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We planned a trip for 2 canoes (my neighbor, 27, and my oldest son, 11, in a l6’9” Old Town rental and myself, 37, and 2 youngest sons (5 and 9) in my 17’ Blue Hole) on the Clear Fork River on the Cumberland Plateau. I am an experienced canoe paddler on class II and III water, my neighbor on I and II water, and my sons on I and II water. This stream was rated class I-II in the reach where we planned to go. We planned to paddle with camping gear 6 miles from Gatewood Bridge to Peters Ford Bridge on Saturday the 27th, and to paddle the remaining 6 miles to Brewster Bridge on Sunday the 28th.
It had rained Friday night and when we got to the put in, we found the river turbid brown and swollen, but moving peacefully as far as we could see (days later we realized the river was about 3 ft higher than normal stage, but we couldn’t tell this at the time). We debated about whether to go or not, but we decided to go because we had planned the trip for so long. As a precaution we split up the food and camp gear roughly equally between the two boats (more in the rental boat as I had more boys in my boat) in case of a dump.
We had gone about 3 miles without much problem - mainly my neighbor and oldest son getting used to each other. I was handling my boat easily with my 9-yr old son at the bow. We went through a fairly solid class II rapid (no obstacles) and the rental boat came close to dumping but made it. I then began to watch them very closely because the river was narrowing, and although the rapids were not white, the current was swift and the bends were getting more technical.
The first strainer we encountered was a 4’ pine tree lying in the water diagonally with several hanging branches brushing the stream. Smaller branches were hanging down from it in the path of the canoes. We scouted the area and found that the current was swift past the strainer and it went under an undercut rock just downstream. I knocked off several dead branches from the pine tree to clear a hole large enough for the canoes and sat with a rope there on the tree while the rental boat came through. They hit it just right and negotiated the undercut rock okay. Then I brought the other boat through without mishap.
Here is where things happened quickly as I was distracted from the river. As we went past the undercut rock, I noticed the rental boat situated (upright but backwards) against the left bank where they had tried to eddy and just hit the bank instead. It was only a near spill and they were okay, but they were yelling at me saying they weren’t going any farther until we talked some more - having trouble handling the boat with all the weight from the gear in it. My boat still moving, I noticed a narrowing up ahead and then looked back at the rental boat on the side to tell them I would take this next chute then walk up and talk.
When I looked back at the river, it had made a slight turn to the left and then I saw it: another strainer, worse than the first and not passable, a 1’ diameter log about 6 inches out of the water lying completely across the only passage, a chute about 10 ft wide. I was about to enter it. There was no time to hold up - I looked to the right and saw a slight opening on the right side of the rock upon which the log was lodged. As I made for the right side, I noticed it was also blocked by strainer weeds. By then the boat was transverse in the channel and it was swept against the rock upon which one end of the strainer log was lodged. The boat tipped and we went under immediately. I struggled to stay upstream of the boat as it wedged hard against the rock. The gunnel of the boat came down and pushed me under and then I bumped my forehead, not too hard, on the rock and realized I was on my back, underwater, scraping my face on the rock that was now above me. I was then spit out around the left side of the rock and surfaced.
I immediately looked around for my two boys, the older one was to my right and was in a strong current, but he was already swimming to shore immediately as I taught him to do in case of a dump. My youngest son was nowhere to be seen. This scared me but I was extremely calm for some reason. I swam hard to get into the eddy behind the fateful rock, with a rough plan to get up on the rock, jettison my lifejacket, and begin diving for my youngest son. I took one more look around, however, and he popped up right in front of my eyes in the main current where I had come. We made eye contact immediately and he began yelling for me to save him. We all had lifejackets on but his was a small one and not holding him vertically very well. I got back in the main current and began to swim after him.
My middle son was nearing the bank by this time, saying “Don’t leave me, Dad” but I had to catch the youngest so I told him to grab a branch and crawl on shore and stay put till I came back to get him. He began crying that his head was hurting from a bump and for me not to leave, but I swam on to catch the younger son who by this time was some 20 yards downstream from me. He was swimming with his arms and I was yelling which way to swim to get him into slower water so I could catch up. I caught him about 100 yards downstream, set him on a rock on shore and told him to stay there until I came back. I then got out and ran back upstream to tell the rental boat not to try it. This run was worse than I anticipated because it was nothing but briars and rocks the size of my house. There were no banks to run along.
