Saturday, September 16, 2006


This post has gotten very long. But it is vey important. So please take the time to read it all.

This was our first weekend on the Gauley this year. Saturday Scott and Ben decided to go for the Marathon again. Mark and Justin were both thoroughly horrified by the idea and I wasn't too keen on it either overall so the three of us just stuck to the Upper. We would pick them up at the takeout for the lower at the end of the day. We had plenty of time so we took it slow.

When we got to Initiation I eddied out on river left and signaled to Mark and Justin to make sure they remembered where to go. I do this every time we run the Gauley, even if I know that everyone remembers it. I want to be very sure. We ran the rapid and eddied out on the right at the bottom. I looked upstream and to my surprise and horror I saw a guy trapped in the sieve. His bow was down deep, stern sticking up straight in the air. But at least his head was a good ways above the water and he seemed to be stable.

There were a few people in the eddy already, including some rafts. It had clearly just happened. One person was already scrambling up the rock next to the sieve to help. He quickly anchored himself with rope and walked down the slide beside the sieve (apparently there are anchors in place right there, a very sad necessity for this river). He tried pulling on the boat to free it but there was no way he was going to budge probably close to 200lbs of boat, paddler and water, especially with the force that was pushing down on him. Pulling his skirt was not an option since the boat would then fill with water and potentially pull him further under the rock.

He started shouting instructions to other people in the group. We all had gotten out. They worked quickly at getting ropes out. A couple of the raft guides got their customers out on the shore and paddled up to the base of the rapid. They tied a rope between the pinned boat and the raft. The pinned boater was obviously getting extremely exhausted. We could see him slump down but was still keeping his head above water and was able to lift it up some.

Eventually, after more useless attempts at pulling on the boat, they tied another rope to the other end of the raft and threw it to the people on shore. It missed so Justin jumped in, grabbed it and swam back into the eddy. Finally they had enough leverage. At this point a good crowd had gathered in the eddy and on the shore around the sieve. Mark joined a couple of people including members of the pinned boater's group and some rafters for a tug-of-war of sorts with the sieve. It was great to see everyone working together to save this guy's life. They lined up and grabbed the rope and pulled hard. It didn't take long before the boat was extracted as they all fell back. The boater swam free. Besides what was probably serious exhaustion he seemed fine. It took approximately 45 minutes to get him out.

Two people have died in this sieve and there have been many close calls. He was very lucky to have a made it out alive. Apparently he had forgoten what rapid this was and mistakenly took the right line down into the sieve. A most unfortunate choice.

We had speculated that he might have been surfing the "no-no" wave above the sieve. This was NOT the case. However, that is how the death in 1994 occured. I don't care how good you think you are! Don't ever even think about surfing that wave. It's a pretty crappy looking wave anyway and there are plenty way better playspots on the river. If you are running the Upper Gauley for the first time make sure you know where Initiation is and where the correct line is.

There are diagrams of the rapid and the dagerous sieve posted near the put in. These diagrams are provided by Surf City, an amalgam of Friends of the Gauley, Float Fishermen of Virginia, Songer Whitewater, the DNR, amongst others. NPS has agreed to post these diagrams of the rapid in order to warn people of the danger. These diagrams were done by a helicopter fly-over, wherein photos were shot straight down in sequence, then the diagrams were drawn from the photos so they would be as cloase an absolute match to reality as possible (Thanks to Bill Tanger of Surf City for providing this info). Please be aware of the location of this hazard and stay away from it!

Though this should go without saying here is the disclaimer provided with the diagrams.

"This map is not a substitute for scouting, adequate safety procedures, and good judgement.It is only a source of information to help you boat safely. The map is based on 2800 cfs [normal fall release level], higher or lower flows will decrease the accuracy of this map. Routes are only suggestions. "

In the pictures above you can see the surfing wave in the top left corner just above where the boater is pinned. There is very little room to surf that wave and make it off in time. The right side below the surf wave feeds directly into the sieve. I took some video of the incident. I didn't get the final extraction but you can see just how serious the situation can be. In the videos you can see people running the rapid correctly, far from the sieve on the left. Check out the videos here:

Pin at Initiation 1

Pin at Initiation 2

Pin at Initiation 3

The rapid just above Initiation has a (different / safe) surf wave that people stop and play at followed by a small (but sticky!!) pourover in the middle of the river. After the surf wave watch out for the pourover and be especially prepared to head left at Initiation. There are also some pictures on AW showing what the rapid looks like from above. Though I don't necessarily recommend relying on this. Memory of a photo can be deceptive as well. Best to go with a good guide.

