July 28 1993
Reported by Walt Garms
In the spring of 1993 Jaroslav was pinned in his kayak and drowned on a remote stretch of the Middle Fork of the Eel River, in Northern California. It was a trip that I had organized, and I was the only witness. His death sent shockwaves through the boating community because in addition to being well liked by almost everyone who met him, he was known to be extremely skillful and level headed on the river. For many of us who had enjoyed the thrill of kayaking at the limits of the sport, this tragedy proved that the risks that we had come to enjoy were real, and that the consequences of a mistake could reach far beyond ourselves.
For years, the Middle Fork of the Eel River and the North Fork Middle Fork Eel had fascinated me. Flowing out of the Yolla Bolla-Middle Eel Wilderness of Northern California, these two streams come together to form a major river in one of the most remote canyons in the state. Access to these rivers for kayaking has always been extremely difficult because the only roads into the area are along the tops of the ridges. By the time the snow melts off these roads, there is not enough snow left to provide sufficient water for the river.
During the winter of 1993, I flew over the river and discovered a new road that started in the Mad River drainage to the north, and came within a mile or two of the North Fork Middle Fork Eel. With much excitement, I planned a trip for the Spring of 1993 which would take place as soon as enough snow had melted off the Jones Ridge road. We would hike down to the river and kayak 30 miles to the the next road crossing at the junction of the Middle Eel and the Black Butte River. Over these 30 miles the river would drop nearly 3000 feet in altitude, and three of these miles had gradients in excess of 200 feet per mile (37 meters/kilometer) in a canyon 3000 feet deep.
North Fork Middle Fork Eel River in the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness.
Middle Fork Eel River below the confluence with the North Fork.
May 1, 1993, seemed to be the right time. The snow was almost gone from Jones Ridge and the North Fork Middle Fork was still flowing, although barely enough to kayak. The water in the main Middle Fork would be about 2500 cubic feet per second (CFS) which seemed to be on the high side of manageable. I began to assemble a group to go with me. I wanted a strong group of paddlers who would appreciate the wilderness setting of the run, and who had respect for the river.
The previous year, Jaroslav, Chris Volkamer, and I had paddled the South Fork of the Merced River together. The South Merced is one of the most difficult and demanding runs in California, and the three of us had developed an on-river rapport there that we valued. All three of us seemed to judge the rapids with a similar attitude, which I thought of as conservative and level headed, if such a description can actually be applied to running the South Merced. I wanted Jaroslav and Chris to be on the trip, and both of them were excited about coming.
Several other people were interested in going, but in the last days before the trip they all cancelled, leaving just the three of us. We thought that it would be fun to have more people, but that the three of us would make a good team. Chris and I have 27 years and thousands of miles of paddling experience between us, and have paddled most of the harder runs in California. Jaroslav was stronger and more skillful than either of us.
We agreed to meet at the Eel River Campground near Covelo on Friday night, April 31. Chris and I drove up together and arrived around 11:00 PM. Jaroslav showed up around 12:30AM with two Czech au pairs named Jana and Vera that he had talked into coming along so that they could drive his car back to Berkeley. That seemed like a pretty good deal to us, because the drive to the put-in took nearly five hours, and we would have had to go up and back one more time to get the car if they had not come.
We awoke to a cool, clear morning, and set off for the put-in around 9:00 in the morning. It is a beautiful drive, but takes forever on winding dirt roads in the mountains. We stopped several times to stretch our legs, admire the scenery, and for Vera to smoke a cigarette. We stopped for lunch at the Flying AA ranch in Ruth, which is next to the Mad River. The place has horses to ride, fish to catch, a restaurant, a pool table, and sits in a lush green valley with steep mountains on both sides. We joked that we might all have a better weekend if we all stayed in Ruth. But Jaroslav argued convincingly: we had come to suffer, and it was time to get on with it.
We finally got to the top of Jones Ridge at around two in the afternoon, but were stopped by snow short of the main trail to the river. We dug through one short stretch of snow with our paddles, but the next one was too long. It was time to walk. We hoped to find a trail that would get us to the river in less than an hour, so Jana and Vera decided to come with us. We promptly got lost.
Digging through the snow on Jones Ridge Road. From left: Two mushroom pickers, also stopped by the snow, Jaroslav, Chris, and Vera.
