Even while keeping in mind all the rewards that kayaking, exploring, traveling and living present and though the risks of all these things seem self-evident, it is with great sadness we experience this loss.
Jonathan Sullivan died in a kayaking accident on January 28th, 2004 on the Rio Manso. His death occurred on the Chilean side of the Patagonian Andes. He was on a rafting and kayaking, horse-supported private trip that started near Tony's camping on the Manso in Argentina and was to end at lake Tagua-Tagua on the Puelo near the coast of Chile. The accident occurred on the third day of the trip a hundred and fifty meters downstream of the confluence of the Correntoso on the Manso in a rapid the whole group intended to portage.
On this day, while the raft group was hiking ten kilometers downstream, Jonathan was paddling with six other kayakers on what was to be a day of class five. Everyone planned to camp together in the evening. The kayak group, consisting of Jon, Ben Martin, Ben Edson, Eric Strittmatter, Zach Cowan, Nate Mack, and Polk Deters entered the river at 10:30 am. They paddled a hundred and fifty meters downstream and crossed to river left where they scouted the rapid and decided to portage. Before returning to their boats, they held a brief safety discussion - covering hand signals, whistle signals, remoteness, risks, goals, etc. They chose a portage route that began twenty meters downstream below a class II chute along the river left shore. The chute ended with an eddy marked by a log.
Zach was first to the eddy and mentioned the log to the rest of the group. Eric Strittmatter, Ben Edson and Ben Martin followed. While Zach, Eric and Ben Edson began portaging, Ben Martin sat on a rock next to the log to show the exact route to the following paddlers. Having visual contact with Ben Martin, Polk and Jon discussed the exact route while in the staging eddy directly above the portage eddy. Polk entered the chute, caught the portage eddy and exited his boat. Ben Martin made eye contact with Jon, and signaled for him to go. As Jon started paddling out of the staging eddy, Ben Martin looked over to Polk and asked him to push his boat up on shore.
When Ben Martin looked back up stream, Jon was no longer in view. Ben Martin stood up on the rock and realized that Jon had missed the entrance to the chute and was now in the current feeding the main rapid. Ben Martin blew his whistle three times and yelled to the group that Jon was entering the rapid. Though Jon paddled hard towards river left, the current was too strong and pulled him towards the center of the river. Just above a sieve, Jon flipped over, attempted a roll, washed through the first of three drops and out of sight. Having run downstream with Polk, Ben Martin was first to see Jon at the top of the second drop. Upright and in his kayak, Jon side surfed a hole/reactionary pillow in front of a house-sized rock. Making eye contact with Jon, Ben Martin yelled and signaled for Jon to surf out river left of the hole. Realizing that the distance to Jon was too great for a single throw bag toss, Ben Martin yelled to the others that he needed an additional rope.
Nate was closest to assist. Meanwhile, Jon flipped over and the current pulled him from the hole into a small boiling eddy on the upstream corner of the same house-size boulder. He unsuccessfully attempted three rolls and exited his boat. As soon as his head came to the surface, his kayak pushed him up against the rock and the current dragged him along the edge of the boulder. Moving as quickly as possible, Nate was able to attach the second throw bag to Ben Martin's rope. As Jon looked alert, and was attempting to swim, Ben Martin yelled for Jon's attention and threw the rope. Although the rope reached Jon, the current quickly pulled him and his paddle underwater and into another sieve formed by several car-sized boulders behind the house-sized rock. Jon's boat washed to the left of the sieve and continued through the next drops to the bottom of the rapid. Jon's paddle emerged from the sieve and washed into an eddy behind it.
Meanwhile, the entire group ran downstream hoping for a glimpse of Jon and an additional chance to rescue him. Ten seconds later, Polk saw Jon reappear below the second drop. He appeared to be alert and actively swimming as he disappeared from sight in the left most channel of the third drop. When Jon went out of view for the last time, he was still wearing his helmet.
From the bottom of the rapid, Eric and Zach saw Jon's kayak, elbow pad, camera box and helmet emerge from rapid and continue downstream through a green, non-aerated section of water. They did not see Jon. Nate, Eric, and Zach began searching the rapid while Polk, and Ben Martin continued to portage their boats around the rapid with Ben Edson helping.
