Thursday, March 23, 2017

Near tragic Grand River kayaking mishap illustrates importance of preparation

When four Northeast Ohio young men decided to float the Grand River in kayaks they soon discovered how potentially fool-hardy such an undertaking can be on the second day of spring.

The four men each saw their respective kayak capsize, plunging them all into the Grand River’s still-frigid waters on the cusp of sunset. And one of the four went unaccounted for more than three hours. That turn of events set off a search that involved five local first-response agencies along with a request for two helicopters to conduct night-time illuminated searches of the Grand River’s deep ravine maw.

And the experience helps highlight the dangers of trying to capture a river with a paddle when the stream has a nasty temperament brought about flooding from snow melt or rainfall, says the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Watercraft.

Engorged by snow-melt run-off from the numerous small tributaries that claw their way into the Grand River, the stream’s flow on March 21st was around 2,500 cubic feet per second; well above the day’s average of around 1,400 cubic feet per second.

Madison (Lake County) Fire District interim chief Terry Sapko said the victims set off at Ashtabula County Metro Parks’ Harpersfield Dam Park in Harpersfield Township. Their goal was to use the Grand River’s now-swift waters to carry them the roughly 8.5 miles to the intended take-out point at Lake Metroparks’ Hidden Valley Park in Madison Township.

The quartet only made approximately half-way to around County Line Road, Sopko said, before all of the kayakers ran into serious trouble. All of the kayaks flipped, spilling the paddlers into the stream. While three of them successfully made it to shore, their unnamed 23-year-old companion from Geneva Township was feared not so fortunate, Sopko said.

Complicating matters in terms of exposure to the elements, Sopko said also that the kayakers were minimally dressed for protection against the sub-freezing air temperature and near-freezing water temperature.

But at least all four young men were wearing PFDs, Sopko did say.

“The three paddlers called us to say that one of their members was unaccounted for,” Soko said.

The fire chief added that dispatch was informed of the incident around 7:30 p.m., which is within minutes of official sunset and made all the more dark by the steep narrowness of the Grand River’s gorge.

Soko said once the missing kayaker had made it to shore he climbed the river’s gorge and walked through the woods, all the time dripping wet and wearing very little in the way of clothing.

“He didn’t know where he was,” Sopko said.

Fortunately, Sopko said, the young man located a home from where he managed to contact his father via cell phone and who was at the first responders’ operation base at Hidden Valley Park.

Once the rescue party learned that the missing kayaker was safe the family insisted that he be taken to a local hospital for a thorough examination, Soko said.

As for the kayaks, the vessel that had held the once-missing paddler was seen scooting past Hidden Valley Park, rapidly being shuttled downstream by the Grand River’s fast current. It and the other three kayaks have not been recovered at press time, either, Sopko said.

All of which illustrates the risks associated with paddling any stream that is bloated from rain run-off or snow melt, says officials with the state’s Parks and Watercraft Division.

The agency says that between 2012 and 2016, 15 people have drowned in paddle-sports-related mishaps: nine fatalities associated with kayaks and six linked with canoes. That’s a goodly number too given that of the 505,524 pleasure craft vessels registered in Ohio last year fully 190,752 of them – or nearly 38 percent – were canoes and kayaks, including those owned by canoe liveries.

Compounding the tragedy, said also Mike, Miller, the boating law administrator for the Parks and Watercraft Division, was the fact of the 15 persons who died only one was wearing a personal floatation device.

Along with that statistic Miller noted too that seven were associated with operator inexperience or else operator inattention, three to passenger behavior, two associated with alcohol impairment, one filed under “dam/lock,” one with no PFD and the victim unable to swim, and one associated with reckless operation.

“Always remember to wear a life jacket, have a float plan and dress for falling into the water,” Miller said. “And make sure you do not paddle in water above your skills.”
Miller said that beginning this year his division will be teaming with the U.S. Coast Guard and the paddle-sports industry to include the 10-page, full-color “Be Safe, Be Smart, Have Fun – A Beginner’s Guide To Safer Paddling” brochure with each new kayak and canoe sold.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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