Toby Scarpella

March 7th, 2000 Canyon Creek, Washington.

By Jacob Selander

March 7, 2000:

Brad Higinbotham, Toby Scarpella and I were on our second run of Canyon Creek (a Class 4-5 creek in Southwest Washington) of the day. The three of us along with Dan Glauser and our friend Brian Chamberlain had done one run earlier that day, without any incident. I've known Dan for a few months and boated with both him and Brian before on Canyon Creek, but today was my first time meeting and paddling with Toby and Brad. I had run the creek many times before, Brad two or three times, and this was Toby's first day on the creek. Since the first run had gone smoothly and we had time, we (Toby, Brad and myself) decided to go for a second run.

Canyon Creek was well within all our skill level, so on the second run we decided to paddle straight down without taking any breaks. All three of us were paddling Perception Phats. We put in around 2:30 or 3 for the second run, and since the first had only taken us two hours with a couple stops to scout, we had plenty of time to finish before dark. Everything was going fine, when we got to below Big Falls I took the lead with Toby behind me and Brad in the rear. After dropping Champagne and Hammering Spot, I turned around to watch the others run the double drop, and both had clean lines. At about 3:45 or so we reached the final drop, a six or seven foot ledge that requires a boof to miss landing on a couple rocks at the base.

Above the drop is a long flat pool, and immediately below is a short Class 2 rock garden. The water was at a lower level that day (about 7' below the bridge piling), so even as I boofed the last ledge, I could still slightly feel the rock underneath my seat when I landed. I reached the drop first, and ran the center left slot (virtually the only ?safe? route on this drop short of portaging), hitting my boof and barely grazing the rock at the landing. The water at the base of the ledge is pushing hard into a wall on river left, so I pulled towards an eddy in the center a little ways below the drop and just above the rock garden. Toby followed about 20 yards behind me, and Brad just behind Toby.

Before they ran the drop, Brad made sure that Toby knew to take a right boof stroke to aim a little left as he hit the lip. Brad saw Toby run the drop and disappear over the horizon line. Assuming that Toby had a clean line, Brad proceeded to run the ledge. Brad later said that as he approached the lip of the drop, he looked below and say Toby?s paddle stuck in the water, with the pogies waving in the water- no hands in them. I looked up and saw Brad land, but didn?t see Toby yet. I thought to myself "where's Toby?" and that second I saw Toby's paddle pop up out of the water, and no boat or Toby. 'Holy shit, he's stuck in there' was the first thing through my mind. We caught the first eddy we could on river right and leaped out of our boats and ran up the rocks looking for Toby.

I ran to above the drop, Brad climbed out to a rock in the middle of the river. Brad tried to swim across to river right, but the current was too strong and he washed downstream and made the eddy where out boats were. Not seeing anything, we got our boats, hiked them to the top of the rapid and ferried across to the rocks on river left, just above the ledge. Walking down the rocks to the lip (we were still above the water) we were able to see the water falling and hitting Toby's boat and spraying up, but still couldn't see the boat or Toby. Brad proceeded to climb down to right below the drop, onto a rock about 10 feet away from where the boat was lodged. Thinking he could jump in and grab on to the boat, we decided to try this a few times. I tossed Brad the end of my throwbag, he carabinered himself to the rope, and I anchored myself and set up a belay to keep Brad from drifting downstream. He jumped in towards the boat, missed grabbing anything, and washed back to the rock he jumped from. "He's in there, I saw his drytop."

"He's fucking stuck in there...?" Brad yelled back. Brad then jumped in four or five more times after the boat, but failed to grab hold of anything. At this point I was starting to lose my footing and Brad was getting cold from jumping in the water all the time, so we decided to go with a different approach. I took some prussik loops I had with me and tied them in a belt, which Brad tied around his waist. We carabinered the rope to the belt, and decided to lower him down over the rock down to where Toby was. Once he was down, he would try to move the boat free, and when he got too tired he would release the biner, swim into the eddy on river left and climb back up.

I got myself in a secure spot, set up a belay, and lowered Brad over the edge. He was able to climb most of the way down the rock, using the rope as a safety point so he didn?t slip. Brad made it down far enough so he could get one foot on the rock, and one foot on Toby?s boat, which was only about 6 inches underwater. From this position Brad was able to reach the grabloop underneath the boat (Toby?s boat was pinned upside-down) and yank a few times before the force of the water pushed him off the boat and into the eddy. We tried this method a number of times, Brad managed to get the boat to budge a tiny bit each time, but not enough. After 6 or 7 tries, Brad was getting really cold and wet, so I decided to try. I took the prussik belt and tied it around my waist, clipped it to the carabiner, and Brad went ahead and lowered me over the ledge. I climbed down to the point where I could feel where Toby's boat was with my foot, and managed to get one foot on the boat and the other on the rock.

Reaching around with my hand, I was able to feel the grab loop on the end of his boat (I couldn?t tell which end, bow or stern, it was at this point in time). I knew where the loop was, and that I needed to get the rope binered onto the loop if we wanted to get the boat free. So with one hand I was holding on to the rope to keep me from being swept downstream, my feet were trying to keep me away from the rock (which I found out to be rather undercut) that I had climbed down, and my other hand had the carabiner in it, trying to find the grabloop. All this while at the base of a 7 foot ledge with roughly 500 cfs pushing on my back with an incredible force. It felt like it took ten minutes to get the biner on the boat, but I wasn't going to give up easily. We needed to get our buddy out of there.

