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Old 04-28-2009   #1
 
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Problems on N.F. Virgin River Narrows

Zion National Park – North Fork Virgin River Narrows Incidents
April 28, 2009

The purpose of this letter is to provide Zion National Park as well as the general boating community with an account of the recent events that took place within the North Fork Virgin River Narrows. Although I have a great deal of information to contribute, my story by no means is the complete summary of the events that occurred during the past several days.

Although I find it VERY unfortunate that access to the narrows has been denied to qualified boaters due to the recent events, I understand why the Park Service has decided to TEMPORARILY suspend access. Prior to this runoff season, Zion National Park had never had a single incident in the Narrows related to kayaking. This season they had several groups that were over due and some groups needing rescue. When I say several, I’m not sure specifically how many, but a large number. As stewards of the land and public servants, it is the Park Service’s responsibility to determine why these incidents occurred, so as to avoid unnecessary risks and costs associated with rescue. My personal opinion is that the Park Service has done an OUTSTANDING job handling the recent events. Everyone from the law enforcement rangers to the chief ranger did everything in their power to assist those in need, while investigating what happened in each and every case. When submitting your suggestions to the Park Service, please take the time to acknowledge this and thank them for their dedication and hard work, even if you don’t agree with their decision. Thank you for your hard work and dedication to the job. I have great respect for your organization!

We first became interested in running the Zion Narrows section after reading “Whitewater of the Southern Rockies”. In fact, I’ve been watching the gages for this run for some time now. It finally started running last week. I consider myself to be a class IV boater. Here are a few examples of rivers and creeks that I have successfully run throughout my kayaking life: Gore Canyon (without Tunnel Falls and Gore Rapid), Animas (without the Rockwood Box), Piedra, Bailey, Grand Canyon, Royal Gorge, Numbers, South Fork Payette, Lochsa, Selway, Middle Fork Salmon, North Fork Clearwater, Clark Fork, Beartrap Canyon of the Madison, Gallatin, Westwater Canyon, Cataract Canyon, Rio Maichin and Rio Trancura Alto in Chile, and Rio Reventazon and Pacuare bajo in Costa Rica. I attend pool sessions regularly to maintain my skills. The point is that I had trouble on this run which according to “Whitewater of the Southern Rockies” is a class III at river levels we observed at approximately 450 cfs for the time in question. I completely disagree with this rating!! I would argue that a class III boater could easily be killed in this “class III section”. Take the arrogance down a notch! Yah... sure boaters are running stuff that wasn’t even dreamed of years ago, but you still have to remember the people who consider Westwater and Brown’s Canyon to be Class III runs. Furthermore, the statement “easily run in a long day” is very misleading. A long day could easily require paddling log-jammed rapids after dark.

Two of us left Colorado on Thursday April 23rd for the Narrows and we met another paddler that night in Cedar City, UT. Due to out late arrival, we had to obtain a permit Friday morning April 24th when the office opened at exactly 8 AM. The ranger informed us that in the event of a rescue, it would take 2 days due to the remoteness of the location. I had arranged a shuttle through a local outfitter a couple days earlier. It took about 5 minutes to reach the outfitters office, and we were en route to the put-in just before 9 AM. It probably took us about 1.5 hours to reach the put-in, so it was about 10:30 by the time we were able to get on the water. Another road appeared to extend another 2 miles downstream because we could see it from the creek, although our shuttle driver took us to the official put-in. If that road is accessible, you could save some time by accessing the Narrows at the end of the road. The creek was excruciatingly low (approximately 50 cfs) and we had to walk around a good portion of the rapids due to getting stuck on rocks. We probably had to walk half or more of the run. If we actually had enough volume to run the upper stretch, it would have been an IV+ micro creek. I straggled behind a little bit because I was not used to walking that much in the creek with my NRS booties. Time was running by quickly. I caught up to the other paddlers in the group and learned that one of them had a crack down the middle of his creek boat. Luckily I had some duct tape so we patched it up and continued to move on. Then we came up to the 15 foot waterfall. One of the paddlers ran it, and the other paddler and I walked around it. We continued to walk and paddle the creek another couple miles until we a 6 foot drop which landed on a piton rock with a marginal eddy above it. The two paddlers in front of me reluctantly ran it and one mildly hurt his shoulder or something else (that was definitely not class III either). Eventually we reached the confluence with Deep Creek. At this point it was about 6:30. We took 15 minutes to patch up a crack that had developed in my boat, and we ate some food. We were all tired, but still somewhat hopeful that we could make it out of the canyon by dark. I wish we had just decided to camp at the next available spot instead of continuing on that evening.
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Old 04-28-2009   #2
 