Within ten minutes, Polk and Ben Martin were in their boats and heading downstream to search for Jon. About fifty meters below the portage, they found Jon's helmet floating in the current. Ninety meters below the portage and in the next rapid, they found one of his elbow pads. Below this rapid, Polk and Ben Martin entered a calm, slow-moving stretch of river with visibility of four hundred meters downstream. They found Jon's camera box in an eddy on river right and could also see his kayak half way through the calm stretch. They easily caught up with the boat and pulled it to shore.
The calm stretch ended with the confluence of the Rio Colorado and the first place with access to the trail that parallels the Manso. The Rio Colorado is two kilometers downstream from where Jon was last seen. When Polk and Ben Martin arrived, they encountered the horsemen who were carrying the raft and the rest of the gear around the entire Maldonado canyon. They sent one of the horsemen ahead to catch the rest of the group and notify them of the situation. When Polk and Ben got back to their boats, Zach arrived at the confluence where the three formulated a plan to search different parts of the river and meet back with everyone including hikers and horsemen at 3 pm at the confluence of the Colorado. At this time twenty-five minutes had passed since Jon was last seen. Meanwhile, Eric, Nate and Ben Edson scoured the parts of the river just below where Jon was last seen, looking for any signs of him.
Zach went back upstream towards the portage while Polk and Ben Martin continued downstream. They entered the first rapid and decided to scout from river right. Judging the difficulty, complexity and danger of the following rapids, Polk and Ben Martin opted to leave their boats and continue their search by foot downstream on river right. They scrambled along the boulder-ridden shore for four kilometers past six class V rapids - all containing numerous sieves, wood, and undercut rocks. Finally, Polk and Ben Martin reached a cliff band that made continuing downstream impossible. Due to the nature of the riverbed, they decided that it would be very improbable that a body would have floated past the Rio Colorado before they had arrived and even less likely that it would have made it through all the rapids and beyond where they were now. With attention to the river, Polk and Ben Martin returned to the confluence of the Rio Colorado at 2:40 pm.
During the time that Polk and Ben Martin were searching downstream, Zach made two more trips in the two kilometer section of river between the spot Jon was last seen and the confluence of the Rio Colorado. Eric, Ben E and Nate searched the area right around where Jon was last seen.
At 3:00 pm. all the members of the group met at the confluence to discuss further rescue plans. The group decided that Polk and Ben Martin would go back upstream to the rapid to continue searching. At this time they found Jon's throw bag in an eddy a hundred meters below the rapid. Eric, Ben Edson, and Nate set up a snag line across the river at the confluence. Zach went with the rest of the group to set up camp. At 7:00 pm. Polk and Ben Martin returned to the confluence. The group stayed on the banks of the river watching for Jon's body until dark, left their kayaks and walked to camp.
At 8 am of the following morning, Polk, Ben Martin, Ben Edson and Nate returned to their kayaks at the Rio Colorado and made their way back upstream to the rapid. They found Jon's paddle in the same eddy where they had found his throw bag. While they where searching the rapid, they pieced together everyone's story to make sure that nothing had been missed. Having searched and searched again downstream, along the shores and in the rapids, the group returned to the top of the rapid and crossed back to the confluence of the Rio Correntoso - to the same spot where they entered the river the previous day.
The entire group spent the rest of the day hiking back to the Chile/Argentina border. Zach, Polk, Ben Edson and Ben Martin gave testimonies to the Chilean police at the El Leon customs outpost. At 7:30 pm a helicopter from the Chilean Air Force arrived with scuba divers and the intent of searching the river for Jon's body. Zach showed them digital images of the rapid and explained the place where Jon was last seen. Later, the helicopter flew downstream to continue the search from the air. The divers intended to search the rapid the following day.
Although none of the members of the group knew Jon well, he quickly became a new friend to all of us. There is no question that Jon was where he wanted to be. The evening before his death he commented that this was definitely the "highlight of his trip". To stay longer in the area, Jon had planned to accompany the horsemen back up the four-day section we were to paddle down.
That would have made his journey two days longer than the rest of ours. Jon was stoked. This trip combined his love for kayaking, exploring, and horses. Being a wrangler, he was fascinated by the Chilean horse culture - learning their rustic method for loading packhorses, and showing them the Montana style of horse packing. Struck by the contrast of emotions in such a beautiful place, we smiled in tears to see one of the packhorses carry his kayak on our hike out. The entire group who was with him extends its' sincerest condolences to all those who knew Jon.
