Graves Creek, MT
June 7, 2012
Two friends, Joe and Sam, left Missoula at 0400 the morning of the 7th to begin the drive up to Graves Creek. They decided that the drive would take about 4 hours, placing them at the put-in by 0800. Joe, who had been down Graves Creek once before, said that even though the section they would be paddling was only 1 mile long, it would probably take 10 hours with scouting and setting safety. Right out of the gate, this put both friends in a hurried mind set.
Arriving at the take-out bridge, Joe and Sam jumped out of the car, excited to check the flows and get a first look at the creek. The creek was a silty blue color, and full to the banks; small bushes and willows along the shore were flooded by the creek. In short, the creek looked high. Sam mentioned this to Joe, who said that it was supposed to look like this. Sam, having never been to Graves Creek before, deferred to Joe’s judgment and the two friends proceeded to the put-in.
After a short hike to the creek from the road, Joe and Sam put on the creek and floated downstream through some class II riffles to a tight left hand bend in the creek. Arriving at the corner, Joe and Sam climbed out of their boats to scout the first rapid. The rapid consisted of two distinct sections. The first drop was a 15-foot waterfall preceded by a small ledge hole, with the main drop falling into a narrow crack, maybe 5 feet wide. Below this lay a small moving pool, followed by a multi-tiered slide that dropped another 40-50 feet and culminated in an 8-foot ledge. This slide had to be run on the left due to bad wood on the right. At the bottom of this slide was a small pool with a must make eddy on river right. Being in a hurried mindset, both friends made a quick scout of the rapid and deemed it “good to go”. Without taking the time to set safety, or look downstream of the mandatory eddy, both friends walked upstream and jumped in their boats. Sam went first, with Joe giving him a head start before following. Sam lined up the first ledge and boofed, but the current pushed him left, and he ended up off line on the main drop. Landing crooked in the crack, Sam flipped and went through the bottom hole, carping a role. Worried that he would run the slide upside down, and on the wrong side of the creek, Sam missed two more roles and swam. Luckily, he was able to grab his boat and paddle as they washed up on a mid-stream rock, and perched there until Joe arrived. After getting his gear back to shore, Sam climbed into his kayak.
Joe said he would run the next slide first, and wait at the bottom. Sam, brushing his swim off as a fluke, visualized his line down the slide and waited for Joe to blow his whistle from the bottom. Hearing the whistle, Sam peeled out the eddy, and headed into the slide. Everything went well on the slide and Sam’s nerves quickly calmed. Hitting the hole at the bottom, Sam did a back-ender out the hole, and flipped. Quickly rolling up, he realized that the split second delay had shot him past the mandatory eddy on river right. Below him lay a committing class V gorge that disappeared around a blind left corner. Having not scouted this gorge, Sam dropped in blind, hoping to find an eddy. The water levels had effectively erased all the calm water from the creek, and eddies were few and far between. Finally, after running more than half the gorge, Sam spotted a micro eddy on river right. Paddling hard, he pulled into the eddy. As soon as he was in the eddy, he realized that it was not in fact an eddy at all, but instead just slow moving water piling up on the upstream side of a submerged log. Sam quickly grabbed a bush on shore as his boat was pulled under the log, and pulled his spray skirt. The creek pulled Sam’s boat under the log immediately afterwards. Holding his paddle and the bush in his right, Sam tried to cling to his boat with his left hand, but to no avail. His boat was pulled downstream and out of sight. Joe arrived downstream at this moment, having run down the bank after Sam had disappeared from sight. Both friends walked downstream, hoping to find Sam’s boat. Just downstream, around the blind left corner, lay a river wide logjam comprised of maybe 15-20 logs. It was around this time that Joe remarked, “Wow, this is way higher than the last time I was in here”.
To make a long story short, Sam and Joe recovered Sam’s boat downstream of the logjam where it had somehow pinned in a large slide after miraculously making it through the logjam. Sam and Joe hiked back to the car through bear infested Alder trees, vowing to return someday with proper water flows.
Questions for Reflection:
- What was the first mistake that Joe and Sam made? Worst case scenario, if you run out of daylight while paddling a section of river, what could you do?
- What are some good indicators of high water? Is it safe to paddle flooded creeks?
- What should Joe and Sam have done while scouting the first rapid? Did they have a safety plan? Why is scouting important, especially in creeks with lots of wood?
- Did Sam have a back-up plan in case he missed the mandatory eddy?
- In the future, what can Joe and Sam do to become safer on the river?
“I really appreciate the swift water rescue operations and technician-level training WRI provided for Kennedy Jenks Consultants and the BNSF Railway Company emergency response personnel at Havre, MT and Guernsey, WY in 2010. The training classes were hands-on and greatly improved our river-safety skill levels. Several of my rafting and kayaking friends and I have also attended WRI swiftwater rescue technician classes on the Stillwater River this summer. As good as the training is, what really impressed me was when I called WRI late in the evening on 12 May, 2010 to respond to a BNSF train derailment on the Wind River, you and your staff responded quickly and provided our emergency response team with several swiftwater rescue technicians, a rescue raft, a jet boat, and valuable river safety oversight. We look forward to working with WRI again.”