Out Alive: Capsized and Trapped on a Raging River

Jay, 53, Julie, 49, Jessie, 17, and Janae Vonesh, 13, capsized their packrafts in a storm, lost their paddles, and spent 48 hours stranded on Utah’s Escalante River in March 2017.
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JAY Every forecast I read was different. But when the weather started to clear up around my daughters’ spring break in March, I gathered the family at our home in Bailey, Colorado. Our six-day packrafting trip on the Escalante River was on.

The Escalante starts as a trickle just west of its namesake town in Southern Utah and grows into a sluggish byway by the time it empties into Lake Powell. But in the middle, where spring runoff carries boats through gorges that can’t be explored by any other means, it’s perfect.

We planned to hike in 3 miles through Fence Canyon on Sunday, paddle 40 miles, and be back for burgers Saturday night.

“If you don’t hear from us by Monday, call Search and Rescue,” I told my friend Brett before he dropped us off. This was a standard precaution—we weren’t anticipating trouble. I’d watched videos, read trip reports, and pored over maps. I knew, mile by mile, what to expect.

JULIE Jay and I had been running rivers for 10 years and paddling with the girls for six. We started teaching them young so they’d be comfortable problem-solving and using their heads in the outdoors. By now we were a well-oiled machine, and we all knew how to read the water.

JAY We put in our four rafts under clear skies at mile 36. The Escalante was gentle—class 2 at the most. Janae sang as she paddled. Jamocha, our dog, snoozed in the base of Julie’s raft. The current picked up little by little, never giving us more than we could handle.

JESSIE On day five, clouds started to gather overhead, and we paddled under fits of light rain. Dad suggested we stop for the night, but, still 20 miles from our takeout, Janae and I wanted to cover a little more distance first. The water was moving fast, but we weren’t worried. We joked about the good time we were making.

JAY Each night we anchored the boats and planted a stick into the bank to monitor the water’s rise, which had been minimal so far. Friday morning, we woke to wind and hail. A front had come in, dumping rain into the thousands of streams that feed the Escalante. The water had risen 2 feet.

The river looked angry, but not deadly. We put in around noon. As soon as the girls got in their boats, they were gone, whisked downstream. We were right behind them. Six-hundred-foot waterfalls cascaded down the canyon walls where none had been the day before. My youngest wasn’t singing anymore.

JANAE We’d been in and out of the water all morning, flipping in rough sections and getting out to pull boats off rocks. I’d ended up in front of our caravan, but I was trying to slow down, to let someone else lead. I was nervous, but the current didn’t care.

JAY I was expecting a small blockage we’d need to hike over at mile 61.8. We’d found our first portage no problem, but this one wasn’t on the map. The water was high now, hiding boulders and gulping up the shore.

The miles slipped by—61, 62, 63—but no portage. I shrugged, figuring we’d floated right by it, and let my guard down.

At mile 64, the watercourse began to curve. I lost sight of my family.

JESSIE Janae led the way, working hard to stay balanced as the river sent her careening around the bend.

“Jessie, don’t go this way!” she screamed.

JULIE I’d started to round the slingshot when I saw the car-size blocks clogging the river: the portage. By the time I spotted the overturned rafts, it was too late to stop.

My mind was racing: My girls are underwater. And I’m next. Then I felt the current shove me against an undercut rock, sucking in my raft and pushing me out and beneath the roiling surface.

My head went under first. I couldn’t see my hands through the silt-choked water. I couldn’t tell which way was up.

The river spat me out, and I stumbled to shore, looking for my family.

There was Janae, bedraggled but safe. And Jessica helping the dog, also unhurt. Thank God. Jay would be next, but we wouldn’t be able to see him coming.

“My paddle!” Janae cried. The yellow fin was bobbing downstream. She scrambled after it, fell in, got sucked under. I dove after her and pulled her out. Just then, Jay’s boat slammed into the rock and he appeared on the other side, splashing and heaving.

“We’re OK!” we yelled. “We’re OK!”

