Accident report: near-drowning in Meadow Creek Gorge

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.

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Looking downstream; paddler B was flipped and pinned against the large wall on river right.

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Looking down at the place paddler B flipped.

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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.

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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.

14 Comments

  1. my fucken god. thank god she’s ok. what a harrowing experience. thank you for sharing. it’s a reminder that things can go awry in a second. all we can do is prepare as best as we can and hope it’s enough. it seems you performing CPR on her may have been critical.

    1. Thanks everyone. I know of quite a few near misses packrafting in the Bob, most of which get swept under the rug. I believe strongly that being more public will help packrafters be more aware and safe.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I really appreciated the dispassionate review of the scenario, but just as much, the personal explanation after the fact of who Paddler A and B were. It helps reframe the entire scenario again within your actual frame of mind.

    This type of incident is the kind of thing that in fact keeps me up at night and makes me hesitant to invite friends along. I lean really hard on “you tell me if you think you can do it”. I am much more confident to mitigate risk on the bike or while backcountry skiing and feel like my skillset is sharp enough to manage a weaker partner. But in the water, and the perceived necessity to traverse it to move forward in a timely fashion, this feels less like a possibility to me and drives me to spend time with partners stronger than myself rather than vice versa.

  3. Scary, and thankfully all ok. I agree with the others it is extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable sharing these experiences, but it is a good wake up call that things can go bad fast — thanks for writing this.

  4. Scary indeed! Thanks for sharing your harrowing (and eye opening) experience with us. How is your Mom doing?

    1. Mike – She & her hubby will be back for all of October for some hunting, we should find a time to all do dinner, or otherwise have you meet them…

  5. Thank you for sharing this, Dave. Reading this renewed my resolve to get better at recognizing hazards like this, and to be ready to respond appropriately if something happens. The photos are helpful and I’m thankful that you were able to be so detailed about a difficult experience. Best wishes to both paddlers.

  6. Wow, what an intense and scary experience. Especially with it being your mom. I hope that she is doing better. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Wow. This must have been so traumatic for you both. My heart sank when you revealed that you were with your mother. I’m glad you’ve spent a lifetime building your skill sets to be able to handle both the incident, and the psychological aftermath, and thankful that you have very little to look back on with regret. Thanks so much for sharing.

  8. Never thought about this low water hazard of limestone bedrock before and there are more than a few creek/rivers like that in my woods. Thanks for sharing. I sent the link to Luc Mehl, who as you know, “relishes” accounts like this and the value of their public display and discussion. While our mistakes are often embarrassing, they are also good lessons to share, should we have the courage to do so. Thanks for showing that courage and opening at least one person’s eyes (mine) to potential hazards of low-water limestone bedrock.

    Maybe another, shorter recap with clear take home message might be useful? Clearly the WFR training makes its appearance, and the idea of taking people less skilled/experienced—but what would you do (upon further reflection as I see you write only that not being there was the best option) about running this sort of low water limestone in the future?

    This summer, the most important story I heard was from a pair of experienced Brooks Range packrafters, one of whom was swept under aufeis (“overflow”) for five minutes. One lesson, from the guy swept under, was the importance of a dry suit and the availability of air pockets from which he gulped air as he was swept along under the ice that kept him alive. A second lesson from the guy who watched his partner get swept under the ice and thought he was watching his partner die is to always have an inReach around your neck. A third lesson (from the pilot) is if your partner gets swept under, hurry downstream to where s/he might be flushed out to help him/her.

    1. Good questions Roman, some of which I’m still struggling with. I’m not convinced that summarizing or trying to make this accident (or another like it) easily digestible is helpful, either for myself or anyone else. The decision making process and environment around it on and before that trip is something I intend to write about in the future.

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