We had two maps, and they both showed trails to the river starting from Four Corners Rock. Unfortunately, the maps didn't agree on which direction they went. We found a promising trail which seemed to go where one of the maps showed a trail, but after about three quarters of a mile it petered out. Concerned that Jana and Vera would lose their way back to the car if they kept going with us, we suggested that they head back. It wasn't too hard to convince them, because they figured we had been lost for the last four hours anyway. With a few hugs we parted company, and the three of us proceeded to bushwhack down the rugged, brush covered slopes toward the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Eel River.
Although there were only three of us, we had trouble staying together. For one thing, each of us had our own idea which direction we ought to be heading. We were attempting to hike down a ridge separating the North Fork on our left (we thought) and a tributary called Willow Creek on our right. The temptation was to head straight downhill, but we were afraid that that would put us in Willow Creek, three miles from the North Fork, and it did not have enough water to float us to its confluence with the North Fork. The brush was so thick that once we were twenty yards apart we were completely out of sight of each other.
Eventually, Chris and Jaroslav got ahead of me, and I ended up crashing through the brush by myself. I yielded to temptation and headed downhill, and ended up in a steep, narrow creek bed. It seemed like a tossup between attempting to thrash down the creek bed in freezing water, over rocks and roots, or attempting to walk on deer trails, half in the snow, a hundred feet or so above the creek. From their tracks, I could see that Chris and Jaroslav couldn't make up their minds, either. At one point my deer trail crossed a steep mudslide sixty feet above the creek. One set of their tracks successfully crossed the slide, but the other set (Jaroslav's, it turns out) degenerated into a series of gashes into the mudslide, all the way to the bottom. With my gear laden boat on my shoulder, I made it to within one step of crossing the slide, but the muddy earth under my last step gave way. I dropped my kayak, which crashed to the bottom, and I tumbled after it down the mudslide, my tracks joining Jaroslav's. I collected myself at the bottom of the ravine, and discovered only minor damage to body and kayak. Nonetheless, it seemed foolish to have allowed the group to split up.
After another half hour, I finally found myself at the North Fork Middle Fork. It was almost six o'clock. Chris and Jaroslav were there. We were all tired, sore, and somewhat bent out of shape by the ordeal. I favored camping right there, but Chris and Jaroslav wanted to get on the river in order to shift our focus from the bushwhacking ordeal to the beauty of the river.
Beautiful it was. The North Fork carried perhaps 250 CFS of crystal clear water. The banks of the river were steep; sometimes moss covered soil, sometimes limestone rocks. Away from the river was a virgin conifer forest. We were within the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness area, and clearly none of this forest had felt the pain of the logger's chain saw. In fact, throughout the entire length of the North Fork, we saw not one shred of evidence of human visitation: Not a scrap of litter, no fishing line, no campfire site, no trail. We could hear the rush of the water in the small rapids, the wind in the trees, and the birds, which seemed to be discussing our progress, but no sounds of man.
Jaroslav watches Chris run a small drop on the North Fork.
Within two miles, dusk began falling in earnest, and we scanned the banks for a campsite, but found none. Instead, we found ourselves at the confluence of Willow Creek. Here, the river had cut a narrow chasm through a seam of hard limestone, eight feet wide and forty feet deep. Willow Creek entered on the right, and the river made an immediate, 120 degree left turn as it cascaded over a twelve foot falls. Our river passage blocked, we were forced to go back upstream sixty yards, shoulder our heavy boats, and scramble up the ridge on the inside of the bend. Two hundred feet above the river we started back down, sometimes carrying, sometimes lining the boats with ropes, and the rest of the time just sliding. We reached the river in late twilight, and within five minutes we had paddled to a small beach which would be home for the night.
Camping on a difficult kayaking trip is a truly minimalist experience. Every ounce of gear that might provide some comfort at night makes the boats heavier and less maneuverable during the day. For this trip we anticipated many rapids near the limit of navigability, and many others that we would have to carry our boats around, so the choice was simple: We brought nothing that was not absolutely necessary. All of my gear, including clothes, sleeping bag, rain protection, and food for three days, weighed thirteen pounds. It has become a point of pride among my kayaking friends to try to take less gear than anyone else. We inspect each other's gear, and make fun of anyone who brings any unnecessary items (although we did congratulate Jaroslav for his foresight in bringing along a small plastic bottle of tequila). Actually, the small hardships that result seem to make the whole trip feel more like wilderness. As Jaroslav said, you have to suffer if you want to have fun.