I reached the other boat in time - they were just getting ready to go. They began to get the rental boat out of the water then, so I went back to where the youngest son was, yelling at the middle son on the other side of the river to stay put. He was crying about his head and worried about some animal getting him, so he crawled out onto a rock in the river, asking me if I had a plan to get him. I said yes (slight lie here) to calm him, then went to get the youngest who was also crying. He stopped when I got back to him and I carried him through the briars and over the rocks to join the two in the rental boat. Then to get the middle son, I jumped in the rapid upstream from him, swam across to him. We then both jumped in with him holding on to me and swam back across through another rapid. We then hiked upstream to join the others.
Taking stock of our situation, we decided we couldn’t hike out of there that night (estimated a 6 hr hike at worst thru the briars) because it would be dark in a few hours (we guessed it was 4:30 or 5:00, a little hard to tell by the sun because of the steep bluffs along the river). We decided our chances were better if we waited till morning to hike out.
An inventory of our gear in the one dry boat showed we had 4 sleeping bags for the 5 of us, one 2-main pup tent, one nights food, a camp stove with fuel and wet matches, dry clothes for the adults, and a gallon of water and five cans of 7-up. We made makeshift dry clothes for the boys out of our clothes and their own (a sweatshirt upside down makes a good pair of long pants if you tie a rope around the waist - can even pee out of the neck hole). We set up the pup tent for the 3 boys and gave them 2 sleeping bags - we kept the other two for the 2 adults to sleep outside. Remaining camp gear, food, and clothes for the boys were in the submerged boat out of reach. We immediately realized we had limited liquids and dehydration would be our worst problem in an extended stay. It was going to be a clear cool night, but we had shelter in the bags and tent so exposure wouldn’t be a problem.
We later found dry matches in a doubled plastic bag with the food (thanks to Colleen, who had packed this part!). Overjoyed, we built a fire, lit the stove, boiled some water for washing (didn’t drink any), and cooked our one meal. We drank all the 7-ups for this meal, leaving about 3/4 gallon drinking water to hike out with the next day, plus some water from ice melting in the cooler.
I got up early the next morning and checked on my sunken boat. It couldn’t be seen after we dumped so I didn’t know if it would still be there. It was however, now, with about a foot along one end some 3 inches out of the water. The water was clearer now and the whole boat could be seen underwater. There was no chance of dislodging it - there were two logs across it and it was wedged under the rock. The water had receded about a foot overnight.
We left all the gear at the campsite and took the jug of water and the cooler of water and the first aid kit and headed out on what we estimated to be a 3 to 6 hour hike back through the woods (jungle) to our put-in bridge. This was our best bet because our good topo maps were in the wet boat and we didn’t know exactly where we were. We figured we were about 3 or 4 miles down river from the put-in based on a fast trip of about 1 hour. There were no trails in this remote area. We found the hiking much easier if we followed the drip line at the very base of the bluff instead of crashing through the dense undergrowth along the river.
After about an hour of this the boys were very tired. The bluff began to veer away from the river so we quit following it, not wanting to lose the river. (Bluff was about 200 yds from the river at this point). This turned out to be a good move because we discovered an old 4-wheel drive road going down the hill from a gap in the bluff to the river. We followed it in both directions for a while to see if any trails or roads came into it. Up the road away from the river we found it got to be a better and better road so we followed it in that direction. It led to a better road then to a highway where we eventually were led back to the put in car. This total hike was about an hour or two in the woods and about 3 hours on the road (5 miles on road - we checked later). It was 12:00 noon on Sunday when we made it back to the put-in and the car.
I organized a canoe rescue on Monday (next day) and we hiked back in on Tuesday (2 days later). This was me and 5 others (Merlynn Bender, Dan McBee, Steve Goldman, Walter Harper, and Dave McCullough). We went in well-equipped with ropes, come-alongs, and caribbeaners on pack frames. The water was another 2 ft lower now, 3 ft down from the day we dumped. We moved the log by hand and wrestled the boat off the rock without great effort. I popped a big dent out as best I could. Four of us floated the boats on down, loaded with all the gear, while the other two hiked back out to meet us at the takeout at Peters Fd bridge. The river had about 3 or so more miles and several strainers that weren’t bad (you could go under) at this stage but which would have been disastrous at the 3 ft higher stage on the day we dumped. So it was good that we stopped when we did.
Lessons I relearned from this adventure:
Canoe Pack Liner
URCHIN Portable Anchor
4-place Boat Trailer