Here's the article. The American Whitewater Journal has some good stuff.
Lee Belknap will never forget seeing his friend Rod Baird struggling to free himself from his kayak trapped beneath a boulder on the Chattooga River. I can tell you when he was fighting to get that breath it was perfectly clear to me that here was a man who wanted to live, said Belknap, 45, of Hendersonville, N.C.On Sunday, July 20, Baird and Belknap and four kayaking friends launched at the U.S. 76 bridge for the seven-mile trip down a segment of the Chattooga River known as Section IV. That day the water took on character that makes it a National Wild and Scenic River, which is to say pretty to look at, deceptively treacherous.The Chattooga was flowing about 1.8 feet that day, a level considered medium high. At this flow the major rapids are powerful Class IVs with consequences due to numerous undercut rocks.We were having a beautiful day, said Robin Knupp, an expert kayaker and friend of Bairds. The water was just fine and we were behind most of the traffic. Everybody was doing fine, though getting tired from so much playing.Flowing from North Carolina, the Chattooga delineates the border of Georgia and South Carolina for 40 miles. It packs its biggest and hardest rapids into a 500-yard stretch called the Five Falls, just upstream of where it is silenced beneath Lake Tugaloo.The Five Falls is a chaotic jumble of white foam crashing over, around and under dark granite carved into gnarled and twisted shapes by the rivers current. The tortured shape of the stream bed is one reason the river has claimed 37 lives since the early 1970s.To the untrained eye, the Chattooga is an enticing wonderland of rushing whitewater set against shores of dark evergreens and craggy banks. But it takes experience and skill to run the river, and Baird and his companions were all veteran adventure boaters. They included Belknap, an engineer with GE Lighting Systems in Hendersonville; Knupp; Belknaps girlfriend, Kathy Cody; Asheville neurologist Terry McGhee; and Annette DuPont, a physical therapist from Asheville. Trouble at Jawbone Jawbone is the fourth rapid in the Five Falls. The current drops to the left into a calm area called the Parking Lot, then funnels down 6 feet into a series of powerful waves. About 100 feet downstream, the flow splits around a boulder called Hydroelectric Rock and drops another 3 feet.Several boaters over the years have flushed through the base of Hydroelectric Rock in an underwater cavern formed by the boulder and another rock. Upstream, in the main drop, another undercut rock called Decap juts from the right bank. Kayakers and canoeists usually paddle into the eddy above the main drop, crash through the waves at the bottom and then turn right or left to avoid Hydroelectric Rock. But Bairds run went wrong. Rod came out of the Parking Lot too high, said Travis Buck, a raft guide and veteran kayaker who was watching from the shore next to Jawbone. Basically it put him on a collision course. He got swept under Decap sideways and it really knocked him good.Buck yelled to alert his friend, Stephen Morrison.I thought at the very least we would have a swimmer with a head injury, Buck said.Baird rolled his kayak upright but appeared a little dazed as he washed through the waves toward Hydroelectric Rock, Buck said. Other witnesses said Baird was still trying to right himself when he hit the boulder. He definitely hit his roll, but Im afraid the little bell-ringing he had taken slowed him down, Buck said. He got sucked right into Hydro and got stuck. Fighting for air McGhee, the neurologist, saw Bairds trouble from upstream. He grabbed the bow of Bairds kayak as he washed by, but was unable to overcome the force of the current to pull it out of the rock. Bairds Pyranha Inazone kayak went into the cavern stern first and washed most of the way through before getting stuck. He was trapped inside, underwater.Belknap, like McGhee, was sitting in his kayak in a small pool on the right above Hydroelectric Rock. In 26 years of paddling the Chattooga, Belknap had gotten in the habit of waiting at that spot, just in case anyone had trouble. When Belknap saw the rushing current sweep Bairds kayak into the hole, he paddled around the back side of the boulder just in time to see the kayak become wedged under the rock. I wasnt sure if he was still in it, Belknap said. I waited for a very short moment; a paddle came out, he was still nowhere in sight. Then his hand came out the water. He was reaching for anybody that might have been there.Belknap paddled his kayak close to the rock. He grabbed hold of the nose of my boat and tried to get to the surface to breathe, he