Rafters in shorts, flimsy boats and no life
jackets get rescued by a local kayaker.
Fire chief: I heard one of the guys say that
they had no idea there were falls here.
At 8:10pm, Sunday night, Mill City Fire Department was alerted from Linn County dispatch that multiple callers to 911 were reporting an emergency at Mill City Falls: boaters in the water, some unaccounted for.
When the emergency crew arrived they quickly learned the story. Seven young men in all had been floating the river in two separate rafts. All spilled out over the falls. One raft–a flimsy inflatable vinyl type, ripped apart on the rocks. The other had disappeared downstream. Three of the men were on the bank searching for their friends. Two of them were quickly found on the Linn County side and were helped to safety. Two more were still missing.
None of the the boaters were wearing life vests. “I heard one of the guy say they had no idea there were falls here,” said Chief Leland Ohrt of the MCFD. Swift water rescue teams from Jefferson, Scio, Albany and Linn County Search and Rescue teams arrived on the scene and scoured the river and banks with spot lights. The remaining two men were discovered to be stranded on the Marion County side of the river on the edge of a steep undercut bank that was covered in briars. They had their raft with them, but no paddles.
Rescue teams attempted to cross over from the accessible Linn County side, but the deep swift water and darkness forced them to retreat. The loose rocks on the bank of the Marion County side prevented any attempt for crews to rappel down to bring the men to safety. The river temperature was 44 degrees that night and all the men were dressed in shorts and cotton shirts. It had been over an hour since the crews were toned out, and the threat of hypothermia was imminent.
Tim Widmer of the Canyon Weekly was driving by on his way home and stopped to see what the commotion was about. Widmer, an American Canoe Association Level 4 whitewater kayak instructor and certified Wilderness First Aid responder, knew he had the skills to help. And he just happened to have boats and rescue gear stored at his partners kayak business near the bridges.
Widmer checked in with command and set downstream in a kayak with extra paddles and blankets and a flashlight in his teeth. He found the young men huddled together, shivering and frightened. One had a possible rib injury. Widmer was able to coax them into the raft and, dressed in appropriate cold water gear, he managed to pull the loaded vessel upstream to an eddy.
From there he hopped in and paddled the men to the boat ramp at Hammond Park. “They appeared to be in a state of shock,” said Widmer, who called the rescue effort “Not as bad as it first appeared, just dark.” According to Widmer, their boat “Looked like a lounging type you’d float on in a lake. It would fold in half if you hit a rock.”
In all, 4 victims were transported to Santiam Hospital for evaluation. “They were lucky it wasn’t a lot worse,” said Mill City Fire Chief Leland Ohrt.
Certain parts of the Packsaddle to Mill City section of the N. Santiam, including Spencers Hole and Mill City Falls are considered Class III water. Oregon state law indicates that: (a) A properly secured personal flotation device (PFD) must be worn by persons in a boat while navigating sections of river with a commonly accepted scale of river difficulty rated Class III or higher. (b) The personal flotation devices worn by boaters must: (A) Be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Type I, III, or V personal flotation device. (B) Not have a limitation or restriction in its approval that would prevent its use on whitewater rivers. (C) Not be an inflatable personal flotation device regardless of rating type.
“Only experienced boaters should run the N. Santiam. Pool toys and many other types of inflatable craft are not designed for rivers with all of their natural hydraulics.” says Ashley Massey, Public Information Officer for the Marine Board. “River currents will often carry watercraft directly into an obstruction, potentially puncturing the float toy and trap the occupants. The North Santiam and similar rivers are littered with punctured toys. Each one of them represents a close-call, and they don’t need to be.”
Kayak the Santiam is currently remodelling a building on Wall St. in Mill City and has plans to continue with the free life jacket loaner station kiosk in the near future. This will allow anyone planning on floating the river to be properly equipped with a PFD.