4th of July Weekend, 2011
In Memory of Kevin Bair
by Jens Jensen
A group of us had been contemplating a trip to the Kern River in Southern California for the 4th of July. Several of us wanted to do the Forks of the Kern, a class IV/V run. Water levels were too high, so the trip was changed to Durango Colorado.
A few people traveled earlier in the week and the rest of us came up Friday evening. We camped at Cascade Creek, north of Durango. Kevin Bair and I were originally planning on driving together to California. After switching destinations, Kevin offered to drive to meet me in Nutrioso so that I wouldn't have to ride up by myself. I talked him out of it as it would have him driving four hours by himself to keep me from driving five hours by myself. But that was Kevin.
We did the Upper Animas on Saturday. It's a 26 mile, Class IV/V, very cold, challenging run. The final 2 miles are in a tight canyon (called the Rockwood Box) which is particularly challenging. The box is often avoided by riding out on the train or hiking out on the railroad tracks.
A group of 8 of us did the first 24 miles together and in spite of a few swims, had a great time. I spent most of the day in my favorite boating configuration, with Ryan ahead to help me find a good line and Kevin behind to save me. Kevin as usual, was ready at the rescue and was essential in collecting people and boats.
Most of us were quite tired that day before starting. Kevin was particularly tired having worked hard to get everything done before the trip and completing a major test at midnight the night before. He got a B on the test by the way.
Johanna Nylen and I had purchased train tickets at Ryan Fair's recommendation the day before. Via some confused logistics we both managed to catch the train out to Rockwood. The rest of the group except Pete Traylor also decided to skip the Rockwood box after we left. They negotiated a train ride for their boats and hiked out on the tracks. Pete met a another group of friends and did the Rockwood Box with them. Kevin commented later that he was kicking himself for missing out on that opportunity.
On Sunday a group of six of us headed up to South Mineral Creek. Kevin, Pete and I rode up in my truck. Ryan, Johanna and Jim McComb rode up in Ryan's truck. We were all aware that this was Class V. Kevin, Pete, and Ryan suited up. The rest of us had no intention of attempting this run.
We scouted and planned for quite some time before anyone put on the water. The run is less than 1/2 mile long. It begins with a 20 foot waterfall followed by a series of four or five pool drops, then a tight S turn slot with a small narrow pool called the Cauldron with an exit gap approximately 6 feet wide. It continues on for another quarter mile of less significant drops after the slot.
After we all walked and discussed the entire route several times, I helped Pete and Kevin rope their boats down to the entrance pool above the waterfall. Ryan said that he just wasn't feeling like this was for him for today and opted out. I asked Kevin if he was okay, and although looking nervous, he said that he was - and that he had run harder stuff than this before. He just needed to get his head straight first. He was grinning when he said that he had to admit though, that he was a bit jazzed to be running something that Ryan chickened out on.
Ryan and Johanna set up to take pictures on an outcrop in front of the waterfall. I stationed myself with a throw rope at the top of the S turn slot. Jim McComb was at the exit gap with ropes. He tied one rope off to rocks prior to the runs.
A group of locals were coming down the hill to do the run behind us, but hadn't arrived when Pete and Kevin began their runs. Pete did a clean line off the waterfall, matching the consensus route. Kevin took the waterfall to the left, doing a quick correction just before dropping off. A look at the pictures shows that Kevin was off of the planned line - but the waterfall drop was successful.
Both Pete and Kevin looked good for the stretch for which I had a view. Their lines looked clean and almost identical. Pete went first. We passed OK signals back to Kevin after Pete cleared the slot.
After Kevin disappeared from my view I gathered my rope and several of Kevin's things that I was carrying including a water bottle, his pogeys, and his skull cap. After climbing up a few feet I spotted Kevin's boat upside down in the gap. I dropped everything and started running to Jim's position.
I learned later that Kevin overcorrected a right brace causing him to roll to the left at the bottom of the slot. He did a quick roll which also rotated him 90° putting him in parallel with the gap and horizontal to the flow. Just as he got upright, he pinned nose to tail across the gap with his upstream edge down. The current immediately flipped him to his right. Kevin's upper body shifted to the downstream side, although the boat remained firmly pinned upside down with Kevin locked in. We're not sure if he ever managed to catch a breath after flipping. He did find the rope that Jim lowered. He dropped it once. He then found it again and managed to wrap it around his arm 2 or 3 times and lock-it with his hand.
Ryan and I arrived about the same time and joined Jim in pulling the rope. Three of us pulling with all our might didn't manage to budge the boat, or get Kevin to air. I did see his face once, briefly shimmering ghostlike in the water a few inches below the surface.
Ryan realized this wasn't working and left to attempt to approach from the pool below. Jim and I kept working the rope. We readjusted the rope a bit to the left at one point in order to try to improve the leverage. In releasing the tension slightly, I felt Kevin take up the slack. A short time later, Kevin finally ran out of air and released the rope.
Pete and Ryan were trying to reach Kevin from pool below. I gathered the rope and tossed one end to Pete. We weren't able to drag him up to the boat due to the pull angle and swiftness of the current.
One of the local boys then appeared before me on the opposite side of the gap. He shouted for me to lower him down. He stretched across the gap and I grabbed his hand and pulled him across. I then lowered him down to the boat with one hand while he held Jim's rope with the other. This young man's actions were truly heroic. He jumped up and down on the boat for quite some time unsuccessfully. At some point Kevin's broken right leg floated to the surface flapping in the current.
The young man finally knocked the boat loose with a push kick off the far side of the gap. He went into the water with the boat. Kevin floated out of the boat and was quickly dragged to shore. Ryan, Pete and others started CPR right away. One young woman (from the group of locals) was a nurse and the other was an EMT. They all continued working on Kevin, taking turns breathing and pumping until emergency services arrived.
I ran up the hill to call 911 but there was not cell service. After turning the truck around I met Johanna who retrieved her phone and we headed down the road. We found cell service after about 5 miles. A forest service truck and the County sheriff met us within about 10 minutes. We led them to the site where they assisted with rescue efforts. An ambulance arrived sometime after that.
It was reported to me by the folks doing CPR that Kevin never showed any signs of life after being released from his boat. He involuntarily coughed up water and stomach fluids after about 10 minutes of pumping, but never blinked or twitched. Kevin's sister said that the coroner's report told that Kevin had a star shaped contusion above one eye. Since it wasn't swollen, it may have been post-mortem.
I think that if he could, Kevin would look at this tragedy with his engineering mind and try to figure out what safety lessons could be drawn. It is so ironic - that Kevin was such a safety nanny to everyone he boated with. And naturally, all of us involved (and many of Kevin's other boating friends) have studied and discussed the sequence of events in an effort to understand what happened and what could have been done to avoid Kevin's death.
Even though we all felt that Kevin was capable of making this run, he didn't successfully complete it. I personally think that the lesson is that even if you (and others) consider yourself to be a Class V boater, you can't count on boating at a Class V level when you are tired and you haven't been on the water in a few weeks. Class V boating by definition has very little room for mistakes, and any mistake can be fatal.
We are all devastated. Kevin's kindness, generosity, and genuine concern for everyone's safety and well-being touched many lives. We are heartbroken to lose him.