(from AW Gauley site)

Here is a low water picture of the sieve. As you can see the rocks leading to the chock stone form a channel making it difficult if not impossible to escape to the left once you are on this line.

(picture from this site)

Here is a quick history of pins at Initiation (including some links). My intention is not to over dramatize the danger here but rather educate people on how easy it is to find yourself in the wrong place. Each person has a slightly different story of how they ended up in the sieve, and also how they go out (thankfully most have been fortunate enough to escape). These are the ones i'm aware of. If anyone has info on others please let me know. I know i've already drilled this point in pretty well but i think it's important to be aware of how easy it is to get sucked into this terrible trap.

1982 - Fatal - Failed rescue attempt

1989- Horrifying story of someone who pinned, got out of his boat and swam through the sieve

1994 - Fatal - Victim was aware of danger but surfed the no-no wave anyway.

2000- Pictures including low water sieve.

2001 - Another near miss

2003 - 1 - Rescue photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ,6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (from AW gallery)

2003 - 2 -
Until getting stuck in it I did not know the exact location of it. My dad told me that there is a really good play wave above it. To me really good play wave means steep with a good foam pile. Therefore, when I was paddling down Initiation I "knew" I was no where near the sieve since there were no "really good" play waves anywhere. The next thing I know I am vertically pinned. Things I remember:
-I had water coming over my head but I was able to get breaths.
-The force of the water kept me from being able to reach my grab loop to pull my skirt.
-My boat was not at 90 degrees. I was facing forward, ie, downstream with my bow in the sieve. The stern was pointing toward river left probably between 60 and 70 degrees.
-I remember trying to get out of the boat without pulling my skirt a number of times with no luck.
-I was able to use both hands to peel my skirt off on the right side of the cockpit. Once my skirt was off I pushed myself out of my boat gently for fear of falling deeper into the sieve. I was pushed to the river left side of the sieve and swam a considerable distance before making it to shore. My boat came out of the sieve pretty soon after I swam--I lost part of my bulkhead (I was paddling an EZ that day).
-I estimate that I spent about 5 minutes in the sieve. While I maintained composure through it, it was still really scary. I feel incredibly fortunate that the release was a little less than normal--Can't remember why but I think it was around 2600 cfs--I shudder to think that that may have saved my life. ~Steve Graybill

2005 - ???

2006 - The incident described above. See also the Boatertalk discussion including the victims own report.

2006 - Barely a week after the incident described above a paddler gets stern pinned and ends up swimming through the sieve.

2006 - And another. This one is pretty long but worth a read.

On Sunday, September 24, 2006 (Gauleyfest weekend) I was preparing to run the Upper Gauley for the second day in a row. The previous day had been my first time ever down the river. I had, however, been prepared for the challenge. I had been anxious to try the legendary UG for some time, and had thoroughly researched the river on the internet and in my Wildwater West Virginia book. As such, I was aware of a deadly sieve on river right in Initiation rapid. I had even looked at pictures and read accounts of people who had become pinned (two died.) So as I put on for the first time ever on Saturday, the sieve was on my mind. Luckily, we had a very good guide with us, who had run the river many times. Today he was guiding a raft with several of his friends while a few more of us hardboated alongside. He made sure all of us knew the line as we approached Initiation rapid. I remember briefly wondering exactly where the sieve was, but I never got a chance to look at it. Soon enough I’d forgotten about it as it was time to focus on the next rapid, Insignificant. The rest of the run went smoothly. The weather was great and we were hitting nice lines through most everything. We all had a wonderful time.

The next morning we woke up late to overcast skies and lots of rain and mud. We put on the river late, and started down. Only today, we were without our excellent guide, who had left that morning to drive back to NC. Still, we were in high spirits, thrilled at the chance to paddle such a marvelous river. I was much more relaxed than I’d been the previous day. I paddled through some small to moderate riffles and waves, and again I thought about the sieve. Had we passed it already? I thought back to Initiation rapid from the previous day. It hadn’t seemed more than a riffle, barely memorable… I asked a fellow group member: “Hey, was that Initiation we just did?” He was no more familiar with this river than I was. He thought for a minute and answered, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was it.” I put it out of my mind. Approaching the next drop, I moved right, thinking I was coming up on Insignificant. I seemed to remember a big hole at the top, and I wanted to skirt it on the right… As I came to the horizon line, I suddenly saw a man on a rock in front of me, desperately shouting and waving me towards river left. He sounded panicked. Immediately I realized my predicament. This was Initiation, and I was headed right into the sieve. I angled left hard and tried to ferry into the center current, but it’s nearly impossible because the left side of the crack creates an insurmountable wall. Once you get into that flow, there’s really nowhere to go except into the sieve.

