Monday, January 3, 2011

Calamity on Sweet Creek (1.1.11)

Before I get into story mode I must mention that we have done numerous trips to Sweet Creek and had little or no issues; this trip would be different. My purpose for documenting this day is more of a reminder to myself (and anyone else who cares to use it as such) that complacency can be dangerous, and sometimes things just go wrong, especially when boating class V water.

Saturday morning started just like any other during the winter season, plans to go boating. The only differences were that it was the first day of 2011 and I was feeling a little bit under the weather. A big storm had hit our area earlier in the week, sending water levels sky high, however unfortunately most everything had dropped out by the weekend and we were left with only a few options. Our two staple winter runs in Eugene have become The Miracle Mile and Sweet Creek, and those were the two we had to choose from. Since the temperatures were relatively cold, we chose Sweet since it would be the warmer of the two.

After some phone planning (while traveling back home to Eugene from Boston), we set a meeting time of 11am just west of Eugene and on the way to Sweet Creek. We chose a later start so people would have more time to recuperate from celebrating New Years the night before. I actually went to bed around 10pm and missed the dropping of the ball, since once again I wasn't feeling well and I had been traveling all day. By Saturday morning, we had a surprisingly large group (8 kayakers) and went in two cars leaving about an hour apart from each other.

Just like every other time at Sweet, the exact level was still unknown. Once we got there and hiked up a bit it became clear that we would have a nice medium flow, and perfect for those that would be making their first time down the run. After a quick scout of all the drops, we hiked back down, geared up, and carried our boats back up the trail to put on.

The best gauge to judge what Sweet Creek would be at.
We had ~9' a few days after a 10' spike in the gauge.

Hiking up the convenient trail to the put-in

By the time I reached the put-in, Roman was already getting into his boat. Since we usually make runs solo or with one or two others, I decided to work the camera and set safety on the first drop. Since some of the others were downstream I had assumed that safety was also set on a couple of the other drops; this would be the first blunder, and moment of complacency of the trip. After taking some shots and watching him clean the first couple drops, I collected my gear and started down the trail to see if I could catch the end of his run. While doing so, one of the other boaters ran up to me and asked if I had my rope. I quickly ran past him to where I could see Roman clawing (literally) his own way out of the bottom hole by shimming down the left wall. His boat and paddle had ended up in the eddy just below the hole, which allowed him to gather his own gear once he had reached safe ground. There was really no excuse for not having proper safety set or not having throw bags in hand, as the episode that followed the swim could have been easily avoided. A little jaded by this lack of preparedness we would have people properly staged the next time...

The author assumes his usual position
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Roman off to a good start on the first tier of #1...

...and the second tier of #1

Roman lines up for #2, which is complicated
by the new suspended log in the way.

Roman dropping clean over #2

Roman claws his own way out of the hole, with
no one around to help or unprepared to do so...
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

After watching one more boater go down (having super clean lines), I saddled up for my first run. I was feeling good and loose as I peeled out of the eddy and ran the first two drops with good lines on both. I pulled into a small eddy and took a quick breath before dropping into the crux section. I quickly came over the third drop (missing a stroke) and landed in the boiling punchbowl below. Next, I paddled out of the punchbowl along the river left wall and dropped down the slide section. Unfortunately, I didn't line-up properly and came down the slide a couple feet right of where I needed to be. Since it's shallow I had no way of getting back on line and just had to point it straight and give'r. By the time I reached drop #4 I was way too far right and came off the drop with a (unintentional) right angle. As I landed, my boat stopped abruptly and water started to pile up and over the back of my head. I was now in one of the most feared positions a boater can be in, a vertical pin with a small air pocket to breathe from. I took a quick moment to analyze the situation, and felt remarkably calm. My first effort was to wiggle back and forth aggressively to try and free the boat, which did nothing. I was wary of popping my skirt since I knew that it could actually make things worse, so I thought a bit more on what to do. It's ironic, I had told my buddy Shawn, who was setting safety at this exact spot that I wasn't worried there and preferred him to set safety at one of the earlier drops. Knowing this and not knowing if anyone else was close, I planned for evacuation.

The author in between a rock and a hard place on #4
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Luckily I had an air pocket to breathe from...
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Before pulling my skirt, I felt the boat starting to fold behind me. I set-up by digging my one heel into the front pillar ready to spring out of the boat as quickly as possible since my actions could collapse the boat around me. While still holding my paddle in one hand, I grabbed the loop with other one, counted to three, pulled, and kicked out of the boat only getting hung up for a brief moment. I was free, but still had to swim through the drop with the hole that held Roman forcing him to self rescue (described above). Not wanting to face the gut of the hole and possibly some extended down time, I did what I could to scramble on to the shallow slide to the right. I was actually able to get where I needed to prevent further beat-down and dropped into the downstream edge of the hole. From here I was able to paddle (boatless) to an eddy on the right and drag myself to shore. Happy to be out of my precarious situation I looked up to see some hikers staring at me in horror.

Clawing my way onto the shallow shelf
to avoid the gut of the hole at #5
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Up S#$t Creek without a boat...
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

At this point I also saw that Shawn and Roman were trying to figure out where my boat had gone. As I ran up to meet them Shawn explained that he had felt around below the surface (with water up to his shoulder) and couldn't feel the boat. After about five minutes from when I was pinned, the boat popped up, folded and obviously quite damaged. The boat then broached against the left bank where Jay was able to get a rope onto one of the security loops. Once the line was on, Roman and Shawn roped the boat back to river right for further inspection. Basically the boat folded just behind the cockpit combing, splitting the plastic wide open on one side. This would be the last run for my faithful craft since it had been highly compromised and beyond repair. I took a few moments to reflect on what had happened and how I could have avoided the situation, aside from not screwing up the line. After these deep thoughts and since I didn't have a usable boat, I grabbed my camera and resigned to being photographer and bag boy.

