Episode on the San Juan River, September 8, 2012

Title: Episode on the San Juan River, September 8, 2012

Author: Don Rasmussen, Geologist

Publication: The Outcrop, November 2012, p. 33-35

For the Rocky Mountain Section of American Association of Petroleum Geologists (RMS-AAPG) meeting in Grand Junction during early September 2012, I led a geology field trip into southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado for twenty-two geoscientists on the Paradox Basin & Mexican Hat Float Trip (Sept. 7-9). Two of the days were on the road in a coach bus and we did an all-day float on the San Juan River between Bluff and Mexican Hat on Saturday the 8th (with Gene Stevenson as the co-leader on the river). Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff provided three rafts, each with a river guide who ran their respective raft.

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Photograph by John Humphrey (Yates Petroleum) showing our raft as it was approaching the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel on the Navajo Sandstone. The San Juan River looks deep but actually is choked with gravel and sand, and becomes rather shallow when the water flow is below 1000 cfps. The river guides have to carefully pick their way down the river. Note the overhanging Russian olive trees along the cutbank of the San Juan River. The accident occurred just downstream from here.

During the float trip, with water flow below 600 cfps, the propeller on our outboard motor had been dragging bottom on rocks and gravel due to the low water and lost power resulting in our raft getting swept into the fast current along the cutbank where there were lots of overhanging Russian olive trees and protruding cottonwood tree roots. This was just downstream from Butler Wash where all three rafts last gathered to view the petroglyphs on the Navajo Sandstone cliff along the river, and along a stretch where the river curved into a cutbank and trees were falling into the river. When we needed power to navigate around the trees, our raft’s motor quit working forcing, us to be carried out-of-control by the current. We traveled under the vegetation along the cutbank for a short distance while the other two rafts ahead were going around a bend about 50 yards downstream. Fortunately, someone looked back upstream and saw us spin toward the bank and stop behind tree branches where we were perpendicular to the current. We were getting scratched by the thorny Russian olive branches and had to duck down into the raft. Jessica, our raft guide, restarted the motor and kept gunning it trying to get us out, but without any luck. I suspect the propeller was probably not working at that point after hitting rocks and gravel upstream. The raft was snagged by the overhanging and partially submerged Russian olive branches and long cottonwood roots protruding from the bank. One root was about 4-5 inches in diameter and 10-15 feet long and hit the raft above the left pontoon and then moved up to waist high where three of us were seated on an “ice-chest bench” in the front part of the raft. Most of the pressure was against Noel Waechter who sat on the left side and Amy McKay who sat between Noel and me. I was on the right side holding firm onto a cross-bar in the raft while they were being shoved my way.

As the strong current kept pushing us against the long root, Amy ducked down into the front part of the raft. When Noel was bending forward to duck under the root and onto the floor of the raft, he warned me that it was “spring-loaded”. All of sudden the root sprung loose over Noel’s back and catapulted me into the river and under water. It happened so fast – one instant I was listening to Noel’s warning and the next instant I was looking up through the murky water at the pontoon of the raft above me. When I came up to the surface with a mouth full of water, I was at the side of the raft and fortunately able to quickly grab hold of the plastic rope along the length of the pontoon, otherwise I would have been swept under the raft and into the brush and roots where I probably would have drowned. We had now floated beyond the protruding root as it was not in view, but we were still mostly under the overhanging trees. The raft was now hung up by the branches and roots and was not moving downstream. The raft was tipping my way and I feared that I would be pulled under by the tipping raft and caught in the brush or forced into the propeller. The propeller might not have been turning, but I could clearly hear that the outboard motor was still running. The current was so strong that my lower body and legs were forced straight underneath the raft. I could feel roots and branches underwater against my legs.

Most of the people on the raft rushed to the high side to keep it from flipping while Amy, came to my rescue and yanked me up by my life jacket, enough to keep my head above water. In the many seconds before then, my head was in and out of the water and I was catching breaths when I could. Amy anchored herself in the bottom of the raft, which I learned later was partially flooded with water, and held on to my life jacket with both hands as best she could – it was enough to keep my head out of the water and me from being swept under the raft (I later saw that Amy suffered a big welt and cuts on her arm and learned Noel also had bruises). I managed to get a slightly higher hold with my left hand on a strap on a water container; but then Jessica tried to loosen the strap so they could have better access to me, and make a rescue. Once the strap was loosened, I slipped further back into the river, my head underwater again. After I bobbed up, I yelled for her to stop; and she re-tightened the strap on the container and it pulled me back up a little higher. Two or three of our shipmates came to help Amy who was still holding onto my life jacket, but that only caused the raft to dip further into the river, with me fighting again to keep my head above the water. They had to return to the high side of the raft. Had the raft flipped, we all might have drowned.