Our hearts go out to his family and friends.
by Jesse Kodadek
Jonathan was hilarious. I have never met anybody so enthusiastic about paddling. In the few days since I learned about what happened, all these memories have come bubbling up. I remember seeing Jon on the Alberton Gorge all summer long, usually boating with his best buds Luke and KB. They were obsessive playboaters, usually taking off in the dark, shouting and hooting in the twilight while they got in just a few more surfs.
I remember boating with Jon this spring on the Lochsa, with another friend of his who was just learning. His buddy swam a couple times. The Lochsa is ice cold, and quite big. The friend was discouraged and cold, and Jon was yelling at him to get back in his boat and finish the run. He screamed at his friend, "There comes a fucking time when you have to decide whether or not you want to do something, and if you want to do it, you canīt fucking quit!!" I think there were a few more cusswords thrown in, but they arenīt important. I was a little taken aback by the whole scene, but the guy got back in his boat and finished, and they was smiles and backslaps and cold beers shared at the takeout. Jon just laughed at his own unique style of motivation.
I left Missoula in July to work a few months in Minnesota before my trip to Argentina. Jon was with me the last time I boated before I left. It was a hot day, as they all are in Western Montana in the summer, and we ran laps on Kootenai Creek, a short hike up run that is less than a mile but drops over 300 feet. He was not my regular boating partner, but I was hoping to boat with him a lot more in the future. In every eddy, he laughed and his eyes shined with the beauty and wonder of the sport he loved so much.
I last saw Jon two weeks ago in Bariloche, Argentina. I had been there studying Spanish for almost two months, and my girlfriend and I walked into a popular bar on Friday night, and there he was, with a huge grin on his face, like always. It was a surprise, I didnīt even know he was in South America. Anways, we compared notes, we shared stories of our adventures on other rivers, notably the Cascades of the Manso, where he had been the day before and where I had spent a long, cold night in the woods a few weeks previously after getting on this remote and difficult run in very, very high water. He said the few weeks he had been in Chile and Argentina were the trip of a lifetime. We were planning on seeing other at the Futaleufu in a couple weeks.
Jonathon...I will still see you there, and on the Gorge, and everywhere else I saw you laughing on the water.
I only hope those moments after you missed the eddy were filled with something other than fear.
Peace, brother. The waters of Montana wonīt be the same.
Puerto Montt, Chile
by Jesse Kodadek
I hear they are having a memorial service in your memory next week in Missoula. I am sure it will be a good Irish sort of party, with speeches, plenty of tears, then a lot of drinking, some music, and hopefully a lot of laughter - I know you will be disappointed if they forget the laughter.
I would love to be there, but unfortunately, I am still stuck down here in Patagonia - with you.
I am not sure how to make my own farewell. Maybe when I get back to Bariloche tomorrow I will rent a car, drive to the Manso, and pour a beer in underneath the rainbow of the Cascade of the Alerces, where it can make its way downstream and wash over you - one last beer, you know?
As I write this, it is sometime in the middle of the night underneath the cone of Volcan Orsono, a perfect pyramid crowned with a bright blue glacier.
On the other side of the lake, Monte Tronador is visible. You probably know this, but Tronador means "Thunderer", and it is where the Rio Manso is born. I am sure that you also know Manso means "gentle", but the irony of that is too painful to think about. It is not all so gentle, as we both know all too well.
I have been thinking of you a lot since I heard what happened. I always knew I would lose a friend kayaking, I just never thought it would be so far from home.
I hope your other friends, and especially your family, can understand why you can not go back home so they can say goodbye one last time.
I hope they can understand how beautiful it is here, and how peaceful. You chose Missoula to live, a beautiful place. The Manso chose here, in a breathless moment, to take you home. Your taste is impeccable.
A famous boater/writer says that in each friends death on a river there is a lesson, and that lesson is our friends final gift to us. I am still looking for my present. Where is it hidden?
A few minutes ago, I was lying on my back, looking at the southern mountains outlined in the sky, when a shooting star shot straight up from the horizon, and I think that is how I will remember you, dissolving into the center of the starry sky, on a perfectly clear Patagonian night, deep in the heart of the southern summer.
Thanks for being my friend, Jon.
Pto. Varas, Chile