The day dawned with a promise of hope. Hope for six couples, all friends, who had planned a two-day white-water rafting excursion to share special events in their lives. A birthday, an engagement and wedding anniversaries. This gala gathering began in the morning on the shore of the Klickitat River in south-central Washington and was to end with another raft trip on the Salmon River the next day. But along the way, their hope turned into horrendous emotional pain when their plans tragically capsized.
For Gale and Eileen Marshall of Pendleton, Oregon, the date of May 20th, 2006 will forever be etched into their minds and hearts. A date marked with tragedy when one of their close friends, plus the owner and head guide of the rafting company, died on the Klickitat. Now almost five years later, the Marshalls continue to grieve, though Gale feels it’s time to talk about what happened.
“Since that time, neither Eileen or I have gone rafting again,” said Gale. “However, I want to get back on the river as part of my healing process. It’s important to remember those who lost their lives on the Klickitat River and share the facts of the accident.”
For it was an accident. But sometimes things go wrong in the wilderness even if well-prepared.
It was the group’s second time on the Klickitat River – one of the longest free-flowing rivers in Washington – using the same rafting company. Their first experience in 2002 was on calmer currents with a lower water level. In 2006, the water was running faster through the steep basalt canyons due to a higher snow melt that spring. Because of these conditions, the rafting guides – including owner Jeff who had 26 years experience – ran the river the day before with no problems.
Three rafts paddled off, the Marshalls in the lead, guided by Jeff and another guide-in-training. Halfway into their scenic journey, between 12:30 and 1:00 pm, a churning rapid to the right of a small kidney-shaped island was approached. Suddenly, the assistant guide called out “Sleeper”, spotting a submerged log against a boulder alongside the rapid. Despite the quick warning, their raft slammed into the sleeper and flipped, everyone thrown into a swirling funnel that sucked them into a log jam against the island. Following the same route into the rapid, the second raft flipped as well, with its occupants swept downstream.
The two guides in the third raft saw the dangerous situation and skirted the rapid. As guide Jason jumped into the water, swam to shore and ran to help those in the log jam, the other guide paddled to the first available spot to land and wait for everyone. At this point, the guide in the second raft was able to right the boat and rescued one woman from that raft, dropping her off at the landing site by the third raft.
This guide then saw another woman, who had a broken collar bone, struggling in the water and paddled back out to save her. Proceeding down the river to go for help, the floating body of Jeff was also spotted, retrieved and taken to land in the unsuccessful attempt to revive him. It was assumed he had died from a blow to the head, probably from an oar. This second raft carried the injured woman and Jeff’s body, leaving a total of 12 people on the landing site and on the island.
The five left behind in the log jam were fighting for their lives. Gale was the first into the pile of wooded debris, followed by Eileen who grasped a branch before being pinned to a log by the pounding water. “I noticed Eileen in front of me and grabbed her before she went under,” said Gale. “I also felt another person being sucked under my feet, but she made it through the jam and was rescued.”
Added Eileen, “Gale saved me. But there would have been more deaths if Jason hadn’t been on the jam, too, because none of us had any strength to pull ourselves out. He even saved one of our friends lying over a log with his face in the water.”
The frightening ordeal on the log jam lasted 20 to 30 minutes before everyone made it onto the island. Of their group, Gale and Eileen were the only couple together, the others having been separated in the water from their significant partners. For the next eight hours, they wouldn’t know the fate of their spouses.
“We did retrieve our raft from the log jam, but we didn’t have the oars,” said Gale. “So we were unable to go on down the river to join the others.”
While they waited in shock and uncertainty, the second raft made it to the fish hatchery around 4:30 pm, alerting the sheriff and fire departments along with the Coast Guard. (The initial report stated one death and six known survivors.) Before a Coast Guard helicopter took off to search the river for more survivors and take a head count of those still stranded, another plane appeared shortly after the accident, circling the island four times, than leaving. Though they didn’t know it until later, this plane had nothing to do with their deadly circumstances because it hadn’t been reported yet. Another rafting group had capsized earlier that day farther upstream with no fatalities.
As their own rescue operation was being organized, Gale and Eileen huddled on the beach with their friends, trying to stay warm – all were wearing wetsuits – when vultures appeared overhead. Eileen found bizarre humor in this. “I looked up and said ‘I’m not dead yet’.”
Finally, two rescue rafts arrived around 8:30 pm, in addition to a Coast Guard helicopter hovering above, to pick up everyone on the island and landing site.
Gale asked Eileen if she wanted to be lifted up and flown out. Eileen refused. “In hindsight I wish I had said yes. I was in shock at the time.”
In the darkness, Eileen had to force herself to step over a small mud puddle to even get into a raft. At the fish hatchery, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital as paramedics thought she was having a heart attack. For the rest of the group, their reunion with the others was bittersweet by news of their guide’s death and the missing status of friend Roland Schimmel. His body was found the next day.
“A lot happened that day and the sheriff said it was a miracle any of us who made it to the island survived,” Eileen said. “The accident will never leave me.”
Nor Gale. But his desire to raft again is to honor his memories of Roland and Jeff. “That day we did celebrate friendships and the wild beauty along the Klickitat River. However, life is about taking chances. There wasn’t negligence that day, just fast water and the surprise of a sleeper.”
Eileen won’t stop Gale from rafting, though she refuses to join him. “He can do it for both of us.”