Packraft Fatalities

Close calls are abundant within the packrafting community, fatalities have been rare. The consistent theme in these fatalities is getting separated from boat and partners, typically in cold and/or surprisingly swift water. Separation has been due to rapids, inexperience, or high winds. Insufficient safety equipment (PFD and/or drysuit) was common in the earlier accidents, and perhaps less so more recently. You can also see a progression of the sport from Alaska-centric, to global, from 2009 to today.

There is a concerted effort to efficiently develop a “Culture of Safety” for packrafters in the hopes that we can skip the history of accidents that our peers in other water crafts have experienced.

Relevant resources: American Whitewater maintains an accident database, American Packrafting Association is close to publishing a safety curriculum for packrafters. I’ve got some bare-bones notes on safety and outfitting, here.

I’m looking forward to not updating this page. Do your part to help!

Map locations are general guesses!


Inzer River, Russia (2020)

Probable Factors

  • Entanglement
  • Solo

Grade: Class II- (?)

May 1st: A Russian man, Yalil Kuvandykov, was seen to overturn in his boat on the Inzer River, Russia. Rescuers were notified, but unable to save him. One article suggests that he was missing for days, but I suspect this is just a google translate issue.

What is clear is that Yalil had a leash attaching himself to the boat and was trapped by the leash (not the black rope in the photo below – that is part of the coaming). This is the first verified packraft fatality due to entanglement. Yalil also had fishing equipment and a perimeter line on the bow that ripped through one of the tie-down attachment points. It is unclear if these were involved in the fatality.

References

mkset.ru (Russian)
KP.RU (Russian)
Gorobzor.ru (Russian)
GTRK TV (Russian)


Lake Nahuel Huapi, Argentina (2020)

Probable Factors

  • Wind
  • Cold water
  • No dry/wet suit

Grade: Open water

An Englishman was separated from his packraft while attempting a two kilometer lake crossing in Argentina. “Nahuel Huapi took them by surprise with violent waves, hit their boats and threw them into the water.” A second boater was able to recover her boat, presumably re-enter, and paddle to shore. She was hypothermic when she reached help.

The paddlers were two weeks into a bikepacking trip. The article does not discuss prior experience but mentions that they had life jackets and insufficient insulation layers. The geography of the lake system provides ~30 km of wind fetch before the crossing point. One meter waves were reported on shore after the accident.

This is the third open water packraft fatality on record, highlighting the danger of assuming that flat water doesn’t require a pfd and dry/wet suit.

References

Bariloche2000 article (spanish)


Nagara River, Japan (2020)

Probable Factors

  • Solo
  • Entanglement by paddle leash

Grade: Class II+, III-

Facts are very limited because the boater was alone with no witnesses. A man was found submerged under a packraft, trapped in an undercut rock, mid-river. He had a paddle leash attached to his spray skirt pull loop. There is a challenging rapid 500m upriver, and it seems likely that he tipped there and swam until he was pinned on the undercut rock.

The rest of this is conjecture. Based on his YouTube channel, hidasurf might only have had three months experience, liked running steep creeks at shallow water (Class II-III), and was often or always paddling alone. He had a full safety kit (PFD, helmet, drysuit), frequently scouted rapids, and frequently swam.

Given that his body was recovered with his boat, I assume he was trapped with it. Youtube videos of his boat don’t show any perimeter lines, but do show a red leash connecting his paddle to the spray skirt grab loop. We can’t know for sure, but the leash seems most likely to have caused entanglement. I noticed a swim in one of his videos where he holds onto the boat by looping an arm through the deck combing, so that might have played a factor in his fatal swim as well.

References

https://www.gifu-np.co.jp/news/20200120/20200120-208121.html (Japanese)
Shimon Saito, personal communication


Brooks Range, Alaska (2019)

Probable Factors

  • High water
  • Cold water

Grade: Class II

Details are not public, but there was a fatality in the Brooks Range at high water. If you know details, please do not post them as comments on this page until (if/when) a public accident report is available.


Þingvallavatn Lake, Iceland (2019)

Probable factors

  • Inclement weather (wind)
  • Solo
  • Cold water

Grade: Open water

Bjørn Debacker, a 41-year old Belgian Engineer, was presumably separated from his packraft due to wind and waves while crossing Þingvallavatn lake. Bjørn’s empty raft and pack were found on the southern shore of the lake, ~12 km away from where he camped the night before (northern shore).