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Continuation

The proper whitewater section began. According to the downstream gaging station, the river was most likely running between 400 and 450 cfs which is considered to be low flow. There were no flash floods. Since Zion is on the western end of the Mountain Time Zone, the sun has been going down about 8:15, but in the depths of the canyon it gets fairly dark even at 7 PM. We were paddling along through some wave train rapids when the lead paddler in our group of three tried to get my attention. I couldn’t hear anything he was saying with the raging water, so I kept looking for any obstacles to avoid. There was a river-wide log perched about 6 or 7 inches above the water lever which was completely unavoidable! I tried to paddle over it, but I just didn’t have enough momentum because it was hidden in the waves and only about 8 feet away when I discovered it. I really had no choice but to try and ride over it because there were no eddies I could catch and I could not paddle against the current backwards. The paddler behind me saw what had happened and managed to get enough speed make it further left where the log was a little lower in the water, and paddled over it. After hitting the log, my boat was forced under it. I tried to unsuccessfully maneuver it along the log to a place where I could roll under and hold onto my paddle. I was forced under the log, and my paddle was ripped from my hands unexpectedly. I don’t have a good hand roll, so I had to swim for it. I grabbed my paddle and boat as soon as possible and tried to reach an eddy, but when I was almost there the current spit me back into the main channel. The boat took off and I tried to again to get it with no luck. Eventually it was just too far away, and I had to swim for shore. The two other paddlers in my group stopped knowing that it was cliffed out once again after this point. We all knew that I was either going to need rescue or another boat to get out of the canyon. They generously left a scull cap, Gatorade, mittens, a quart of water and a few cliff bars in a dry bag for me to survive on. They made a wise move to stop instead of continuing on for my boat because I couldn’t have reached it anyway. I asked them if they had any matches or a lighter. They said no. I thought I didn’t have anything either. At that point I wished them luck, and informed them that I was at Camp 4 about a mile below the confluence of Deep Creek for potential rescue operations.

That night I pondered my situation.... I had wet river clothes and a few things that were generously left for me. First I ate a couple cliff bars hoping to boost my energy for the long, cold, clear-sky night that lied ahead. Then I settled in under a rock overhang and put on every article of clothing I had including my helmet. I had my spray skirt around my upper portion of my legs and my feet and lower legs in the dry bag, while wearing my helmet. It would have to do for the night. I took little short 5 minute naps and did sit-ups all night to avoid uncontrollable shivering. I realized at that point that my camera in my PFD pocket had the time on it, so I would often look to see how much of the night I made it through. Eventually the night passed and daybreak slowly emerged in the depths of the canyon. I had made it through the first night, but the day seemed to only get colder not warmer.

Just after my crew left to get help, they ran into another group of inflatable kayakers that were struggling through the rapids. They decided to spend the night at Camp 12 and the crew they were with made a fire. I was glad to hear that they were safe during Park Service de-briefing. Both parties were considered over-due due to all the problems associated with the run, and they made it in the next afternoon. My crew promptly informed the Park Service of my status.

With desperation and shivering....I waited for anyone who might pass by.... it was Saturday after all. With any luck I could at least find someone who had matches, food, or a lighter floating by the beach. I knew how long it took us to reach my current location, but I was starting to get anxious by 1 PM. After all, the flow appeared to have dropped with the colder weather. Maybe everyone cancelled their trips. I remembered one day a long time ago placing a small cigarette lighter in my PFD, so I thought maybe with any luck it would be there. It was there!!! After drying it out I managed to get a rip-roaring fire going and collected enough beach wood to make it though another night. At least I had hope of making it back to my girlfriend, family, friends, and dogs!

