Issac Ludwig, 27, died on August 26 while attempting to paddle the Road Prong of the Little Pigeon shortly after a heavy rain. The accomplished kayaker put in with Jared Seiler and James Donahue, all of them whitewater guides with many years of experience. The three had planned to paddle the lower section until just before its confluence with the West Prong at the Chimney Tops trail footbridge. Shortly after entering the river the party members recognized they were in danger and attempted to make the shore, but only Seiler and Donahue were able to catch eddies in the swollen current. Ludwig was forced to continue downstream.
Seiler and Donahue immediately began searching for Ludwig but their efforts were hampered by the difficult terrain, and they reported him missing at around 7:45 pm. Rescue teams included Rangers and the Gatlinburg Fire Department’s Swiftwater Rescue team, but none were able to find Ludwig that night. He was found the following morning by two kayakers not involved with the search effort, who spotted his body 1,000 feet downstream of the confluence of the Road Prong and the West Prong. The water level had fallen two feet overnight, and Ludwig’s body was found above the waterline, entangled in a tree. Recovery efforts took several hours.
Ludwig was originally from Ohio and had moved to Tennessee where he worked as the Marketing Manager for Rafting in the Smokies. He had a long involvement with river protection and cleanup and was an advocate of environmentally friendly boating products. He had competed at Gauley Fest last year and was well known within the boating community. His friends and coworkers recall an honest gentleman who loved life’s joys and he was well loved in return.
A memorial for him was held in Ohio on September 2, and his family asks that any gifts be made in the form of donations to American Whitewater or the Bethel Presbyterian Church. Any donations to American Whitewater in memory of Isaac Ludwig will be used for river stewardship efforts.