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Photograph by Denise Stone (Rose and Associates) downstream at a stop to view the Mule Ear Diatreme (an ancient violent volcanic eruption). Standing in front is my heroine Amy McKay (Samson Resources). I am resting an arm on the water container and my old friend Noel Waechter (mostly retired) is sitting next to me. Others on our raft are Rob Swartwout (Patara Oil & Gas), Ben Funderburk (Forest Oil), Paul Lillis (USGS – behind Rob), and Bailey Beitscher (Cimarex – way in back). Jessica, on left with cap, was our raft guide. I am mostly dry with my boots still filled with water. Note the rope on the pontoon and the blue strap on the water container – I clung from these while in the water, although Amy kept me from slipping under the raft in the fast current and my head out of the water by pulling me up by my life jacket.

By now, water was hitting the pontoon and washing back into my face, but Amy’s strong hold kept me up enough that I was still able to get air when I turned my head to the side. People kept talking to me but I do not remember what they said except their asking several times if I was okay, and I do not remember if I replied anything rational. I tried to stand up a couple times in the rushing water but when I barely touched bottom the gravel under my feet was immediately washed away. I considered trying to make my way to the back of the raft, but it meant leaving Amy’s strong hold, and I could see the access way along the low pontoon would be too dangerous. I then heard Jessica blow a loud whistle, the river signal for help, to alert the other two rafts, who had arrived on the river next to where we were stuck under the trees. Denise Stone was the first to see me in the water. I could hear Gene and Marcus Buck (the senior raft guide) yelling instructions, which caused me even more distress due to the frantic nature of their yelling, yet I knew my rescue would happen soon. Although we were caught under the overhanging trees, Gene was able to get a bow line tied to our raft and then Marcus gunned his motor to pull our raft back into the river and to shallow water. When I was able to touch bottom, Amy let loose of my life jacket and three of our shipmates pulled me back into the raft.

This whole episode took several minutes from the time we first went into the bank to when we were rescued. I was not hurt other than a sore right shoulder and some black-and-blue marks on my upper left arm and right side of my belly which I noticed the next day. When safe on the raft, I was shaking but knew that I would be okay. The flotation pads in the front of my life jacket kept me from really getting whapped when the spring-loaded root hit me hard across my chest. It could have knocked the breath out of me, broken my ribs, or ruptured my heart had the fast moving root hit directly against my chest. It also could have hit me in the neck or face, causing major injuries, while throwing me into the river. After Jessica applied antibiotic solution to the cuts and bruise on Amy’s left arm, we got reorganized in the raft and resumed the float down the river with Jessica using oars and a couple guys bailing water from the raft.

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Photograph from John Humphrey (Yates Petroleum) of the participants on the RMS-AAPG Paradox Basin & Mexican Hat Float Trip on September 8, 2012 – inside Raplee Anticline at Eight-Foot Rapids on the San Juan River (Navajo Nation) between Bluff and Mexican Hat.

We stopped briefly to hear Gene describe the Mule Ear Diatreme, and about 20 minutes later the three rafts made a longer stop for people to step onto the river bank, regain their composure, and finish bailing water out of our raft. From here we would be able to continue the geological trip in the deep canyon, but the motor on Jessica’s raft was totally useless and was pulled into the raft. She now had to row the raft (through the rapids) or have her raft strapped to the one guided by Marcus which had enough power to move both rafts down smoother parts of the river. At the stop I moved to the third raft to join other geologists as they had been hearing little narrative about the geology in the canyon because of the long distance between rafts while negotiating through the shallow stretches. The third raft was operated by Greg, and Gene provided narrative to those in the other two rafts when they were strapped together. Other than being totally wet (it was hot and dry so I was drying fast), I was able to help Gene lead the remaining parts of the float trip. Unfortunately, later hikes to fantastic exposures along the river had to be cut short because of the time lost with the accident (about 1 hour late for our lunch stop).

The camera around my neck got totally soaked, but I did not lose it or my glasses, pants or hat during the ordeal. Amy lost her camera to the water in the bottom of the raft while coming to my aid. What an experience. It could have easily gone the wrong way and I would not be writing about this episode. Amy McKay saved my life by her quick action and strength which kept my head out of water and prevented me from being swept under the raft. She never released her strong hold until we reached shallow water and I was able to stand up. The other people on the raft played an important part by keeping it from flipping which would have placed all of us in danger of drowning under the raft or under the overhanging trees. It was the extensive knowledge and experience of Gene and Marcus, from their numerous prior trips on the San Juan River, which allowed a successful rescue of our raft and getting us to safety. When leading field trips I always worry about the welfare of others on the trip, but never expected something like this to ever happen to me. I am grateful for the actions of several people on this trip, especially Amy, and am lucky to still be alive.

Some parts of this story were from many others on the field trip who witnessed this episode and helped with my rescue and the rescue of my shipmates and our guide. I would especially like to thank Amy McKay, Noel Waechter, Paul Lillis, Gene Stevenson, and Denise Stone who clarified many of the horrific details.