The Last Run of
Wild rivers in the Pacific Northwest flow for great stretches through wilderness, an almost undiscovered no man’s land, remotely hidden even from faraway hiking trails. Whitewater kayaking, rafting, and canoeing, while established, still doesn’t make itself known in much of the region because of this, with a great many rivers left only to those hardy, adventurous, and skilled enough to take them on.
Barbara Harper was without question an exceptional multi-sport athlete. After growing up out east, where she was crew on her high school rowing team, she moved to Oregon, and like many who enter this slice of the world do, fell in love with the great outdoors. In doing so, she volunteered for the Nature Conservancy, and was involved in numerous outdoor activities and sports, excelling in almost all of them. I met her at a bike race, where I was impressed not so much by her athletic prowess, as her positive attitude about just being there. I soon learned that Barb was very active in a variety of sports, not just cycling. She was a runner, an avid hiker, had done some mountain climbing, and was an experienced kayaker. Though she wasn’t a professional athlete, being active in almost every outdoor physical activity was in her blood. While I couldn’t connect a personal attraction to her beyond our tiny acquaintance, I admired her, even envied her you could say. Though I was participating in a good deal of the same outdoor activities she was, she seemed to have an intangible passion, joy, and open sharing of those feelings with others that was missing in my psyche.
While Washington is aptly named the Evergreen state, due to the plethora of conifers, moss and ferns that grow through much of the region, the least colorful time of year is late winter, when clouds block the sun for many days on end, and nothing is in bloom, leaving the landscape a rather drab dark green.
Weather cycles in the Pacific Northwest tend to be on a wet/dry annual pattern. It’s overcast, wet, almost constantly damp and cool in the winter, and surprisingly bone dry in deep summer. Ideally when running a river in a kayak, raft, or canoe, you want the water flow at a predictable, steady rate, with the outside ambient temperature reasonable. While one might picture being on a river on a hot, sunny day as idyllic, often by mid-summer rivers in the Pacific Northwest are low, exposing too many rocks, roots and tree limbs. This is why most whitewater activity in the area happens in spring, during times of decent weather.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to envision someone setting out on a whitewater kayak trip in late February, in a moderately remote area, to be quite experienced.
Twenty-three years ago this week, that was the case. Not only was Barb experienced, she had run this section before and was extremely well equipped, wearing a full dry suit, helmet and personal flotation device or PFD, (life preserver) for safety, she was with a group of expert level peers, with water safety rescue training, and several years’ experience themselves.
There is a class rating from I to VI in whitewater. Class I being a simple flowing stream, II something with a few rapids, and more in each class, all the way up to V, which is extensive rapids, and potential danger, with VI being reserved for the unpredictable, uneven waters not possible to navigate.
The greatest whitewater I have ever run is class IV, I can’t say that it scared me, but it was in a raft with several other people who knew what they were doing better than I did. I wore a wetsuit, helmet, PFD, and though the water was frigid, the ambient temperature was warm. Despite having been in a kayak a few times in my life, there is no way I would have kayaked this same class IV river. Barb had plenty of experience kayaking at this level of class IV, and had been down at least one class V rapid.
The East Fork of the Lewis River tapers off the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington. The streams here aren’t as wild as they are deeper in the national forest itself, but still meander through very quiet expanses, flowing around and between rural trees and dirt roads, trails, or inaccessible areas. The section where Barb’s group aimed to run was a grade III, well within the team’s ability, with a few tricky spots to be cautious of.
After setting off in what would have been cool, misty conditions, nothing really would have stood out to the team. The water flow was slightly above average for that time, and despite the water temperature likely being just over freezing, it wasn’t stormy, and while breezy, nothing that would affect the river’s flow.
Starting out on a tributary named Rock Creek, not known much for whitewater activity in any season, the group encountered more than a few obstacles early on, from river-wide log jams, to a downed rusty cable hanging from a long-ago abandoned footbridge. Most of these forced the group to portage, or get out of the water and carry their kayaks around the obstacle, and scouting the river downstream. More than anything, this is viewed as a necessary nuisance in whitewater kayaking, though I could see how it might have grated on the team a bit more than normal, when going out of your way on a cool winter day early in the season, eager to get out and face the challenge of being on the water itself, not trudging around it, analyzing it.
Part of any whitewater activity, just like mountaineering, back-country skiing, or almost any similar sport, any athlete will tell you, is conquering fear, not just avoiding it. You take on challenges knowing you may be a little scared, and having to deal with it. There will be obstacles and challenges that mother nature will throw at you that no scouting and planning can fully prepare you for. You accept this as part of the adventure, and seek to get to a level in your head where you face something and know if don’t execute what needs to be done, your worst fears will become your reality. That’s the crux of the draw of such challenging circumstances. You literally have your own destiny in your own hands. Choosing to seek this crucible, meet it, and pass it, it becomes a measure of growth, an imperceptible, but self-aware meaning to you inside, in your soul.
Following its confluence with Rock Creek, East Lewis River meanders a few more miles before a portage would be needed downstream at Moulton Falls, where the team planned to exit for the day. However, upstream from Moulton is a rapid named Naked Falls, which is more of a cascading section than a plunging waterfall. This may have been on the team’s mind as they worked their way through the waters above.
About a mile upstream from Naked Falls, the team stopped at an eddy – an open shallow area in the river, to scout a short class III section where a log jutted right out of the middle of the river, almost straight up, tilting slightly upstream at a curious angle. The team observed the river, and collectively believed moving to the right of the log was the safest route to take, with plenty of room to get by providing they were assertive.
