Dugald Bremner

June 3, 1997
Upper Silver Fork of the American

By Scott Thibony

On June 3, 1997, well-known outdoor photographer, kayaker and Grand Canyon river guide Dugald Bremner and three companions found themselves on the Silver Fork of California's American River. By early afternoon they reached the most difficult rapid and stopped to scout it.

High flows poured over a ledge, obscuring a sieve of faults siphoning much of the water through the bedrock. Dugald entered the current and lined up on what appeared to be simple turbulence at the head of the falls. In reality, the turbulence marked a submerged fissure cutting into the bedrock with water folding in from both sides.

As he followed the flow, his nose hit a shallow piece of bedrock and stalled, causing his stern to snag in the crevice. The current dragged the boat down quickly, and Dugald asked Eric Brown, standing on shore, for help. While the other kayakers were downstream scouting, ready to assist on possible trouble encountered on a series of lower pourovers, Eric waded across the fast-moving water, expecting only to give the kayak a nudge. But the situation rapidly turned serious. A strong current ran beneath the surface, drawing the stern downward and jamming it tighter into the crevice.

Eric straddled the crack and used his body to deflect the water while grabbing Dugald's boat and lifejacket. Ralph Michlisch came over to assist, but the river pulled him into the crevice and out through an opening in the rock. Bill Morse rescued him below and then both climbed back up to help rescue Dugald. As Dugald sank lower, the strong current pinned him forward against his boat, trapping his legs inside. The river then pulled the stern deeper into the crevice, causing the bow to rise higher. Dugald reached a hand out of the water and Eric grabbed it before feeling it relax.

Seeing no other option, Bill jumped onto the stern of the kayak by bracing himself on the bedrock and yanked at Dugald's lifejacket, tearing it apart. Then he reached for Dugald's helmet, breaking the chinstrap, before he too was sucked under and eventually rescued by Eric.

After they paddled out for help, word of the accident reached Dugald's close friends and family, who quickly descended on the Silver Fork. On June 8, an expert team gathered at the site under the direction of rigger Mike Weis, with Lars Holbek and Eric Magnuson handling the in-river work. Within a few hours they completed the recovery of Dugald and his boat. His mother and father and two brothers were at the trailhead and didn't realize that the effort had been a success until they saw the litter. There was an impromptu memorial service with about thirty people gathered there in a circle..

His friends brought the kayak home to Flagstaff, Ariz., and leaned it against the wall of Dugald's photography studio, where it still stands, bow skyward.