Summer of the Kayaker

Mayhem-filled summer seems dominated by water incidents
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Mayhem-filled summer seems dominated by water incidents

I’m not sure if it’s me, or just the news media glomming onto outdoor recreationists as a source of inexpensive drama, but this summer seems unusually mayhem-filled. And it’s mostly notable for the sheer number of deaths on lakes, sea coasts and rivers worldwide – particularly kayaking deaths. In the last several days:

[] A 60-year-old Canadian man died on the Gatineau River near Messines, about 80 miles north of Ottawa, after overturning and being unable to roll back up. He was wearing an inflatable life jacket. 

[] In Colorado, three people died on the Arkansas River in 6 days. 70-year-old Volker Beer of Tucson, AZ died after swimming from his kayak. Prior to that, two rafting clients were killed: 61-year-old James Kennedy died after his raft hit a center pier bridge support and flipped over. Two days earlier 67-year-old Oscar Stevenson of Virginia was thrown from a raft and died while swimming. The Arkansas River has numerous rapids rated Class III to V-plus. Certain sections like Browns Canyon (CIII) are among the busiest outfitter-run whitewater in the country.

[] In Idaho, well-known poet, author and expert kayaker William Studebaker (61) of Twin Falls died after swimming in Class IV-V rapids on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, near the small community of Yellowpine. The “East Fork of the South Fork” is a spectacular 15-mile roadside run spiced by continuous boulder gardens and numerous large ‘holes’. Studebaker was in a group of expert kayakers, and apparently took a swim after being pummeled in one drop. He was last seen stroking for shore, then floating face-down, apparently unconscious. His body was recovered on Monday, about 1.5 miles below where the accident occurred.

Studebaker taught English and ran the outdoor program at the College of Southern Idaho for 30 years. He also taught literature at IdahoStateUniversity and received the Idaho Humanities Council's Outstanding Humanist Award in 2005. He wrote at least eight books, and numerous features for local newspapers. Often called 'Idaho's unofficial poet laureate,' his death has hit the whitewater and literary communities hard.

There were some pre-disposing factors: Friends told the Idaho Statesman that Studebaker was a continually active person who became even more so following a serious car accident 12 years ago. "After that, he just didn't have the same fear that the rest of us have,” said friend Bill Brock. "None of us are surprised about this." But many are saddened. Studebaker leaves behind a wife, four children and a huge network of friends. 

[] The Coast Guard spent much of Monday searching Albemarle Sound off the North Carolina coast for 19-year-old Curtis Cooper, a solo kayaker who’d gone missing. At 5:30pm his overturned kayak was found six miles from his last known position. Unlike most recent sea kayak searches, this one ended happily. About 2:30am on Tuesday Cooper's family called to report him safe on land. He’d fallen out of his kayak and floated with it, even waved to rescue helicopters -which didn’t spot him- then finally swam to shore, walked to a nearby house, and called 911. This and numerous other incidents make it clear that anyone who travels on sea or lake waters should carry a strobe or flares. Bright colors and waving arms just don’t cut it in heli searches over water.

[] None of these accidents compare to one that occurred in Slovenia last week, where 13 kayakers were killed after being sucked into the hydro-electric siphon of a dam under construction on the Sava River near Sevnica. (Yeesh!) This nightmare scenario was not a recreational accident. Most of the victims were local officials and power company execs doing a paddle tour of the dam.