Quick-thinking Kayakers Rescue Fellow Paddler Trapped Behind W. Va.’s Kanawha Falls


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Chalk one up for the camaraderie of kayakers.

In a story broken by Fayette County, West Va.’s WCHSTV.com, a Tennessee kayaker was rescued from behind a waterfall early Monday morning in Kanawha Falls after an expert kayaker helped with the search after it had been called off.

According to the report, which has blown up on FaceBook’s kayaking community, police officer W.W. Brogan said an empty kayak was reported just after 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the Kanawha Falls area. Deputies then found a vehicle belonging to Samuel Davis and called local police officers and the Fire Department to assist in a search. While wrapping up their unsuccessful search around 10 p.m., kayaker Corey Lilly saw a Facebook post about the man missing in Kanawha Falls and drove to the area to help. Lilly, a paddler for Pyranha, convinced officers to let he and his friends, Stephen Wright and Paul Griffin, continue to search for Davis. They paddled out and heard cries for help from Davis behind the waterfall.

“I paddled the falls into the eddy to try to make contact with him but it failed as he was too far behind the veil,” Lilly said on Facebook. “We then called in more whitewater folks to help lift him up and out because we knew we could not do it on our own and we only had one chance to do it. Once help arrived around midnight we extracted him vertically up and out. He was behind the veil for 8+ hours and hypothermic.” At 1 a.m., the volunteer kayakers were able to lower rope and extract Davis, who was suffering from the beginning stages of hyperthermia. Brogan said Lilly was a hero, and said they would not have been able to find him and rescue him if it wasn’t for his efforts, and the efforts of the other kayakers.

Lilly said it’s something that comes natural to those in the kayaking community and that the area has a lot of skilled kayakers who are ready to help whenever necessary. Earlier in the day, Davis was captured on drone video kayaking in the falls by a man named Brandon Richmond. Richmond shared the video with Eyewitness News.

FaceBook Post by Corey Lily

Sam Davis swam out of his boat around 6pm while paddling the High Flow channel at Kanawha Falls, WV by himself. I saw in the kayak West Virginia page (Facebook group) that a boat had been found and that it was from a solo paddler. Based on the photo, I knew exactly where he was so I rallied Stephen Wright and Paul Griffin to go with me around 10pm after. I did not make this effort until I heard the local search and rescue ended their efforts. We found him behind the curtain at High Flow on the river right pocket. I paddled the falls into the eddy to try to make contact with him but it failed as he was too far behind the veil. We then called in more whitewater folks to help lift him up and out because we knew we could not do it on our own and we only had one chance to do it. Once help arrived around midnight we extracted him vertically up and out. He was behind the veil for 8+ hours and hypothermic. He is ok now but I’m sure dealing with a whirlwind of emotions.

FaceBook post by Stephen Wright

A detailed description of the rescue effort at Kanawha last night: Corey Lilly has written up an excellent shorter synopsis, but I figured that more details on the process of the rescue might be appreciated. Early evening, I started seeing posts online about a boat seen floating below Kanawha Falls–for those who don’t know the area, this is just downstream of the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers near Gauley Bridge, WV. A boat below Kanawha could have come from a swimmer on either of these rivers or from someone running the falls. It wasn’t until 9:30 or 10:00 PM that I got the message from Corey that there was also an unattended boater’s van with TN plates in the Kanawha parking lot.

His message was trying to identify the now seemingly missing paddler. It was quickly discovered that the rescue squad had been there, and that a few other local boaters were there. Corey, Paul Griffin, and I loaded up in Paul’s truck and drove down to help-out. We knew of a spot that would be hard to access or see for non-kayaking rescue personnel, but would be the most likely spot for an accident on the falls: the river right undercut wall and “cave” next to the landing of the High Flow (main drop) falls at Kanawha. This place would be very easy to miss by rescue personnel. In all honesty, we were not hopeful that a person who had been missing for several hours, likely in the water, would be able to be rescued. We paddled out to the island with one other local boater next to the falls to begin looking–after coordinating phone contacts with two other friends/kayakers on shore. I was last to the island, and heard the other guys yelling that “He’s here! He’s alive!!!”.

He was somewhere behind the curtain of the falls, but we could clearly hear him yelling. We texted our contacts on shore to let them know that he was alive, and to let other kayakers, rafters, and the Rescue Squad know that we could use more help. The normal situation of this falls is a high-volume waterfall of around 15′ tall. The river right half of the outflow pushes into the undercut right wall, where a number of other kayakers have unintentionally gone and successfully swam out of.

There is a cave or crack in the river right upstream corner, where there is usually a calmer spot of approximately 20 square feet. Many people who swim out of the wall wash back upstream into that cave, where they can be rescued by a raft, or other kayakers. This is the spot where we hoped to find the missing kayaker. At the flows of last night (close to 9,000 cfs), there was water pouring over the entire lip all the way into the cave/crack. This completely blocked it from our line of sight, and it was from behind the curtain of water there that we could hear Sam yelling for help over the roar of the falls. With just 4 of us out there, we first tried to establish contact with Sam by tethered wading out to a high point of the lip of the falls, where we hoped to be able to look down and see him and talk with him.