Shawn and Roman looking for my pinned boat
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Jay clips onto my boat on the opposite shore,
about five minutes after being pinned. Some
of the damage is apparent at this point.
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Roman and Shawn drag my boat back to river right

Closer inspection of the damage

Sweet Creek - Vertical Pin from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

About this time, the other half of our crew showed up and decided they were going to hike up a bit further to warm up on the stuff upstream. While doing this, some of the others in our first group ran additional laps without issue. Soon enough the others joined us at the gorge and formed up in their small group to start picking off the drops one by one. They all made quick work of drop #1 and pulled into the eddy above the next. At this point I was on the walkway directly above #2 (the auto boof ledge) looking down and ready with a bag to drop to anyone that got pulled into the cave behind the curtain. Both Aaron and Joni sailed off the lip and landed nicely below. I signaled the next boater that the coast was clear as he got ready to drop in. As he avoided the suspended tree in the lead-in he got bumbled by a couple of rocks and ended up going over the drop essentially sideways. As soon as he landed he was immediately pulled behind the veil and out of sight. I quickly ripped my throw bag from my waist and prepared to fire it into him. Luckily he was able to paddle out under his own power and join the others in the eddy. After breathing a sigh of relief I motioned to Bobby (the last paddler) that all was clear. With a somewhat puzzled look he lined up the drop and came off the falls nicely and drove into the now crowded eddy. As I was getting ready to head down and set safety at the drops below, I got the signal that their crew was going to get out and either scout or portage the crux section.

Drop #2, the auto-boof with the cave behind the falls

I was now itching to do another lap, and after getting the thumbs up from Roman that I could borrow his boat to do so, I prepared myself to drop in again. The decision to go again after my calamity from the first lap was a personal one that I felt I needed to do. Without getting too deep, I just felt I needed to get back on the horse and shake it off. At the same time, I didn't want to make light of the situation I was in, therefore I reminded myself that this was also about working for my lines and making it happen. After adjusting the bulkhead to accommodate my longer legs I hiked the boat back to the put-in where a couple of others were putting on. Lofty led us off and we quickly fired off the first two drops. From here we eddied out for a bit to give some space. I pulled out second and came off #3 where I needed to and rested once again in the swirly eddy below. This time I made sure to stay left as I exited the punchbowl. I was now facing #4 where I had gotten pinned on the previous lap. On the way down the slide I got bumped slightly by a shallow rock and came off the drop somewhat sideways but in the safety zone. As I landed I was spun around against the left wall where I quickly eddy turned back into the main current and dropped off #5, finishing up the crux section. I was pretty happy that I was able to remain focused and do what I needed to, even with the previous event in the back of my mind.

The author drops over #3 on the second lap
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

The author lines up a little better for #4,
where I was previously pinned.
(Photo by Yuliya Drobyshevska)

Although I was content and done running laps, the day's adventure would not end here. In the process of more runs by the others, Bobby also got sucked behind the falls on #2 and had to swim out, which he had to go deep to do. It took about 10 minutes for his boat to finally come out where it was corralled in the eddy below. We also had one more swim in the hole at #5, before continuing downstream to finish up the day on the last three drops. All of these went fine except for smashing my elbow while landing on #6. This gave me a nice little cut, even through my elbow pad!

Once we got back to the cars we reflected on the day's events and couldn't believe all the carnage we had been dealt, and everyone was pretty humbled by the experience. You can certainly blame some of the issues on complacency and lack of preparedness (i.e. setting safety), but once again sometimes bad shit just happens, especially in sports such as this one. To me it's all about what you can learn from days like this one, and hopefully limit your exposure to such accidents in the future. To remind myself, here are some (not all) of the takeaways that I have from the day:

1. Know when you need to setup safety and don't let complacency or the extra effort persuade you from doing so.

2. Before you drop into a run you think may need safety don't do so before you know it's set.

3. Once people are on the water make sure you have a throw bag on you. Two good ways to ensure this are with either a waist mounted rope, or one that fits into the chest of your life jacket.

4. Make sure your group knows how to work together to identify hazards, set safety, and deal with a rescue situation. Good group dynamics and communication are key.

5. Stay focused. Just because you've cleaned a line multiple times doesn't mean you won't slip up.

6. Whitewater kayaking has inherent danger, but that's one of the elements that drives our excitement and keeps us coming back for more. Some people will never understand this, but as whitewater enthusiasts, it's who we are.

Here are some other photos I took throughout the day during better runs:

Aaron sets safety at that nasty hole on #5

Roman staged to give the signal that a boater is coming

Jay grabs for a boof on #2

Jay drops into the lead-in to #3

Jay drops over on #3

Roman dropping into #3

Roman lines up #4 perfectly

Jay with a solid line off of #4

Lofty at #4

Jay goes for the far left line at #5

Aaron dropping over #5

Additional Info:
Another trip report I did for Sweet Creek can be found here.

Some videos I put together over the years:

POV - Kayaking Sweet Creek from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

Sweet Creek - 2 laps on the crux section from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

Sweet Creek from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.


  1. Oof. Sounds like a rough day. Glad you made it out okay and keep the trip reports coming.
    -Brad from

  2. you are right ; weird how you can be calm in a I happen to get ver pin looking up river on a drop and once I found out I could push up with my hands on rear deck and get air above the rushing water ; Iwas able to work things out . As you; the boat had started to fold ; but did not know this till after I bail.
    Glad everthing work out for you ; Happy New Year Boating