JANAE I was sobbing. We hugged and thanked God, but briefly: We had work to do. Mom and I set off to search for paddles, and Dad and Jessie hauled boats and inventoried gear. We’d lost clothes, and Jessie’s sleeping bag was soaked. Three days of food remained, but we only had one paddle. We were ten miles from our takeout. Hemmed in by rocky slopes and sheer canyon walls, we were stranded.

JULIE I told Jessie and Janae to start gathering wood. To settle them, to give them something to do. The fire felt familiar, and the warmth calmed us. Jay wanted to start on a plan right away, but the girls were still in shock. Janae shook her head.

“Not tonight, Dad.”

JAY That night the tent filled with water vapor from all our wet layers. I’d given my sleeping bag to Jessie. Without it, I lay awake, my headlamp like a searchlight in the steam, listening to the sputtering rain and my own tumultous thoughts.

The next morning, I dug through our gear. When Julie saw me with our dishes and duct tape, she rolled her eyes.

“You’re not paddling out with that,” she said. “No way.”

For her the solution was simple: Our rafting trip had become a backpacking trip.

We spent a day drying gear between spurts of rain. Every so often someone would say, “I can’t believe we’re alive.” But we felt confident about our new plan. The next day we deflated the rafts, packed up, and set off toward our downstream takeout. The water was too high to cross, so we charted a route tracing the shore. Ten miles, I thought. We could get home today.

JANAE Our path wound over boulders and broken cliffs. The packs were too heavy to scramble with, so we had to hand them—and the dog—up and over the bigger rocks. It was more taxing than we could have imagined.

At one point we had to go in the water. It was moving so fast Dad almost got carried off setting up a hand line. Jessie was talking to me, trying to keep me calm, but I was terrified. I started crying again. We’re not going to make it. But Dad was tense, rushed.

“Let’s go,” he said. “We need to keep moving.”

JULIE Jay’s usually the optimist of the family, but it had taken us two hours to go a mile, and you could see the frustration on his face. We were all exhausted. We took lunch to regroup, but none of us said what we were thinking: This isn’t working.

JAY Sure, Brett would call for help, but I didn’t want a rescue. I’d always been able to get my family home safe. I’d always been able to take care of them.

But when I saw the steep bank crumbling beneath my wife as she tried to traverse a boulder 40 feet above the water, I gave in.

“We can’t do this,” I blurted.

JULIE We were at our limit. Even the dog looked defeated.

“Jamocha says she doesn’t want to go on vacation with us anymore,” I joked. Janae was quick to respond: “I don’t either.”

JAY I left my family on the shore and went to the water’s edge. To think. To search once again for the way out that wasn’t there. To be alone with God.

“You know where we are,” I said to the heavens. “Cut us a break.”

JESSIE Then, just as Dad turned around, I heard the whirring of chopper blades. We grabbed our one paddle and started waving it like crazy.

We stood on a sandbar—the only spot we’d seen all week wide enough for a helicopter to land. There, the rescuers touched down. They’d been looking for someone else and dropped down into the canyon 8 miles earlier than planned. A total coincidence. And yet.

JANAE Tears streamed down my face. I turned to my mom.

“I want to go home.” 

River Safety

Study up. Practice entering and exiting your boat on flatwater, then learn to read rapids. Start with class 1 and move up from there.

Check the forecast. Sunny skies across the watershed mean predictable water levels. Expecting rain? Monitor overnight changes by planting a stick in the bank. Plan a route with a riverside trail or multiple bail-out points.

Leave word. Bring a personal locator beacon or sat phone on remote trips. Since satellite contact can be unreliable in deep canyons, leave word with a friend as well.

Get in line. Have the most experienced paddler lead to assess hazards. The least experienced members should keep to the middle of the group.

Safety first. Wear a PFD and a helmet when paddling rapids. Add a wetsuit or drysuit if the water’s cold.

Abandon ship. If you encounter an unavoidable obstacle, grab your paddle and leap on top of the obstacle to avoid getting sucked under. Then retrieve your boat.

Follow your instinct. Feeling uncomfortable? Mention it to the group.

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