At about 3 PM Saturday, a party of two passed my camp. I informed them of the situation and invited them to get warm near the fire. They told me it was snowing at the top of the canyon earlier that morning. They offered me food and said they would update the rangers on my status. I also asked them about the log just upstream and they said that it was a mandatory portage at the current level. They loaded up and I noticed the boats they paddled because I’ve always like Pyranha. They had a blue Burn and a red and blue older Inozone. I thought it was odd that one of them paddled an Inozone through the upper manky section. They paddled on, and I wished them good luck.

Around 7 PM another group of 6 paddlers (4 people in 2 inflatable kayaks and 2 hard shell kayakers passed by camp). They offered to let me join them. One of the kayakers generously let me paddle his Habitat creek boat. I put the fire out and we decided to head down river. We found my boat full of mud and cracked down the middle about a mile downstream. We reluctantly decided to leave it instead of trying to fix and paddle it due to 200 some lbs of mud caked in it, and head for a camp site before the sun completely went down. By leaving the boat I mean that we took it out of the channel and into some trees, so that it wouldn’t become an obstacle. I hope to retrieve it later after the runoff season. We ended up camping on a cliff site above the river with an overhang. We built a large fire and gathered as much wood as possible to stay reasonably warm throughout the night. Ironically this night actually felt even colder than the first night. I felt bad that this group was now out here over-night too, but I think they might have had to anyway. I’m very grateful for their help and generosity!

The next morning after shivering and struggling to keep the fire going with little wood, we got back on the river. It seemed as if every rapid was full of logs and a few required scouting to ensure that you didn’t float down into a major log jam. One particular rapid was had two shoots; the left led into a deathtrap of logs and the right had a low lying log in the channel you had to paddle down (just enough clearance for a hard shell, but maybe not for a inflatable kayak). I decided to run it, and I ended up hitting so many rocks that I rolled. I hate to admit it, but the rocks in the channel jerked my legs out of the boat. I swam again... I was so angry at myself for it! I think this incident could have been avoided! I kept on swimming and walking for the boat through the narrows. There were a few places with eddies where the water was only inches deep but no dry land. I didn’t care because I was going to get the boat at nearly any cost. To my knowledge, due to the shallow nature of the rapid and the log above, people were knocked out of one of the inflatable kayaks on the way down the rapid.... luckily everyone was ok. Eventually the other IK passed me and I eventually caught up with them and the creek boat with a combination of swimming rapids and walking.

During this unfortunate and frustrating event a blue Pyranha Burn Kayak was spotted hanging by a rope from the top of a canyon wall along the river (remember there was no land). Two paddles were in the boat; one was in tact and the other was broken. Some of the crew yelled up toward the canyon wall to try and contact anyone at the top. No one was there. It appeared that the paddler of the Inozone may have broke his paddle and lost his boat in the same rapid where I had trouble, but they couldn’t stay at that location without freezing to death. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that the Park Service rescued that party with a helicopter, and they must have been incredibly good climbers. About a quarter to half a mile downstream we discovered the Pyranha Inozon without a paddle sitting in an eddy. The final rapid was of IV character with mandatory scouting due to the massive log jam waiting to kill any potential swimmers or off-line boaters. At the bottom of the rapid the log jam covered the entire width of the river. One at a time we paddled to a small sand bar and placed our boats over the sand bar. The rapids were easy from then on. Within another hour we had made it to the tourist trail that goes to the mouth of the Narrows.

We proceeded to inform a Law Enforcement Ranger of our experiences and we all later met for a conference to discuss the events of the weekend. A helicopter was on location looking for the two boaters that had climbed out of the canyon. They were originally there to establish communication with a crew of rescuers dispatched to provide me with a boat to run the narrows. The Narrows are so narrow that it is impossible to have radio communication that is not direct line of sight, i.e. a helicopter over head. Additionally it is impossible to land a helicopter inside the Narrows and generally not permissible to extend a sling into the canyon. It was possible for the party to be rescued by the helicopter since they had climbed out of the Narrows (a massive feat, not likely performed by inept boaters).
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Old 04-28-2009   #3
 
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Continuation

I am very glad to hear that no one has died during the recent events! I think this “class III run” could have easily claimed the lives of many people had it not been for the kindness of strangers and a government agency run by some of the finest people to work in public service! I extend my sincere gratitude to everyone who went out of their way to help people in dire straights such as myself over that weekend. I’ll keep everyone anonyms unless they would like to reveal themselves. Thanks to the party I started paddling with who called for rescue, the party I ended the trip with, and the law enforcement and park rescue personnel for an outstanding job. I deeply regret any costs or dangers associated with the rescue operations, and despite the heavy load of criticism I will receive, I will do everything in my power to inform paddlers about this run so that no one will repeat the mistakes that I made. For those of you involved who see any inaccuracies, please let me know so that I can make any necessary corrections. I take responsibility for my actions, but I definitely don’t want to see my mistakes repeated. Will I ever do this run again?..I think maybe once is enough for me.