Under these circumstances, it doesn't take long to set up camp: Roll out the sleeping bag, start a fire and boil a pot of pasta. That left us plenty of time to sit around our little fire and talk. We talked about being in the wilderness, and the sense of peace that it brings to us. We talked about Jaroslav's daughter Julie, and his wife Nancy; Jaroslav seemed genuinely pleased with the choices that he had made, and with the twists of fortune that had led him on the long road from Czechoslavakia to having a family in California. He told us about his love for Julie, and how much he enjoyed being her father.
Eventually, the fatigue from our hike overtook us, and we dropped off to sleep. Jaroslav and I slept well, but Chris had not brought along a sleeping pad to insulate himself from the cold sand in an effort to save weight. We were at an altitude of 4000 feet, and Chris shivered through the night. The day dawned cold and clear, and we all waited in vain for the sun to rise above the mountains and warm our campsite. A squirrel in a nearby tree barked his incessant disapproval, and we eventually arose, made a fire, and brewed some coffee. After a quick breakfast we packed and started paddling at 10 o'clock,
The additional water from Willow Creek and two more creeks that we passed in the first hour brought the North Fork up to more respectable flow of 450 cubic feet per second. Most of the time the riverbanks consisted of moss covered earth and a few black rocks, but occasionally the river would cut through seams of hard limestone and form narrow chasms with steep rapids. Most of these were runnable, but in two places we all made short portages around the rapids.
The top of a typical rapid on the North Fork.
At one rapid, the river fell about ten feet over a large boulder. On the right the riverbank was a sheer rock wall, and a narrow chute of water fell between the rock and the wall. The left side of the river was more open and afforded an easy portage, so Chris and I carried our boats around the falls on that side. Jaroslav decided to attempt to run the chute on the right. I wondered why he wanted to run the rapid, because the portage was easy, and it looked likely that a paddler would bang his elbow against the wall. Jaroslav paddled over to the right and entered the swift water just above the falls, but stopped short of going over, backpaddling and clinging to branches. Evidently it looked harder from his close vantage point, but it was too late to go back. Finally, he took one forward stroke, then let go of his paddle with his right hand and brought his arm across his body to keep from smacking the wall. He dropped cleanly into pool at the bottom and paddled over to where we waited. As usual, he had executed the maneuver perfectly.
Jaroslav protects his right elbow while running a falls on the North Fork.
Soon we arrived at the confluence of the North Fork Middle Fork and the Middle Fork Eel. The Middle Fork thunders out of a narrow gorge and over a large rapid as it joins the North Fork. It was flowing about 800 CFS, which added to the North Fork gave us plenty of water for the next few miles, which had the steepest gradient of the entire run. Immediately after the confluence, the walls of the river opened up some, and the river banks were earthen, and covered with grass and dotted with a few trees. Farther up the sides of the canyon the slopes were forested, and in the distance the tops of the ridges that formed our canyon were blanketed in snow. We were deep in the wilderness here, and we agreed that it was scenery like this that made all of our efforts worthwhile.
The river itself was quiet, and we paddled serenely, admiring the the views that surrounded us. After about a mile we came to the first major rapid after the confluence. The river made a left hand bend as it ran up against an outcropping of dark colored rocks. Some of these rocks had fallen into the river to form the rapid. I was in the lead, and I could not easily see a clear route through the rapid, so I paddled up to the right hand bank and got out of my boat to look it over. Jaroslav waited in his boat near where I had taken out, and Chris crossed over toward the left side of the river hoping to see a better route from that side. He looked over to me for an assessment of the routes that he might be able reach from his position.
