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Last Saturday, a woman on a rafting trip with her school drowned in the Alberton Gorge, an 11 mile stretch of class III+ whitewater on the Clark Fork River, in western Montana. The stretch is a classic canyon run, with stunning scenery and exciting rapids. It’s one of the most floated stretches of river in the region and is considered to be relatively safe. I'd almost ended up floating the Gorge that day myself, and this accident hit very close to home. What happened out there? And what would I have done?

What Went Wrong on Montana’s Alberton Gorge?

Last Saturday, a woman on a rafting trip with her school drowned in the Alberton Gorge, an 11 mile stretch of class III+ whitewater on the Clark Fork River, in western Montana. The Gorge is a classic canyon run, with stunning scenery and exciting rapids. It’s one of the most floated stretches of river in the region and is considered to be relatively safe.

Earlier that day, I called some friends to see if anyone wanted to join my friend John and me on an afternoon float down the Blackfoot River. The original plan was to row our rafts solo down the Alberton Gorge, but the river had come back up, and I was a bit uneasy about rowing boats with no other paddlers in them through the heaviest rapids in the middle of the Gorge, where a flip meant a long swim and likely a lost raft. The occasional swim while whitewater rafting is part of the fun – if you’re prepared and conditions are safe. This was John’s first float of the season, though, and we had no other boaters to join us, so I made the call to switch trips to the Blackfoot. It’s a gift, really, that we even have such options.

Several hours and a sore shoulder later, John and I were back in town, happy and tired. While we were gone, two of the people I called, Matt and Chuck, had called back. Matt asked about a float down the Gorge tomorrow. Chuck’s message said that he had heard that a nasty log had jammed between a rock and the bank at the bottom of Tumbleweed rapid, creating a “strainer” in the middle part of the Gorge, and that the float might be un-runnable. Spread the word, he said.

I called Matt back to share the news of the strainer. He had heard nothing.

An hour later, Matt called back. That strainer you told me about, he said, someone got caught in it this afternoon. Mike and Cody are out there right now, trying to retrieve the body.

Matt’s voice was sullen, even more so than his normal tone. My heart sank as my head filled with the questions that Matt was trying to answer with the limited details he had.

***

The woman who drowned last Saturday was swept under the log Chuck told me about, after she fell out of her boat in Tumbleweed rapid. She was an 18-year-old freshman from Eastern Washington University (EWU), on a trip with the school’s outdoor program.

The classic line down Tumbleweed rapid is to start by paddling through the waves on the right side of the river, and then make your way to the left side, to avoid a large wave and recirculating hole about half way down the rapid. Once you miss the big feature, you must work against the current a bit, and move back to the center of the river, to avoid the pulsating currents along the left canyon wall. Executed properly, the ride is thrilling. A mishap, though, can end up with one or more people falling into the water. A swim can result in any number of possibilities, but most likely, banged knees and ankles, and maybe some swallowed water. On my hundreds of trips down that stretch, I’ve seen plenty of flips, swims and dumps there that turned out fine. In most cases, the swimmers actually enjoyed the thrill of the experience, but Tumblewed rapid is still a place that you really want to keep everyone in the boat.

Matt and I guide for a Missoula whitewater outfitter, owned by Mike Johnston and his wife Bernice, and which runs trips on the Alberton Gorge. Cody works for them, too. The day before the accident, Mike, Cody and some guides in Mike’s swiftwater rescue class saw the log lodged in the river in the pulsating currents at the bottom left side of the rapid. The three-foot diameter log sat just at the surface, making it all but impossible to see until you were almost on top of it. One of the guides, who was purposefully swimming the rapid with a riverboard, actually floated into it, and stuck just long enough to give Mike pause about taking customers down the river. After a group of guides worked unsuccessfully to pull the log out of the current later that evening, Mike made the call to cancel Saturday’s trips, and he and Cody alerted all of the other companies and Fish, Wildlife and Parks about the hazard.

According to David Lawrence, the owner of a different outfitting company, he and the guides with EWU each hiked in and looked at Tumbleweed and the strainer before making their own calls as to whether to float the river that day. Both David and the school decided to go. (When I called the EWU outdoor program for more details, I was told no one there could speak to me, but that I could get a statement from the media relation’s office.)

David’s three-boat group was ahead of the EWU group. Sometime around noon on Saturday, he and his other two boats pulled into the calm water above Tumbleweed to warn their clients about the hazard. David took his boat through first. As he was heading down the river, the EWU crew came up from behind, and the other two guides decided to let them float by.

From below the rapid, where he and his crew were waiting and watching safely, David saw two of EWU’s boats come through the rapid, along with one swimmer. The swimmer immediately went into the defensive swim position, in which you float belly up, feet first, so you can see what’s ahead and steer with your arms. Several guides yelled at her, and one threw a rope to her, but missed. As she floated closer to the strainer, she tried to swim to the right of it, and then at the last moment, either turned to swim right at it — the correct move — or went back into the defensive swim position. Those that I talked to recall what happened differently. Regardless, it was too late. Twenty thousand cubic feet of water moving per second through a narrow canyon is too much power. The strong current had flushed her under until all that was visible was her hand. And then that was gone.

Brooke Lawrence, who was guiding with David on the trip, told me that the guide from the woman’s boat quickly maneuvered over to the strainer, climbed on the bank next to it and readied himself with a rope. David said that the EWU guide then began looking around for the woman. David was unable to get back upstream, but meanwhile, the rest of the EWU boats had safely floated through the rapid and were waiting downstream. David paddled down to them, took their guides aside to explain the severity of the situation, made suggestions on how to hike out and call for help, and then left the scene with his three boats and clients.

