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Middle Fork Smith Fatality - Update

Reported by Scott Bowman


On Saturday afternoon, December 28, 2002, a kayaker died while running the Upper Middle Fork Smith River, Del Norte County, California.   The victim, Thomas "J.T." Middleton, 40, of Grants Pass, Oregon, was a veteran kayaker and a long time whitewater raft guide.   The Smith River was among his favorites and I'm quite sure there was little of this watershed he wasn't familiar with, including this river section.

What follows is my best attempt, based on interviews of eyewitnesses, search and rescue personnel, and my involvement, at describing the events that led to this tragedy.

On that Saturday morning the Smith River at the Jed Smith gage was flowing a little over 30,000 cfs.   The weather was cloudy with rain showers in the valleys and intermittent snow flurries along the ridges.   J.T. and two companions traveled to the North Fork Smith River to run some big water class IV.   The North Fork was running at 18' on the pipe gage (approximately 8,000 cfs).   The main river characteristics at this flow are very large waves (typically crashing), a few awe-inspiring holes, and large, angry boils.   It took them about 1.5 hours to do the 14 mile run.   Upon completion of the run the three boaters went to the shuttle driver's house.   With time left in the day and plenty of water, J.T. and one companion elected to do another run, this time on approximately 6 miles of the Upper Middle Fork.   The third boater decided to call it a day and drive shuttle.   They drove to the put-in at Idlewild and the two of them launched at about 2:30pm.   The Upper Middle Fork at this flow is certainly full but not excessively so.   This normally class III-IV run I would classify at this flow as a solid class IV run simply because of high velocity water, essentially bank-to-bank current, the common occurrence of instream willow and alder along the banks, and a scarcity of eddies.

J.T. was boating second in this two man team with the two of them staying as close together as safety allowed.   About half way through the run they entered the normal class IV section.   The lower end of this section is fairly busy and requires concentration on your own actions.   Consequently the lead boater did not have visual contact with J.T. in this section.   The lead boater finished this section, caught an eddy, and waited for J.T. to meet him.   The wait was long enough to cause the lead boater to exit his boat and start scrambling back upstream to determine what was happening.   Apparently shortly after beginning the upstream hike the lead boater saw a boat, then a paddle, then J.T. floating downstream.   He stated that J.T. was alive and actively swimming though coughing and sputtering.   A throwline rescue was attempted.   It failed.   At this point the lead boater tried to give chase along the bank but couldn't keep up.   He then climbed to the highway and ran down the road trying to keep J.T. in sight while looking for a place to reach the river and offer help.   It should be noted that the third boater in this team was following along in the vehicle and was aiding with this rescue attempt.   The sheriff's report stated the last time J.T. was seen alive was when the lead boater began climbing to the highway.   I was told by the lead boater Sunday morning the last time he saw J.T. alive was swimming about 100 yards upstream of where we recovered him.   In any case he ultimately came to rest draped over a willow, on his stomach, head down, facing the middle of the river, and about 8' off the bank.   Rescue personnel were called.   By the time they arrived it was twilight.   Given the time of day, the level of the river, and the difficulty of the recovery operation, it was decided to secure J.T. in place and retrieve him Sunday morning.

By Sunday morning the water level had dropped by half.   What was hip deep at the scene the day before was now shin deep.   J.T. was still draped over a willow (mostly out of the water now) and secured to a tree.   Oddly his belt-mounted rescue rope was fully deployed.   In fact it was wrapped around his waist, then through his crotch, then across his back, and finally lying on the willow on his upstream side.   It appeared from my angle that the rope near the carabiner was wrapped twice around a broken willow branch.   The recovery took two hours.

It will remain unknown what caused J.T. to swim in the first place.   There are several holes and at least one submerged log in the area where he swam out of his boat.   The fact that he was seen swimming below this section means that whatever caused the swim wasn't the reason for his death.   It can by said though that whatever the cause of the swim, the amount of time between when the lead boater eddied out and when he saw J.T. swimming likely means he was getting worked in a boisterous section of river.   I'm sure this was a fatiguing experience.   I do not feel the sparse willow patch where J.T. was retrieved was necessarily itself the cause of his death.   At Saturday's river level this willow patch had a severe downstream lean, due to the strong current, to the point of being sub-parallel with the river.   Even though the biggest willow was about three inches in diameter (the others were an inch or less), anything washing into them should have rolled right over the top, hardly slowing down.   It should be said though that J.T. was draped over the largest of the willows in that patch.   This willow may have been more resistant to bending.   Based on his rescue rope being fully deployed I can only assume it was a contributor to his death.   Either he deployed it in a failed self-rescue attempt or it was deployed for him by something in the river.   In any event once the rope, attached to his back and acting like a tail with a metallic loop on the end, was made available to the river, it became a lethal weapon.

Scott Bowman