Mistakes that my first group and I made:
·Paddle only in really light hours and go slow to avoid logs. They’re numerous!
·We left too late! We should have left no later than 8 AM from the put-in.
·We should have all been carrying a working lighter on our PFDs to build a fire
·Don’t paddle when it’s getting somewhat dark (you’re also in a darker canyon)
·Avoid boat abuse... (Consider a boat backpack and good river hiking shoes)
·In our case 400 cfs did not mean there was enough to float on in the upper canyon

Recommendations:
·Plan on a conservative 8 hours to hike the creek (we didn’t even eat nor have a chance to drink much water during that time)
·Look at the pictures and ponder the ideas in “Whitewater of the Southern Rockies”, but find your river beta from a less arrogant-sand bagging source if possible. Unfortunately he has the only river beta out thus far. Let’s change that by providing credible and reliable information since the secret is already out!
·Bring an extra drain plug (I saw two groups that had to make duct tape drain plugs)
·No matter how good you think you are, plan on spending the night in here. It’s NOT “easily done in a long day”.
·Get the permit the afternoon before you go.
·Make sure everyone in your group is ready for a trip of this description.
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Old 04-28-2009   #4
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Thanks for the report. Sounds like not much fun. Keep in mind logs can change a rapid/rating at any time and are not indicative of the logless rating. Glad you made it out.
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Old 04-28-2009   #5
 
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Thanks for the update and glad to hear you made it out safely.
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Old 04-28-2009   #6
 
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Maybe you should blame the Park Service for not allowing camping. Maybe you shouldn't wear booties for a run that begins with 6 miles of elf boating and is said to have a few portages. Just because you think a class III boater could easily get killed in this Class III stretch isn't a good argument for it not being class III. A class V boater can easily die in class II or III when there is wood involved. I believe a dangerous log was mentioned in the book as well as ''significant'' class III. While I have had my own inadvertent overnighter and can sympathize to your ordeal which we can all mostly agree was ''epic'', I think it is weak to be calling the guidebook authors arrogant because you ran into trouble.
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Old 04-28-2009   #7
 
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The reason I wrote about this trip was simply to let others learn from my mistakes. You must not have understood that. My hope is that other people don't make the same mistakes. I do think the book is poorly written, and I'll stand by that forever. Hopefully someone won't make the same mistakes. Got it?

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Originally Posted by deepstroke View Post
Maybe you should blame the Park Service for not allowing camping. Maybe you shouldn't wear booties for a run that begins with 6 miles of elf boating and is said to have a few portages. Just because you think a class III boater could easily get killed in this Class III stretch isn't a good argument for it not being class III. A class V boater can easily die in class II or III when there is wood involved. I believe a dangerous log was mentioned in the book as well as ''significant'' class III. While I have had my own inadvertent overnighter and can sympathize to your ordeal which we can all mostly agree was ''epic'', I think it is weak to be calling the guidebook authors arrogant because you ran into trouble.
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Old 04-28-2009   #8
 
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Thanks for the writeup I'm glad your getting this info out to help others out. I completely agree with all of your assessments on what you did wrong and how people can learn from your mistakes. But I have to disagree with you about blaming the authors of a guidebook, without all of your mistakes (which I have personally made most of them) it sounds like you would have made it out fine. The one thing I would add to that list would be that you were not dressed for a swim, it sounds like you had a drytop on with shorts, it seems more practical on a long run to have a drysuit with extra layers in a drybag in case.

Thanks for posting this and I think this is a great discussion on being prepared in a wilderness situation. Glad to hear everyone made it out OK and that is the most important thing.

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Old 04-28-2009   #9
 
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lol, I'll make sure to bring an extra drain plug with me on my future expeditions.
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Old 04-28-2009   #10
 
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Can I have your copy of WWOTSR?
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