(Cody later told me that the EWU guide later told him that he had then made several attempts using ropes and pulleys to move the log, but was unsuccessful.)

At about 3 p.m., Mineral County Search and Rescue called the raft house where Cody was, asking for a boat to help with the emergency. Cody grabbed his gear and kayak and headed right to Tumbleweed. From there, he paddled downstream looking for the lost rafter, still unsure if she had floated out and was stranded somewhere downstream. Another friend tracked down Mike. By the time both Mike and Cody made it back to Tumbleweed, at about 5 p.m., Missoula County Search and Rescue had also arrived by jet boat.

***

Sometimes an accident, even one in which you were completely uninvolved, can hit so close to home that it makes you rethink decisions and question your judgment. Considering the accident, I ask myself, what would I have done if I were that guide whose passenger fell out above that strainer? What about if I were the company owner or trip leader? Would I have even run the trip? What about once she was under the log? What would I have done?

When I talked to Cody a few days later, he said that he, Mike and a few other guides discussed whether they would have taken the strainer as seriously as they did, had a guide not almost gotten stuck on it the day before. Was that what caused them to make the call that they did? Disregarding hindsight, how much of a risk did it appear to be? David told me that after looking at the log, he decided to make the call once he sized up his clients. He also told me that from the river, the strainer didn’t look like much; in fact, he said, it was rather difficult to see. Up on shore, though, he said the danger was clear, and he acknowledged that, if there was a swimmer in that rapid, there was a pretty good chance they’d have been pushed right into it.

When Mike and Cody and the search and rescue crews all met at the scene around 5 p.m. that afternoon, they still had not confirmed whether the woman was trapped under the log. More complicated mechanical advantage rope and pulleys were set, and eventually they moved the log a little bit. Mike and Cody were willing to swim downstream of the strainer, and Mike eventually felt the body under the water. He couldn’t pull it out, but he could get to it and anchor it with a carabineer and rope to the riverbank.

The next morning, Cody met the search and rescue crews at Tumbleweed and found the body floating, tied to the anchor rope. Someone hiked it out, and the Missoula Bomb Squad followed and dynamited the log and the rock it was pinned on, clearing the hazard.

Being a guide and a frequent river runner on my own, certain safety situations have been branded into my brain. One of the top three is the danger associated with a strainer. Water can pass through one, but a person can’t. The part B of that is what to do if you are heading into one: you roll over on your belly and swim at it, hard, and use that momentum and your arms to propel yourself on top of it. It’s not clear what of that the woman knew.

Even if she had been told what to do, she could have panicked, in which case rational thought and memory aren’t working properly. When people panic — and they often do when they go for an unexpected swim in cold, rushing, frothy water — they don’t always perform the necessary self-rescue skills they were taught, or don’t perform them fast enough.

The risk of death is certainly a part of outdoor sports. But contrary to popular recreation philosophy, the thrill of that possibility is not what keeps you coming back for more — it’s what keeps you from going too far. It’s a guide’s call, always, to take river conditions and client abilities into account before making a decision regarding whether to go. But even when the most careful consideration is paid, unforeseen events can and do occur. Often, it is these events that make a trip so memorable: the hailstorm in July, the water fight with the boat full of senior citizens, the wave that knocked your aunt ass-over-teakettle into the water. Rarely do they take a turn for the worse like what happened last Saturday, but it does happen.

Missoulians know something about unforeseen events and river deaths: we have a beautiful surfing wave right in downtown to memorialize one of our favorite paddlers, who died while running a river in Chile.

***

When I talked to Cody again the other night, he said about the only upshot of it all was that at least now he knew her name. The woman who died was Sara Varnum. She was a freshman at Eastern Washington University, and was a couple days away from finals week, during her first year of college. She was on a day trip with her roommate and some friends, and was probably just out for some fun, maybe before starting a summer job, or an internship. I don’t know. But she was social, or appeared to be. She has a page on MySpace, with 49 friends, which she last logged onto the day before she drowned. She had never been in love. Her friends have been blogging in her memory ever since.

About Daniel Berger

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4 comments

  1. This story brought me to tears. My heart goes out to all of Sara’s family and friends, and all of you who aided in trying to find her.

    Dan,where can people take a river saftey class if they are interested?

  2. Montana River Guides (www.montanariverguides.com) offers classes, but I believe they are finished for the season. There are also several good books on swiftwater rescue, including Les Bechdel and Slim Ray’s “River Rescue.” My suggestion would be to call or visit a paddlesports shop. They would likely know about classes in the area and might carry this book.

  3. As an expierenced recreational rafter (I also white water canoed for a few years) I am always amazed how when you manuever a rapid correctly it appears so easy and that how one or two simple errors can turn your day into disaster. The more you float rivers, more RESPECT for the power of nature is developed.
    As you go back to the same rivers year after year you realize that the rapids change, the river is a living being and changes like everything else in life.
    I thank your rafting community for being so conscientious. Great post!
    Peace.

  4. I remember that, I was part of the crew that was called for the incident, but I couldn’t make it. I know that Search & Rescue did their best, those are some dedicated people and I am proud to know them. Thanks for posting, it’s nice to know there are others who remember… Stay safe!