Close Call on Laurel Run

River of the month #4

author: Pat Reilly
date: July 1998

In light of Kris Wolpert’s safety demonstration at the last club meeting (and due to the fact that I don’t have this month’s river ready yet), I’m submitting a write-up of an ugly situation that occurred earlier this year. Watching Kris and club members do his strainer awareness exercise with the PVC pipe last Wednesday in the Narrows reminded me only too well of how we must all be constantly aware of the dangers of strainers.

Strainers, the one constant when running small creeks. How many strainers are too many? I once had a rule of thumb - carrying more than 1 strainer per mile is too many. More than that and you ‘officially’ aren’t having fun. But as I continued to explore tiny creeks that rule was slowly forgotten. On a recent trip down the headwaters of Codorus I carried 17 times in 10 miles but still considered the run worthwhile. Then four of us had 7 carries in just 3 miles on a steep Dauphin County creek and considered it a great trip. Obstacles are to be expected when exploring steep creeks, especially in heavily wooded areas. As we rehashed the Dauphin County trip over beverages in a Halifax bar, there was more talk about the imaginative ways that we got over, under, around and through strainers than about the actual whitewater. I have often observed that the most challenging aspect of many a whitewater trip was the strainers, requiring more precision and skill than the water. And usually with greater consequences for a mistake.

And did you ever notice that the more beautiful a stretch of creek, the more strainers it is likely to have? Gradient makes for a beautiful creek with lots of falling water, but steep creeks tend to be small and easily broached by fallen trees. Big trees make for beautiful woodlands but big trees mean mature forest and a lot of fallen dead wood. Steep walls make for a beautiful gorge, but also make it easy for fallen trees to end up at the bottom, and usually in the water.

So, realizing all this we should’ve been ready for what Laurel Run would throw our way the first day of spring in ‘98. With yet another heavy rainfall following a wet winter, Greg ‘Stubby’ Stone and I chased the heaviest precipitation to Perry County and Laurel Run. Stubby and a friend had paddled it before but we decided to go further up, to unpaddled territory on the North Branch. We put in at a secluded bridge deep in the heart of Tuscarora State Forest. The creek up here is tiny, less than 5 square miles of drainage. And it is beautiful, starting at 1500 ft elevation in a steep narrow gorge, the North Branch plunges at a rate of 115 ft/mile for 3 miles through the Frank Masland natural area. These woods haven’t been logged this century and some parts have never seen a saw. So of course, it was strainer filled and we carried one after another. For every one we carried we clawed through, squeezed under or banged over several more.

Having set the shuttle 14 miles down stream, we had to make good time which kept us hustling and created incentive to stay in our boats. We kept coming up with new and innovative ways to get through obstacles and grabbed every ‘last chance eddy’ to find that elusive crack in the log jam that would allow passage.

If you think this sounds like tempting fate just a little too much, that’s exactly right. After 4.5 miles and 20 (count ‘em, 20) carries, we were coming up on another log in the middle of a rapid. It was the same level as the water, one of those that sort of ‘planes’ the surface. You couldn’t actually see the log, just the water arcing over top of it. These can be jumped providing you have good momentum and don’t have a low volume stern. As I banged over, it slowed me and set me sideways for it’s twin sister, another log that I couldn’t see until clearing the first one. I hit the 2nd log at an angle and with insufficient momentum. I immediately slammed sideways against the log and my stern was sucked under until it hit rock and temporarily stopped. With inadequate clearance to roll under the log I was pinned and had to bail. As soon as I popped the skirt the boat filled and slipped further under. Now the right half of the boat was under the log and my legs would not come out. An upstream flip would be trouble; there was a good possibility that I would be stuffed between the log and the bottom with little chance to push out of the boat in the heavy current. While the boat inched further under, I pulled hard on my left leg, forcing it to bend in a direction that it wasn’t designed to go. I could feel my knee ripping but had no choice except to keep pulling. Stubby was quick to get out of his boat and came to my side as I finally got my feet free. The boat was now completely submerged under the log.

Stubby rescued the boat as I limped around the shoreline in near shock. All at once I was cold, shaking, and weak. Once we determined that I could in fact walk, we decided that I would walk out to the road as Stubby continued to paddle out. With little traffic on the remote state forest road, Stubby’s quickest route to his car at the take out was probably the creek. From here down there were fewer and fewer strainers to deal with. Meanwhile I would start walking back to my car at the put in. Wet and shivering and with snow falling, I simply had to keep moving. I found a stick to use as a crutch and hobbled up the road praying for a ride.

Plenty of regrets and dark thoughts were passing through my head. I envisioned x-rays and reconstructive surgery, worried about missing the big Moshannon Creek race that I trained all winter for, wondered when I could bike again or run. But overshadowing all those thoughts was the nagging fear remaining in my gut not about what had just happened, but about what could have (indeed, almost did) happen. My days of pushing the limits of strainers on these tiny creeks are over. I’m also considering updating my equipment to a boat with a keyhole cockpit and maybe a bulkhead with no confining center support.

I limped along for 2 hours before I finally got a ride from the 3rd vehicle to pass. A group of teenagers in two 4x4s stopped and listened but refused to give me a ride! They acted scared; I guess their parents and teachers had warned them about indigent kayakers lurking in the woods.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1998 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.