said. With one possible exception, he couldnt get more than two inches from the surface.The trapped kayaker tried several times to get air, and may have gotten a breath on one attempt. Then he went limp.Belknap jumped out of his kayak into the deep water behind the rock. Lacking a handhold, he wedged his hands in a crack to climb up onto Hydroelectric Rock, holding onto his kayak with the other hand. Then he grabbed a rescue rope out of his boat and let his kayak drift away. At that point I had people on both sides of the river yelling to me. One threw a rope from river left. The other was Travis (Buck), who told me to stop everything and help him (get) on the rock. That seemed like the best plan.Buck knew more about the danger than anyone. He had swum in the pool around Hydroelectric Rock at low water with a scuba mask and peered into the spot where Baird was wedged. But today the Chattooga was pulsating with a powerful current as he jumped from the shore.Belknap threw him a rope but missed. He quickly tried again.I was sweeping by and with the three or four coils (of rope) in his hand he tagged me and pulled me up on the rock, Buck said. Freed from Hydro Buck had jumped in upstream of the same hole that had swallowed Baird.I really wasnt focused on much of anything but getting my butt on that rock and my hand on that boat, he said. He turned to DuPont and Knupp, the two female kayakers who had stopped behind the rock, to give them instructions. He said, `As soon as I get him out of that rock you are going to start CPR, recalled DuPont, 34. It wasnt, `if I get him out of the rock but when. There was not a moment of hesitation in Traviss voice. Buck grabbed the front of Bairds kayak and gave it one shove, then several more.I grabbed the bow loop and pushed and pushed and pushed until it let loose, then I turned around and jumped back in the water, he said. Buck grabbed the front of Bairds kayak and started trying to tug him over to the shore, as Knupp and DuPont tried to assist from their kayaks. They knew that just downstream the river cascades over Sock em Dog, one of its most feared rapids. Rods boat was full of water but he was still in it (upside down), Knupp said. We werent getting anywhere. He was just so heavy you couldnt hold onto him.Boaters running Sock em Dog must fight a strong right-to-left current to go over an underwater rock called the Launching Pad. That shoots the boater over a 6-foot sheer drop and over a hydraulic trap that can hold boaters or bodies.Holding the grab loop of Bairds kayak in one hand, Buck swam furiously for the right shore above the next drop.We ended up getting swept down to the next pool above the Dog, Buck said. We were on the right bank but there was nothing to grab onto. We went through the gate rocks. I let go of his boat and caught the boaters eddy (on the right shore.)
Buck looked downstream just in time to see
Bairds unconscious body, now separated
from the kayak, go off the Launching Pad. I dont think I ever felt so low in my life as
I did crawling out of that eddy, Buck said, because I really felt we had lost him. River rescue expert Travis Buck had seen
people swim Sock em Dog rapid before. But this time the victim was unconscious.
Baird, a 56-year-old Asheville health care
consultant, had been in Bucks grasp. The
30-year-old Buck had held on to Bairds
kayak and had swum to the rivers right
shore, but he had to let go to avoid being
sucked into the next rapid.
Baird was out of his kayak now, swept
downstream toward the Launching Pad, the horizon where the river plunges into
Sock em Dog, one of its most dangerous
If Baird had gone to the left of the pad, he would have been caught in the deadly
hydraulic at the base of the 6-foot falls or
have become wedged beneath underwater
rocks downstream. Somehow he shot right over it. At lower water levels in past summers, Buck had dived with a scuba mask in the
pool below Sock em Dog and seen the
underwater hazards. That gave him insight
into why it is called Dead Mans Pool. The rocks in the middle of the river are
just wickedly undercut, he said. Ive seen
swimmers who were in big life jackets
with a lung full of air disappear for a long
period of time and pop up downstream. Obviously, a swimmer with no air in his
lungs is in a precarious position.
As Buck ran down the shore, he saw things
for the paddling crew were going from bad
to worse. A kayaker was getting hammered
in her boat at the base of Sock em Dog. It
was Annette DuPont.
Another of Bairds friends, 42-year-old
Robin Knupp, had chased him down Sock
em Dog after seeing him disappear over
the edge. She and DuPont both got stuck in
the hydraulic trap beneath the ledge.
