A retrieved paddler B is just out of sight to the lookers right.
The rapids and current in Meadow Creek gorge were, in retrospect, beyond paddler Bs skill level. Paddler A had been down the gorge before, running all the rapids, at a higher but still low water level. This, and likely other, rapids in the gorge seem to abate in difficulty as the water drops before the technicality increases again as bedrock features emerge. Significantly, low water reveals the extensive nature of undercut and sieve-like bedrock in the gorge rapids, something which highlights the hazard of a swim at all water levels.
It is difficult to see what the team could have done differently, aside from not being there in the first place. Assessing paddler skill and readiness is a complex topic on both an individual and group level. Paddler A (who was me, if that is not yet clear) did not see the obvious hazard of the wall which flipped and pinned paddler B (who was my mother), either as an obstacle or an entrapment hazard. With this problem not recognized, our safety options were limited. With a different frame of vision I might have recognized that her flip was as dangerous as it was, but even so getting up there to assist more directly would not have improved the response time, and even if it had been the rock walls would have rendered such a response ineffective in terms of getting her out of the river faster.
The whole situation is scary, in the short term because she almost died, and in the longer term, as it gives me reason to question a whole lot of decision making over the past decade. I’ve waited weeks to post this, both because the process of reliving it is upsetting, and because I wanted plenty of space to ensure I had the most dispassionate and longest perspective I could. For that reason, everything above the photos has been written and sitting in the drafts folder for two weeks, with me ignoring this website.
As poor as our collective decision making was, in the moment both our responses left little room for improvement. We will never know, but it seems a reasonable assumption that her fighting to get river left and above water helped at least a bit in her not staying pinned. The rescue experience is the most clear cut example, of quite a few over the past two decades, of how invaluable an intense and high quality wilderness first responder course can be. I lucked out, two decades ago, to have as my WFR instructor a former army medic who took the psychology of the responder very seriously. My patient during the night scenario feigned a compound femur fracture, on a 30 degree hillside in slick Appalachia, with total seriousness, and his acted screams can to this day easily bring back my failures that evening. When I saw a blue PFD floating towards me, the response was entirely objective, and in the end, simple. My WFR recert classes were not as vivid, and had they been my only experience, I don’t think my response to crises would have been anywhere near as reliable.
The whole thing has me thinking, with more clarity and urgency, about just how to comprehensively teach safety in the outdoors.
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