One look at the rapid told me that it should not be run. The rapid was formed by numerous large boulders, the largest of which were about ten feet across. At the start of the rapid, the river flowed around the boulders, forming a somewhat complicated, but still manageable, class 4 entry. At the end of the rapid, however, several large boulders formed a barrier all the way across the river. Between the boulders there were four gaps that the water flowed through. Each of these chutes dropped four or five feet and then were immediately obstructed by other boulders at the bottom. A paddler attempting to run one of these chutes might run into the rocks at the bottom and get stuck there. Concerned that Chris would attempt one of the chutes on the left, I quickly gave him a hand signal that he understood to mean that he should not attempt to run it. He retreated to the left bank of the river, and Jaroslav, seeing my signal, got out of his boat to survey the rapid himself.
By the time Jaroslav got to where I was standing, I had noticed that there was another large falls about two hundred feet downstream. Together, Jaroslav and I climbed down to look at it. The bank on the right side of the second falls was very steep and rocky, and on the right edge of the river the water flowed under an overhanging rock. On the left side, a massive boulder, thirty feet across, blocked the river, but there was room under the rock, and about a third of the river cascaded directly under the rock, forming an extremely dangerous trap. In the middle of the river, between the two undercut rocks, was another large boulder. On each side of the boulder the river fell vertically about eight feet, and directly downstream of the boulder there was short pool, or eddy, of relatively quiet water.
The drop below that fatal rapid. Much of the river flows under this large boulder. Chris ran this drop over the wet boulder and into the green water at the bottom.
Jaroslav decided that it was possible to run the lower falls by paddling hard across the current toward the center of the river, passing just by the edge of the center boulder, and landing in the eddy below the boulder. In kayaking, we call the maneuver a "boof" move, because of the sound the kayak makes when it lands in the flat water below a falls. The technique is effective because it makes it possible to avoid the turbulence formed by the main channel of water as it goes over the falls. Although this plan seemed workable, I was uneasy about it because it seemed like a mistake would send me into one of the undercut rocks on the side of the river. I scanned both sides of the river for a portage route, where I could carry my boat around, but the right side was very steep, and I would have to climb up about thirty feet, around a rock outcrop, and back down to the river, and the footing was not good. On the other side, there did not seem to be a safe place to get out of the river above the big undercut boulder.
Jaroslav and I started back up toward our boats, and found that Chris was already below the upper rapid. We thought that he had portaged, but he told me later that he a found a way to bump down on some rocks on the very edge of the river on the left side, well out of the main current. Although inelegant, it is a technique made possible by our tough plastic kayaks. Chris paddled to our side, and Jaroslav spoke to him about the falls downstream, and explained the proposed route. Then Jaroslav and I walked back upstream to our boats. While we walked, Chris ran the lower falls according to Jaroslav's instructions.
As we walked up, I was still unsure what to do about the lower falls, but I had I made up my mind that I would portage the upper rapid. I assumed that Jaroslav would do the same. We reached the boats, and I started dragging my boat down the rocks to a place below the rapid, about thirty feet overall. To my surprise, Jaroslav declared his intention to run the rapid. "Well, I am going to run it. Watch me, and see if I survive", he said, and started getting into his boat. He was kidding, mostly, but clearly he was aware that the rapid was risky, and wanted me to be ready if he needed assistance.
I took a second look at the rapid, and sure enough, there was one chute in the middle where the water did not slam directly into another rock below the drop. Just above the chute was a small eddy formed by another rock upstream. It would be possible to weave through the rocks at the top of the rapid and stop in this small eddy just above the chute. From there, it would be possible to drop over the four or five foot falls and into some turbulent water at the bottom. I knew that this was the place that Jaroslav intended to go.
However, I could still see some problems. Once a paddler stopped in the eddy just above the drop, it would be impossible to paddle fast enough to gain any momentum before going over the falls, and he would have to drop nose first into the turbulent water. And something about the turbulence in the water made me very uneasy. Although all I could see was white, the way the water turned back on itself suggested that there may be a rock hidden under the surface.
I was a little bit aggravated with Jaroslav as he started down the rapid. There was nothing fun about the rapid, and we still had twenty two miles of unexplored river in front of us. Why take a risk here, at this evil looking rapid? I watched as Jaroslav skillfully maneuvered through the upper part of the rapid, toward the small eddy above the center chute. As he entered the top, right hand edge of the eddy, his boat caught in the branches of a submerged bush, and he had to stop briefly at the edge of the eddy to disentangle his boat and paddle from the branches. Then he entered the eddy and turned downstream to face the chute. After pausing for a moment, he took two or three stokes to position his boat and started down the chute. His entry appeared flawless, and his boat faced slightly to the right, exactly the position that seemed best. I heaved a sigh of relief as the nose of his boat entered the white water at the bottom of the chute.