My stern went in first as my boat capsized. I was still angled upstream, and for a moment I was sandwiched on my back between the deck of my boat and the riverbed. I pulled my skirt and came out of my boat fairly easily. Swimming free, it was as though I had been flushed down a toilet. I felt myself go deep as the light faded and everything got colder. I remember being swirled around, flips and somersaults, the feeling of being in a cave. I felt rocks closing in around me. The current ripped my bootie off. I realized that I would probably die. Moments later, though, the blackness gave way to a distant light. I swam hard for it, but it took a while to get there. I guess I was pretty deep. I gasped for air as I finally surfaced. I went under a few more times, but I didn’t care, at least I was out of the cave. With the help of some fellow boaters, I got to shore. Looking upstream I saw my blue Diesel sticking straight up into the air, stern pinned.

The man on the rocks who had yelled at me turned out to be a park ranger. Apparently they had been set up on that rock all day, just waiting for some dumb boater (me) to go into the sieve. Looking downstream and seeing that I was safe, he and his partner immediately set to work freeing my boat. He clipped into an anchor in the rock and quickly rappelled into the current and right up next to my boat. He clipped a harness to my bow grab loop and returned to the rock. Their calm, speed, and perfect rescue technique were truly amazing to behold. In a matter of minutes they had my boat freed, drained, and back into my still quivering hands.

After taking a few minutes to calm down, I decided I was able to continue the rest of the way down. The only problem: my paddle had gone into the sieve with me, and had not been recovered. (I never did get it back…) Luckily, the park rangers had an extra paddle for me to use. I was nervous putting back on, but I felt confident that I could handle it, and I had a strong group who I trusted. Plus, I really didn’t feel like slogging up a wet hillside.

The rest of the day went surprisingly well, especially after a good line through Pillow Rock boosted my shaken confidence. I felt so grateful to be alive that I couldn’t help but smile. I was in a beautiful place, and life was good. I have learned a lot from what happened to me that day. Mostly I learned that I must be responsible for myself at all times on the river. Getting pinned was my own damn fault, and I intend to never let something that stupid and preventable happen again. I was aware that there was a danger, yet I didn’t even bother to know for sure what rapid I was in. I took advice from someone who admittedly wasn’t sure if he was right or not. This was very stupid of me, and could have cost me a lot more than a paddle.

I learned a few more things from the ordeal. One is the value of a good group on the river. Though my friends could only watch helplessly as I pinned, they were right there for me as soon as I surfaced. They were willing to walk out with me, or help me complete the run if I wanted. But the greatest help came from those two park rangers. After freeing my boat, they ran the rest of the river with us. I was still shaken up, so they kept an eye on me and led me through many of the big rapids, for which I am incredibly grateful. The one kayaker’s name was George; I don’t know the other’s name (he was in an oarboat.) These guys really knew their stuff. I would venture to guess that if I’d been pinned in a worse position, they would have saved my life. So next time you see the Parks Service on the river, please take your hat off to them for me.

Incidentally, a guy was taking pictures as the Parks Service worked to free my boat. I groaned to think that my stupidity would be plastered all over Boatertalk and AW the next day. But we saw him at the take out where he told that his camera had been stolen along with his drybox. What a pity... Have fun but please take a lesson from me and be careful.

~ Dave Jackson, Morgantown, WV

Sadly i'm sure there have been others.

So if you're taking anyone down for the first time (or second, or third...) make sure they know exactly which rapid it is and where the sieve is. Stop at the top of the rapid (on river left!!) and make sure everyone has a good look at the surroundings such that they will recognize it in the future. Also it always seems like this rapid comes up earlier than i expect it to. The AW site says it is .9 miles from the put in but this is NOT correct. It is actually approximately .75 miles from the put in!! Be ready for it!

Be safe out there! SYOTR

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Anonymous Jules said...

What a lucky guy to have people pull together like that.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW What a lucky fellow. glad he is alive!

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah it was messed up. Nice report though.


8:58 AM  

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