After a few attempts, this proved to be impossible. We talked through rescue options: at these flows, it would be impossible to get a raft or motorized rescue inflatable to where he was–there was just WAY too much current flowing in the undercut wall. We desperately wanted to communicate with Sam to assess his situation, and assure him that we would get him out. We were sure that he was freaking out. The only options for evac would be either the 15-20 foot vertical extraction up the crack and onto the island, potentially sending down a kayak for him to paddle himself out (with the help of others), or waiting for the water to drop from the Gauley River upstream until a raft rescue would be possible.

Our best bet to communicate was determined to be a kayaker with a phone who could seal launch the calmest part of the falls into a very small “calmer” eddy next to the cave, or a kayaker running the smallest part of the falls which landed next to it. It was dark, and we only had two headlamps. Corey volunteered to run the drop, as he had run this line before at these flows. He would take his headlamp and phone, leaving me on shore with the other headlamp and phone to manage things from above. He was confident that he could safely handle the water here, having hundreds of runs under his belt, and organizing safety for a Kanawha Falls event here a few years ago. His goal was to make contact with Sam, without creating another victim. He successfully ran the falls into the eddy, but due the mist, wind, dark, swirly and powerful currents, and his eye contacts creating issues–he was prevented from seeing Sam, or communicating with him. He quickly peeled back out and paddled around the undercut wall to regroup. At this point, we had been there for about an hour, and there were many more rescue vehicles and others on shore.

Sam was still yelling and alive, but we had to assume that his situation was unstable due to hypothermia and the environment. We determined that the only option for rescue would be to lower a rope through the curtain of the falls into the crack, and pull him vertically out. We needed more than 4 of us to do this. Corey and I paddled back to shore to gather more volunteers, leaving Paul and another boater to maintain contact with Sam (which was limited to garbled yelling due to the roar of the river). On arrival, we found there there were nearly 30 vehicles there with a ton of rescue personnel and a few motorized inflatables.

Matt Jackson (our contact on shore), had also managed to mobilize the paddling community and many private rafters and kayakers had arrived. I told them all that we needed at least 10 bodies on the island to lift Sam up and out. Several rafters, kayakers, and a few rescue personnel came out quickly with us to attempt extraction. This was around midnight. Once we established our pulling zone and got organized, I set up our largest diameter spectra throwrope with a locking carabiner to lower through the falls into the crack for Sam. I attached my headlamp to the carabiner in the hopes that he’d see it. Had he not been able to see or grab the rope, we likely would have had to lower a rescuer on the rope–this would have added another level of complication and danger. Fortunately, Sam grabbed the rope almost immediately. We couldn’t talk to him over the roar of the river, so it took a number of tries pulling before he understood that we wanted to him clip in to the rope with his Rescue PFD.

On the 4th or 5th try of us pulling on the rope, he was clipped in and being lifted. As our group pulled on the rope over the edge of rock, we regularly heard yells from him, which we interpreted to mean that he was stuck on the rock wall. After a few stop-and-goes, I saw one arm and the top of his head come up through the curtain of falls in the corner of the crack. Slowly, he managed to climb, wiggle, and be pulled up and over the lip! WHAT A RELIEF!!!!

After cheering, hugging, and doing our best to quickly warm him up a little, a few rescuers helped him walk down to the powered rescue boat and he was taken back to shore and to an ambulance. Even from the island we could hear the roar of the crowd that had assembled on shore cheering for his safe return. By this time is was around 1:00 AM. I can no longer remember the names and faces of all the incredible people who came out to the island and lifted him to safety in the dark, but you are all heroes.

A few take-aways (meaning no criticism or disrespect to Sam–I’ve seen these things many times before now):

-Kanawha falls High Flow line is not a beginner waterfall. Anyone who runs this should know that they are risking going under the right wall and they need to have safety set up to deal with that. Unless the levels are butt low, a person who breaks a paddle, drops a paddle, misses a few rolls, or blows a skirt will likely go under the wall. I’ve run far harder whitewater and bigger drops all over the world, and I won’t mess around playing around with this drop. I take the consequences seriously every time I run it.

-As kayakers, we live or die as a group. In many situations, self-rescue is impossible. Had this not been a solo paddler, he would have likely been able to have been rescued almost immediately after the incident. As kayakers, we need to stop glorifying solo boating–even those who do it should stop talking about it.

-There are many places we go that Professional Rescue Personnel will not know how to access or be able to operate safely. These people are heroes, and want to help, but they simply don’t have the experience with whitewater of most kayakers or rafters. We need to be ready to help out or lead in whitewater rescues. We need to remember that a missing boater (even one who’s been missing in the water for 7 or more hours) may still be alive and waiting for rescue. Our best safety standards should involve local paddling experts and professional rescuers working together.

-The water at Kanawha falls comes from the New and Gauley. During Gauley release days, the water at Kanawha will rise dramatically late afternoon/early evening every day. The water yesterday likely rose from 6,500 cfs to 9,000 cfs as Sam was paddling.

Thanks to all who helped with this rescue. We’re all grateful that Sam is safe and OK. This was not Sam Davis the C1 paddler. Ours is a great community of helpful people. We live or die together in the power and beauty of the river. Take a SWR class if you haven’t already. You could save my life someday. Keep each other safe, and I hope to see you all on the river . Sorry if there are spelling or grammar errors, we’re all pretty wiped out today.


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