The entrance to the rapid. Chris bumped down the wet rocks on the far left. Jaroslav took the center chute, just left of the long stretch of green water.
Suddenly, the nose of his boat hit a rock under the surface, and he came to an abrupt stop, the force of which threw Jaroslav's head and shoulders momentarily forward. He recovered quickly, and I could see his face, which registered some surprise, but mostly attentiveness as he looked around to see what would happen next.
During this time, the tail of his kayak drifted to the left and into the boulder which formed the left side of the chute. The nose of the kayak remained fixed in place, and the cockpit of the boat was about halfway down the chute. The tail of the boat still pointed upwards. He balanced there precariously for a second or two. He let go of his paddle with his right hand and held it in his left hand, and attempted to steady himself, and perhaps try to push himself off. However, the water was beginning to mound up over the back deck of the kayak, pushing the tail down. As this happened, more water pressed down on the boat, and in less than a second the entire boat was pushed under water. It came to a stop when the back end of the boat came in contact with the rocks at the bottom on the river. The boat shifted for an instant, but then seemed to lock into place. The right side of the boat was barely visible through the water, and all I could see of Jaroslav was his left hand, still pushing on his paddle, and a hint of orange from his helmet a few inches from the surface.
Closeup of the fatal rapid, showing the location of Jaroslav's boat when it pinned.
The horror of the next few moments is indescribable. Jaroslav pushed for a while on the paddle, and then let go. The paddle lodged in the rocks for a few moments, and then floated off down the river. Jaroslav pushed and struggled, perhaps to free the boat, and perhaps to get out of the boat, but the full force of the river was on Jaroslav's back, pushing him down into the cockpit and the boat down onto the rocks. After a short time his only struggle was to get some air to breathe. I saw him raise his head as high as he could, but his helmet was still at least two inches underwater. I looked, hoping to see a break in the water as it flowed past his head, but there was none. Then the struggling stopped.
During this time, I had reached down and unclipped my throw rope from my boat, hoping that Jaroslav would be able to free himself from the boat, and that I would be able to throw him the rope and pull him to shore before he was swept into the undercut rock in the next rapid. I even hoped that he would raise his hand, and that I would be able to throw the rope across his hand, and somehow he would catch it and I could pull him free.
Although I stood only thirty or thirty five feet from him, there was no way that I could have climbed over or swam to him from my position below the rapid. The river was moving very fast and was solid white, and two powerful jets of water were between me and Jaroslav. I looked frantically upriver for a place that I could jump in and swim down to him, but getting to that spot was a tricky move for a skilled kayaker, and nearly impossible for a swimmer. Even if I did get there, all I would be able to do is try to grab part of him as I went over the falls into the same rocks that had trapped his boat. Then I would have to get both of us to shore before the falls downstream.
The seconds continued to go by, and I began to realize that there was nothing I could do. I felt completely alone and utterly helpless. A combination of terror and sadness and frustration and panic swept over me. Tears came to my eyes. I screamed. Again I looked for something I could do. Again nothing.
By this time my sense of time had gone. I stood for probably three or four minutes hoping that the boat would come free and I could try to grab it, but it remained locked in place. Finally, I decided to go down and alert Chris to the disaster. I climbed as fast as I could down the river bank until I could see Chris, who was in his boat in an eddy a hundred feet below the second falls. This took probably two minutes. I signaled graphically to him that something was terribly wrong, and then started back up river. When I got back to where I could see the first rapid, I could no longer see Jaroslav's boat under the water. Then I saw the upside down boat floating slowly down the river, with Jaroslav still in it.
I would have expected the boat to drift toward the left side of the river, but for some reason it had been pushed toward my side when it broke free from where it had been trapped. The boat was making slow progress downstream because Jaroslav's body, which hung upside down, was running into some rocks that were under the surface. Soon the boat ran up against a rock that was near my shore, and I leapt out onto the rock to try to grab the boat, but as I jumped out the boat freed itself and started floating away. I was able to grab it and hold it for a moment, but I was not able to hold onto both the rock and the boat, so I let go. Further down was a small rock island, and Jaroslav's body came up against one of the rocks toward the middle the river, stopping the boat. I jumped into the water and swam to the island, and this time I was able to get a firm hold on the boat and pull it up against the rocks.