I finally did manage to carabiner the grabloop, and then let go of the rope and swam into the eddy. At this point I climbed back up the rock to where Brad was, and told him I got the rope attached to Toby's boat. I grabbed whatever I had in my pin kit from my boat, and we climbed back down the ledge and anchored a Z-Drag to a nearby large rock. By the time this was set up, over an hour had passed since Toby became stuck. Brad and I pulled on the rope for ten or so minutes and got the boat to budge just slightly, but no further. By this time we were both getting very cold and losing feeling in our extremities, so we decided it would be best to tie off the Z-Drag and go for help. As soon as I started back up to our boats, Toby's boat popped free and drifted downstream, with Toby still inside. It turned out that the boat was pinned upside-down and the bow facing upstream under the ledge.

We let the boat stay attached to the rope, and as soon as Brad was back in his boat I cut Toby?s boat free from the Z-Drag and Brad chased him downstream. I immediately got in my boat and headed after the two. We got Toby into an eddy about 300 yards downstream from where he was pinned. Brad and I got out of our boats and pulled Toby and his boat up onto the rocks, out of the water. The top deck on his boat's right side right around the thigh hook had compressed in trapping his leg in the boat, making any escape impossible. Brad and I tried to free Toby, but it wasn?t working. We ripped off his helmet and PFD and immediately started CPR. He had already been underwater for over an hour, but we tried anyway. This went on for about ten minutes, then Brad decided that he was going to stay with Toby, and that I should go get help. I agreed, made sure Brad was going to be OK, and headed off to the take-out.

After the final drop on Canyon Creek it enters a lake immediately, so I had to sprint paddle about two miles in a PHAT to get to where my car was. This took twenty or thirty minutes, but I reached the take-out, left my boat at the bottom of the cliff and climbed up to the top, where there was a road. Soon as I reached the top, a man was driving by in a Ford pickup. I leaped into the road in front of him and got him to stop, and asked if he had a phone. He didn?t, so I told him the situation that we were in, and he turned around and drove to the store (about 3 miles away) and called 911. We needed an ambulance (it appeared to me that Brad was on the verge of hypothermia when I left) and a powerboat on Lake Merwin as fast as we could. Within ten minutes, there were two Washington EMS personnel and an ambulance at the take-out, and there were going to be Search and Rescue officers meeting us at the nearest boat ramp with a boat in a few minutes. My car was at the take-out, so I followed the EMS to the boat ramp, where we waited for the gate to be unlocked (the boat ramp is at a campground that's closed this time of year) and for the boat.

By the time we got the boat in the water, more S&R and EMT people had shown up along with a couple Sheriffs with another boat. It had already been dark for almost an hour with the temperature falling rapidly, and I was starting to seriously worry about how Brad was holding up. We then took the two boats out to go and find Brad and Toby. The boats didn't have lights, so we had to use high powered flashlights to see where we were going. As we neared the bridge that is at the take-out for the Canyon Creek run, the other boat spotted a kayaker in the water paddling towards us. Sure enough, it was Brad. He had stayed behind with Toby and continued CPR for almost an hour. When it got dark and the temperature fell, the only way for him to have a chance of staying warm was to leave Toby behind and paddle out. By luck, he reached the bridge just as we did. The other boat picked up Brad and took him back to the boat ramp, where he sat in the anbulance with the heat on to warm up. Turns out he was fine, just really cold and exhausted.

I went in the other boat upriver to show them where we had left Toby. By the time we reached Toby, another Sheriff's boat had shown up with two more people. The three others besides me in the boat got out to try to get Toby out of his kayak, with no luck. They decided the best thing to do was to put the kayak and Toby in the bow of the other Sheriff boat and cover him, and head back to the boat ramp. I was getting really cold by now (I was still in my river clothes- drysuit with a couple layers of fleece) so I just huddled up in the back of the boat for the ride back. During the ride I was interviewed by Deputy Sheriff Fred Neiman as to what had happened that day. Arriving back at the boat ramp I was told Brad was in the ambulance warming up and I went to join him.

It ended up taking 4 men to lift up the cockpit rim and the boat around Toby's right leg to get him out of the boat, and the coroner confirmed that Toby had died of drowning. Brad and I had to come to terms that our friend was dead before we even started to think about how to get him out. We were refusing to fail, leaving the river only when we managed to free Toby or if it became too dark to see what we were doing. We did everything that we possibly could have, and that?s just about the only consolation that we have right now.

Toby's family flew out to Portland from Colorado Wednesday morning. Unfortunatley, I never got a chance to meet them, but they spent the day with Toby and Brad before flying back to Colorado that same night. Even if I don't meet them, I'd like to say how deeply sorry I feel for them. I can't say how it feels to lose a family member, but Toby is the second kayaker I've known who has drowned. The best thing to do is to not go looking for answers to all the questions that you might have, I can say that you won't find them. How Toby got stuck we'll never know. There are a million things to blame, and there is nothing to blame for this accident. Brad and I did everything we could, but we still lost a friend.

For Toby Scarpella

-Jacob Selander.