At this point I thought we were going to
have another drowning, Buck said. I just
threw my hands in the air because there
wasnt a damn thing I could do ... and went
down and started dealing with Rod. Bucks paddling partner Stephen Morrison
had jumped in the pool below Sock em Dog and had swum with Bairds limp body to shore. Upstream, Knupp fought her way out of the rapids grasp in her kayak and yelled for Morrison to strip off Bairds life jacket and get him on a level surface. DuPont swam out of the rapid.Down for the count About six minutes and 35 seconds had elapsed since the accident. The time frame was known because Milt Aiken, an Atlanta canoe paddler and producer of the Paddlesnake whitewater videos, taped part of the rescue.Buck grabbed Baird around the waist and flipped him over, trying to force water from his lungs. He was purple, almost black, completely unresponsive with no pulse, no breathing, Buck said. I just started barking orders, getting his crew motivated to do what they needed to do. Swimming out of Sock em Dog, DuPont was one of the first people on the scene. She and her boyfriend, Asheville neurologist Terry McGhee, started cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Baird. The pint-sized DuPont clamped her mouth over Bairds to pump air into his water-filled lungs as McGhee rhythmically compressed Bairds chest. After about five minutes, McGhee felt a pulse. A couple of minutes later Baird took a first weak, rasping breath. DuPont, who is recertified in CPR every year, had practiced the procedure many times but never had performed it in an emergency. It had been decades since McGhee had performed CPR in an emergency, as a young intern.I had lost hope, said McGhee, 52, an expert kayaker and friend of Bairds for 15 years. I thought there was no possible way he was coming back. When he took his first breath it just energized everybody. Evacuation the hard way If Bairds first breath recharged the rescuers, their struggle was far from over.Buck sent other paddlers upstream to find a backboard that rafting companies stash near Corkscrew Rapid on the South Carolina side of the river for emergencies. But the group was on the Georgia side, where a rock wall and jumble of boulders make walking downstream impossible.Lee Belknap, a veteran kayaker from Hendersonville, had been stranded atop Hydroelectric Rock after he had helped Buck free Baird. He swam across the river with the help of his girlfriend, Kathy Cody, to recover his kayak.The group made a pontoon boat by lashing the backboard atop Belknaps and Codys kayaks. The loaded Baird on top and swam him across Dead Mans Pool to the South Carolina shore.Then began a back-breaking hour-long carry over boulders and through dense brush. Several strong teenagers who were with Aiken, the Atlanta videographer, helped carry Baird as the group of 10 or so made its way downstream, passing the backboard up and over the huge rocks. When some members of the group got discouraged or tried to rest, Buck refused to let them quit.We have one hour to get this man to advanced medical care, and thats it, he yelled to the group.It was terribly hard; Rod is not slight-framed, Buck said. Everybody did great and pushed past the point where they had to give and then gave a little more.Baird drew his wrists in close to his body and clenched his jaw. Buck and McGhee worried Baird was posturing, a tense drawing in of the extremities that sometimes indicates brain damage or a patient near death. But Buck refused to allow the group to give in to despair. Travis was the real story there, McGhee said. His determination and will not to ever put Rod down really saved his life. Out of the wildernessThe group had planned to carry Baird out of the gorge at Possum Creek and had sent Morrison ahead to alert EMS. But nearing Lake Tugaloo they got word that another kayaker had been able to flag down a fishing boat. It was waiting downstream, but once again they would have to swim him across the river atop the kayaks.That was difficult because the river was a lot swifter than we thought, McGhee said.We got washed down a long way. Then we carried him down on the riverbank on the right for another 10 minutes.At the lake, they met a paddler who is also a firefighter/EMT from nearby Hall County, Ga. McGhee climbed aboard the boat with the EMT and left the rest of the group to hike back to recover the gear.It took about 30 minutes for the slow fishing boat to cover the two miles down Lake Tugaloo to the boat ramp, where an ambulance was waiting. Bairds blood oxygen had dropped to 60 percent, far below the normal range of 95 to 100, McGhee said. But with oxygen from the ambulance, in a few minutes he perked back up to about 87 percent.At the emergency room of the Oconee County Hospital in Seneca, S.C., McGhee identified himself as a physician.The doctors immediately let me into the room and I had free range of the entire emergency room, McGhee said.McGhee began making plans to get Baird to Mission St. Josephs Hospital in Asheville while the Oconee County doctors ran a battery of tests. McGhee called Dr. Trent McCain at the Asheville hospital, who authorized an immediate transfer.We tried to get the helicopter (the Mission Air Medical Ambulance) to come, but it was rainy and foggy, McGhee said.So McGhee rode in the ambulance with his friend, a trip that took about an hour and a half.Back in Asheville, David Knupp, Robins husband, sent out e-mails to his friends in the Western Carolina Paddlers club.He is stable and CAT scan came back good, and is responding somewhat, David Knupp said in a late-night e-mail.It was the first of many e-mails sent out to the paddling community over the coming weeks. Paddlers and friends from across the country prayed and sent well wishes to Baird, his wife, Bess; daughter, Amber; and son, Grant.The Asheville community really pulled for Rod, and people from everywhere were praying for Rod, DuPont said.Baird was sedated and put on a respirator. The next few days were excruciating for Bairds family and friends as they awaited some word.Then on Wednesday, July 23, three days after the near drowning, Baird did something no one expected. For one day, he was able to come off the respirator, talk and even joke a bit.The first hint Baird had come through the ordeal intact came the day before when Robin Knupp and her husband visited him.Things are looking excellent, she said
in an e-mail that Tuesday. When Rod
is off his sedation, he is alert, motioning
for water, recognizing people, giving the
thumbs up sign, wondering what has
happened to him.
He remained in ICU for more than two
weeks, recovering from lung and kidney
damage. He was released Aug. 18 and is
expected to make a full recovery.