The spray deck, which keeps the water out of the kayak, had come loose, so the boat was filled with about two hundred pounds of water. Jaroslav was a good size man himself, and the combination proved too heavy for me to pull up onto the shore. I righted the boat and attempted to start mouth to mouth resuscitation with him still in the kayak, but he was heavy and limp, and I could not hold him up and give him breaths at the same time. Then I tried to pull him out of the boat, but I could not pull hard enough at the right angle. His legs were still under the thigh braces, and all I was doing was pulling against the weight of Jaroslav and the boat, and against the current which was still trying to pull him down river. Around this time I noticed that Chris had climbed up onto the big boulder that formed the undercut on the left side of the river, across from me. He was on the wrong side to help, but I had given him no indication of which side to climb back up.
Finally, I got in the water and found some footing on the bottom, and was able to roll Jaroslav and the boat up and over one of the rocks. Holding the front of the kayak on the rock, I pushed the tail of the boat into the water on the other side. Jaroslav hung upside down from the boat, and the back of the boat was tilted down so that gravity would help me get him out. I got into the water on that side, put my foot up on the front of the cockpit, and pulled Jaroslav free of the boat and down into the water. Then I pushed him back up onto the rocks. Each of these moves took every ounce of strength I had, and I would have to stop for a few seconds to catch my breath, even though I knew that every second was precious if there was any hope that he could be revived. After one or two more heaves I rolled Jaroslav onto a large flat rock.
The left side of this rock island is where I pulled Jaroslav and his boat out of the water and where we tried to resuscitate him. The big undercut boulder of the next drop is in the upper right of this picture.
By this time, Jaroslav had been under water for at least ten minutes, and possibly more. He was not breathing. His face and hands where white and slightly blue. His lips were purple, and his tongue was almost white. The pupils of his eyes were dilated about half way, and there was no movement at all of the pupils in response to the sunlight. Aside from a small contusion next to his right eye, he showed no physical injury.
The rock that I had put him on left his head tilted back, which would open his airway. I pressed my mouth against his and forced two breaths of air into him. Then I tried to feel for a pulse, and felt nothing but my own heart pounding. I gave him two more lungfulls of air, and I could feel it going into him, and his chest rose. I began giving him chest compressions. And I finally looked at my watch. It was 12:15PM. I continued the breathing and chest compressions. Slowly, the color of his lips changed from purple to grayish pink, and some of the natural color returned to his face.
Finally, Chris got to where I was, after climbing back down to his boat, crossing the river, and climbing high up around the right side of the river. One look at Jaroslav and Chris was overcome with emotion. He could see, as I could but had not yet admitted, that the chances of his recovery were very grim indeed, and he broke into tears. I told him to start giving him breaths, and Chris responded immediately, and held back his tears as he forced air into Jaroslav's lungs as I tried to move Jaroslav's blood by pushing on his heart. With two of us, the task was easier, and we were able to restore normal color to his face, and lips, and hands.
Some of the air that Chris forced into him must have gone to his stomach, because as he exhaled there was sometimes the smell of his vomit. After a while the smell made Chris nauseous, and we had to trade places. Later, the same thing happened to me, and we traded back.
I had spent parts of many summers as a river guide on the Colorado river Grand Canyon, and I had attended Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) training many times, but nothing had prepared me for the emotion of the moment. In the classes, I had always thought of the victim as a stranger. Now I was trying to breathe life into the body of a good friend, and a man that I cared deeply about. Periodically tears would come to my eyes, but it affected my ability to perform the CPR, so I tried not to think at all about him, and just concentrate on the repetition.
I looked at my watch again, and it was 12:30. I resolved to continue until at least one o'clock. The minutes went by incredibly slowly. Chris and I did not talk except to encourage the repetition: breathing, compressions, breathing, compressions.
Finally, it was one o'clock. We paused, and listened for his heart, but there was nothing. However, I could think of nothing better to do but continue. Chris agreed, and we pressed on. The minutes dragged by. We cried. We vomited. We kept going.