Nass River, British Columbia (2019)

Probable factors

  • Solo

Grade: Class IV

Romain Quénéhen, a Belgian on a roadtrip from BC to Alaska, went missing on the Nass River, BC, Romain’s packraft and backpack were recovered. Satellite imagery shows large rapids just out of sight from his probable put in. It is likely that the rapids caught Romain off guard.

References

https://www.terracestandard.com/news/search-called-off-for-nass-river-kayaker/
https://www.haidagwaiiobserver.com/news/belgian-man-linked-as-possible-missing-kayaker-in-nass-river/


Nizina River, Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska (2018)

Probable factors

  • No PFD or drysuit
  • Cold water
  • Limited experience

Grade: Class II

Aidan Don (22) and a friend were dropped off by airplane at Nizina Lake, intending to float the Nizina back down to McCarthy. The Nizina is Class II where Aidan flipped out of his boat, but very cold and choked with glacial silt.

Neither boater wore PFDs (or drysuits, I assume). There has been some discussion about how they were able to rent boats without safety equipment.

References

American Whitewater Accident Report


Lion’s Head, Matanuska River, Alaska (2017)

Probable factors

  • Flush drowning
  • Cold water

Grade: Class IV

Martin Rinke (63), an experienced boater, fell out of his boat in the Lion’s Head section of Matanuska River. Lion’s Head, Class IV, is known for its big hydraulics and difficulty distinguishing rocks from water due to both being the same gray color. The AW accident report mentions an IK and kayak, but Martin was in a packraft. Martin had considerable experience.

Marty lived above the Matanuska River near the Lions Head run. This was home water for him. Two weeks after running sections of the lower Mat with Marty he led the same group of 4 on Lions head. On July 15, 2017 river level was slightly higher than Marty’s highest run (number not recorded). Marty had extensive wilderness experiences throughout his lifetime.

All scouted and ran the first rapid as planned then pulling over river right. Marty then led the group from shore down stream. About 2 minutes into this run he went over a hole and flipped. He was seen to make 3 attempts to reenter his boat then appeared to rest. Moments later he went through another hole and was separated from his boat.

The second boater attempting to land river left flipped and lost his boat. The third boater noted Marty floating face up, pursued, caught and swam Marty to shore on river right, where CPR was unsuccessful. 

The fourth boater exited river left then searched down stream with #2. After contact by cell phone they walked out to Mat Glacier view area. Nova Alaska Guides extricated Marty and boater #3.

All boaters had dry suits, helmets and PFD’s. Marty was swift water rescue trained, as was boater #3. All boats were Alpacka Llamas. Marty’s was custom extended approx. 2.5 inches to accommodate his long legs. He had a perimeter line in addition to bow and stern painters. #3 boat was lost when it was released to pull Marty from the water. In all 3 of 4 boats were lost; all were later recovered by good Samaritans and/or Nova Alaska Guides.

Lessons learned: Discuss rescue methods and plans before the run, practice boat reentry – often, have communication devices inside dry suit, have contact numbers for each boater and rescue services (911 did an excellent job in this case and could locate caller).

– John Quimby
References

American Whitewater Accident Report
John Quimby, personal communication


Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (2015)

Probable factors

  • Inclement weather (wind)
  • Solo
  • Cold water

Grade: Open water

In the summer of 2015 a German paddler disappeared in the Søndre Strømfjord near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. He was paddling down the fjord during a multi-day trip. He checked in with his PLB the evening before. It appears to have been windy on the fjord on the day he disappeared. The Søndre Strømfjord is an almost linear, 170 km fjord which can funnel strong winds from the ice sheet.


Tana River, Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska (2014)

Probable factors

  • Flush drowning
  • Cold water
  • No drysuit
  • Significant experience, but considerable discomfort with water

Grade: Class II

As part of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, Rob Kehrer (44) and Greg Mills portaged the Tana River Canyon (Class IV), putting in below the technical features. The nature of the river at their put in was cold, silty, with large hydraulics, but technically Class II. Rob flipped in some of the big water hydraulics and was instantly separated from his boat and Greg.