The first kayaker left the eddy, went through, and with some quick paddling was able to clear the log without issue. A second person followed, and replicated the effort. A third kayaker departed the eddy, and found himself pushed a bit to the left by the water’s flow. He temporarily contemplated going to the left of the log, before aggressively paddling to the right, clearing the hazard. Next, was Barb.
Nobody wants to get out of the kayak. Not just to get out and portage, but to be forced to do what’s called a wet exit – pushing yourself out of the kayak and ditching it right in the middle of the river. Not so much because it’s dangerous, but because it’s almost like giving in; you have to eat just a little pride. Experienced people aren’t going to harangue someone for doing so when they need to, but in the back of your mind you know it’s a pain in the ass that takes time to deal with afterwards, as you, or often someone else, has to make sure you don’t lose the kayak down the river, plus the paddle, and anything else you drop or falls off you. Adding to this, despite wearing a dry suit, the freezing cold water on your face is an irritating reminder if you do take a dip. So, you don’t want to do a wet exit unless you have to.
With that in mind, the wisest way to scout a rapid or sketchy section is to not only evaluate the hazard, but take a look downstream to see what’s next. What may be most deceptive is to see flat, even water. Not because of hidden hazards, but because you might brush it off, or forget about it. It gets pushed so far back in your mind, so common, so mentally eclipsed by the primary hazard, that you forget it’s a safe place you can swim to and easily get rescued from, in case you have to wet exit.
When Barb left the eddy she initially took the same line as the others, but just like the previous kayaker, found herself pushed a bit to the left, and hesitating about which way to go around the log before picking up paddling again. But the precious seconds she hesitated were too long before she started paddling hard to the right, she didn’t clear the log, and hit it broadside, right across the cockpit of the kayak.
Being an often competitive athlete, in the back of Barb’s mind her initial thought must have been to fight her way out of the situation, and she was known to hate having to exit the kayak. But as the kayak got quickly tossed in the fast moving water, she lost the paddle, and instead of exiting, grabbed the log itself with both arms, holding on as best she could, as the fear she sought to overcome by taking on such a challenge, became reality.
The kayak quickly bobbed up and down a few times in and out of the water, before dipping under, nose first, completely submerged, with Barb still inside.
The members of her team saw what happened, and rapidly went into action to reach and rescue her. But they quickly realized they were up against a fierce challenge as the swift, cold water, even with all their skill, fought them hard. One of the team members with extensive experience managed to get to where Barb was last seen with a rope others were tying up on shore, but despite a valiant attempt, he could not seem to attach a line to her kayak, or her body, under the rough water. After a few minutes of this struggle, the water ripped Barb’s PFD off, then her helmet, jettisoning both downstream. The team still fought hard to get her out as the seconds, then minutes ticked way.
After 40 minutes of struggle by more than one rescuer unable to reach her, and no chance of survival, with darkness approaching the team faced what must have been a gut wrenching decision, and opted to get themselves safely home, leaving her body there, alone.
Three days after the accident, Barb’s body was finally pulled from the river by a team who set up a full roped traverse across the river, and used a gas powered winch to move the log itself that had been trapping her body. Only then was it truly apparent that it didn’t matter how strong she was, how skilled those around her were, there was nothing they could do once she went under.
In the following days a friend of mine named Jeff who knew Barb from the Nature Conservancy, and was himself an experienced canoeist, came up to me, “Did you hear about Barb Harper?” Unaware of anything, I must have had a blank look on my face. “She drowned in a kayak accident on the Lewis River.”
Any look or feeling I had at that moment quickly turned to shock and disbelief, “What??”
Despite barely knowing her, it was more a reaction of incredulity than my heart sinking. It seemed unfathomable, cruel.
The following weekend Barb’s death came up at a local bike ride, and a friend named Brad tried to shed positive light on it, by saying she died doing what she loved. That didn’t make me feel any better, and did little more than cloud my feelings of shock. All I could utter in return was a meek, “I guess.”
As the years, and decades went by, I grew to detest that oft-repeated phrase when someone is killed in an accident like this. That they died doing what they love. When leading a climb high up on an unnamed mountain in the St. Elias Range, I felt a very large shelf of seemingly stable ice crack beneath me, then move under my foot, before settling, and my heart skipped a beat, I didn’t later reflect it would be okay if I died then, as I was doing what I loved. When I faced a quick squall sea kayaking in the Bahamas and reached shored just before it hit, I didn’t think it would be okay if I had been swept out to sea and vanished, because I was doing what I loved. The flip side of this of course, implies that no one wants to spend their entire life in total safety, then at an advanced age die of some horrible disease, while wishing you had lived your life a little more. But that’s a false dilemma, we should be able to live our lives, and live them to the fullest. Certainly if we’re doing it within our perceived limits.
I can’t blame Brad for his comment, he was coping with it the best way he could. But as time went on I concluded this statement actually gives us comfort in saying it. It does nothing for those who are gone.
When I look back now on the last few decades of my life, all the places I have explored, the adventures I have taken, I can’t help but wonder what things Barb would have done, and loved doing, what she may have missed, if in that blink of an eye she hadn’t hesitated when leaving the eddy, or had done a wet exit when she hit the log, or had just gone for a hike on that fateful day. I do so perhaps not as a curiosity for her, who is gone, but as a measure of my own life, giving me comfort perhaps pondering it, making me realize how grateful I am to be alive.