At one thirty I stopped. Chris and I looked at each other. We could each see in the other's eyes that we had lost hope. We listened one last time for a pulse, then stood and embraced out of compassion for the other's sadness.
We shifted our attention to the next task at hand, which was how to deal with the body. Jaroslav's boat was still on the rocks where I had left it. We took out his throw rope and tied it around him below his armpits. We had removed his helmet previously and it had floated down the river, so I took my helmet off and put it on his head. Chris jumped in and swam to the right bank. I shoved the boat to him, and then I pushed the body in as Chris pulled it to shore. Then I joined Chris and we pulled him up on the bank. At first we planned on carrying him to some flat rocks about fifty feet upstream, but he seemed incredibly heavy, and it was hard to get a grip on his limp body. Besides, the day was getting hot, and a few feet from shore was a log that was making some shade. We decided to pull him into the small shelter from the sun under the log. We took Jaroslav's foam sleeping bag from his boat and put it over him.
Chris and I walked upstream and I showed him where the accident had happened, and I took a few pictures. This seemed like a macabre thing to do, but I knew people would want to know what it looked like, and I thought that I might forget.
Neither of us wanted to continue down the river in our kayaks. The remaining miles had some very steep sections deep in the canyon. It would take us at least the remainder of this day and most of the next, and possibly more, to complete the trip. We knew we would find no more joy in paddling the river, and we would expose ourselves to danger because our concentration would be poor. We agreed to abandon the boats and hike out. We took out the maps and studied them, and decided that we were at Asa Bean Crossing. If we crossed the river and started climbing up and to the right, it looked like we would run into a trail if we were lucky. From there, it would be about a thousand vertical feet up to the main road.
Chris helped me portage my boat around the lower falls, and we crossed to the left side of the river and started to prepare for the hike by making impromptu packs. I decided to take all of my gear because if we found no trail I would probably not return to get my kayak. About three o'clock we started walking. We bushwhacked up and to the right for less than a quarter mile, and sure enough, we found the end of a road that led uphill. Feeling good about our map reading skills, we started up. Only later would we discover that we were not at Asa Bean Crossing, but Hoxie Crossing, one mile upstream. We had stumbled across a road that leads to some private property within the wilderness area and is not marked on the maps.
We trudged steadily uphill through a thick forest. Down a ravine, both of us heard the snap of a dry branch breaking, but said nothing. A few minutes later I was startled by a scratching sound just a few feet away. I looked up to see a tiny black bear cub climbing up the trunk of a pine tree just twenty feet away. It was incredibly cute. I walked over for a closer look, but Chris warned me that we didn't know where its mother was, and it quickly became clear that she had broken the branch. We hastily left the bears to themselves.
After about four miles and a fifteen hundred foot climb we finally came to a gate that marked the end of the wilderness area. Soon we arrived at a summer fire fighting camp called Indian Dick Station. It consisted of a few wooden buildings and some horse stables around a green meadow. It was completely deserted. From there, it is about twenty five miles to the nearest telephone at Eel River station on Mendocino Pass Road. We drew some water from the well, made a fire, and prepared a meal, and about seven PM we started walking.
Numerous downed trees over the road told us that no one had travelled this road since autumn of the previous year. Part of the time we were in the forest, but other times the road crossed lush green meadows, and we were afforded full views of the magnificent canyon in which we were the only human occupants. Far in the distance I could see the snow covered ridge where I knew the road went. It seemed incredibly far away.
Part of the time we walked together. We talked about the death of my father, and of Chris's best friend, and how those incidents had affected our lives. We talked about how Jaroslav's death would affect us, but by now the shock had overtaken us, and it was hard to believe that Jaroslav was dead. It was an eerie feeling to know that this tragedy had taken place, and no one but Chris and I knew about it. We dreaded having to make the phone calls that would start the process of people finding out.
Other times we just walked by ourselves. Our anger about the tragedy was beginning to grow, and we subconsciously allowed some of this anger to rest on each other. Also, all of our conversations were focussed on the accident, and what we had to do. By ourselves, we could try to think about other things, or just about walking, or perhaps not think at all.
We walked, and walked, and about midnight we decided to stop and rest. We rolled out our sleeping bags on a grassy area. The clear sky, full of stars, was beginning to cloud over as we dropped off to sleep. Around 2:00 AM we were awakened by a cold rain , so we put sleeping bags away and walked some more. After two more hours we came to a bridge and found shelter under it, and were able to sleep.
At dawn we arose and started walking again. It was still raining. About 9 o'clock we passed a deserted campground, and signs indicated that we had walked eighteen miles from Indian Dick Station. We kept going, and it kept raining. Chris got ahead of me, and about ten o'clock he saw a truck belonging to a forest service road crew coming up the road. Chris told them what had happened and they radioed to headquarters. Then they came to pick me up. I was relieved to see them, but I knew that many painful moments still lay ahead.
After an hour the forest service enforcement officer arrived. Despite the fact that we were wet and cold, and only about six miles from the dry clothes in my car, she loaded us into her vehicle and started driving back toward the scene of the accident, with the road crew ahead of us clearing the road. We passed Indian Dick Station, and stopped at the gate marking the wilderness area boundary. The road crew started down on foot to clear the road.
The radio crackled with talk about the accident. We heard that a Mendocino County Sheriff would come. There were lengthy discussions about whether or not to drive a vehicle into the wilderness area, or wait for pack horses. We waited. The sheriff showed up, and then another forest service worker with some horses. We waited some more, and the cold rain finally turned to snow. A helicopter was sent to the scene, but the weather conditions made it impossible for it to reach us.
There was no resolution about what to do about driving into the wilderness area. The supervisors refused to give permission to drive, and the sheriff stubbornly refused to walk. Besides, the body was on the other side of the river, and watercraft of some kind would be needed to cross the river. I was also was worried that the rain would raise the river level up to where we had left Jaroslav. Chris and I offered to help, but the sheriff confiscated our paddles and we were forbidden from helping. Instead, a swift water rescue team was dispatched from Ukiah, three hours away. Only about four hours of daylight remained.
I became impatient with the wait, and it was cramped in the ranger's truck, so Chris and I finally decided to walk down to the river to get our kayaks. The river had come up about a foot and a half, and had turned a chalky brown from the silt it carried. The rocks where we had struggled to revive Jaroslav were under water, but the log that we had placed him under was farther up than we had remembered, so there was no immediate danger of him being carried downstream.
It took us three hours to go down and back, and we got to the top utterly exhausted. The sheriff and rangers were still arguing with their superiors about whether to drive or walk. It was finally decided that the ranger would drive us back to my car while she got provisions for the crew that would spend the night. Jaroslav's body would remain a second night beside the river.
It was dark by the time we reached the car. We changed into dry clothes, and faced the hardest part of the entire ordeal. We had talked about who would call Nancy. Neither of us knew her well, but Chris had spoken with her more than I had, so he accepted the task. It was very difficult and emotional, but in the end there was no way to avoid the pain, and the only thing to do was tell her what had happened. We made one more call to a friend of ours who promised to try to contact some people who knew Nancy and Jaroslav.
We started home, mostly in silence. We felt some relief that we were no longer the only ones to know about the accident, but we also knew that the calm of the outside world had been broken. In ever widening circles, the news of the tragedy would spread.
The next morning the weather was clear, and a helicopter was able to get to the river. There was no place for it to land near Jaroslav's body, so the swift water rescue team, who had driven down the road with the sheriff, crossed the river and put Jaroslav's body on a stretcher. As the helicopter hovered next to them, they loaded him onto the aircraft, and he was flown out of the canyon.
Jaroslav was buried on May 15, 1993 in Bolinas, California.
February 22, 2011
It has been almost 18 years since Jaroslav drowned. The impact of his death was felt by a wide circle of friends and family who experienced deep sadness and loss. I now know that the risks that we took on those trips were not just our own; we also put at risk the emotions of countless people who cared about us.
The accident remains the most traumatic event of my life, and it took many years to recover. I experienced many emotions - sadness, anger, helplessness, fear, guilt - that came and went, like waves. For several years I couldn't feel the joy of paddling that I had known for so long. But slowly, with the help of my wife and my friends, and in part by writing this account, I was able to accept what happened and be at peace with it. But I have never forgotten, and to this day the news of a similar incident will bring back the still vivid memories of Jaroslav's orange helmet, just under the water, as his life passed out of his body.
All photos copyright 1993 Walt Garms.