Rob was wearing rain gear and a PFD. I believe he had some gear essentials (stove, etc.) in his pockets, which would have worked against his PFD’s buoyancy. It is likely that a dry suit would have made a huge difference. The Wilderness Classic participants generally do not use drysuits.

References

American Whitewater Accident Report
Greg Mills, personal communication


Katete River, Alaska (2012)

Probable factors

  • Presumed flush drowning
  • High water
  • Cold water
  • Solo?

Grade: Unknown

Colin Buness (25) disappeared on a solo, I think, trip to the Katate, a tributary to the Stikine. Colin had considerable experience, including actively training to become an ANG Pararescue Jumper (PJ). Rescuers found his packraft in a log jam.

“We found his foot tracks in a gravel bar where we believe he had pulled in and looked downriver,” Tim said. “We think he was scouting out the canyon and everything looked good to him, but he couldn’t see around the corner of that bend, which is where we feel that he went into the water.”

References

Wrangell Sentinel


Sag River, Brooks Range, Alaska (2009)

Probable factors

  • No PFD or drysuit
  • Cold water
  • Limited experience?

Grade: Class II

Jaymes H. Schoenberg (22) and a partner used packrafts to cross the swollen Sagavanirktok River en route to Arctic Village. Jaymes overturned his boat and was quickly separated from his partner. He was not wearing a PFD.

References

Packraft Forum
Fairbanks Daily News Miner, page 1 and 6


20 Comments

  1. Luc, thanks for caring, researching, and publishing!

    I am a life-long whitewater kayaker and just getting into packrafting. Hardshell kayakers consider a PFD one of the five “essentials” – you don’t put on the water without one. And, you don’t paddle with someone who doesn’t have one on. Pretty depressing to see fatalities related to no-PFD.

    As your data shows, a drysuit is also an important piece of safety gear – especially for packrafting because rolling up is unlikely and swims are more likely. Continuing to encourage drysuit use in the packrafting community is important. What I’ve learned is that you can be reasonably comfortable in a drysuit even in warmer weather – wear lightest layers or shorts under it. You will be warm, confident, and paddle more aggressively because you are not afraid to be in the water. If you get hot, jump in the river for a cool down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jay, yeah, a $50 PFD and $600 drysuit might have saved three of these lives. In Alaska, I urge people to consider the cost of the drysuit as part of the packraft purchase price.

      Alpacka made an incredibly light suit for several years, but I think the lightest option currently on the market is something like the Kokatak Swift Entry, 2 lbs.

      Like

      1. I will soon own one of those Kokatats. My old NRS drysuit is heavy.

        I like your approach of considering the drysuit as part of the initial kit & cost. I will adopt that when discussing with people interested in the sport.

        -Jay

        Like

  2. Even here in the Southeast, the rule is “dress for the swim”. I was appalled on a trip with outfitters in Alaska where we were told “your raingear will be fine”. The classic Alaskan boots we were given were a source of concern, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, glad you put this together, thanks. Is the Aug 24-25 class still a go? Tp

    On Thu, Aug 15, 2019 at 6:53 PM Things To Luc At wrote:

    > lucmehl posted: ” Close calls are abundant within the packrafting > community, fatalities have been rare. These are the fatalities I’m familiar > with; all but one have occurred in Alaska. The common themes in these > accidents are cold, surprisingly swift water, and insufficie” >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have worn my Kokatat Swift Entry Dry Suit while running <50 degree water on the Animas with air temps around 85 degrees and the Gunnison with air temps of 95 degrees. I did not get hot or sweaty until I got off the water. Much more comfortable than I was expecting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another fatality I know of: in summer 2015 a German paddler disappaered in the Sondre Stromfjord near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. He was paddling down the fjord during a multi-day trip. He checked in with his PLB the evening before – the last sign of life. It appears to have been windy on the fjord on the day he disappeared. The Sondre Stromfjord is an almost linear, 170km fjord which can funnel foehn winds fjord the Ice Sheet. Strong fjords winds are also common.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Luc, Thanks for putting energy into this. I’m happy that we haven’t had any fatalities in New Zealand that I’m aware of. But it’s only a matter of time. There was a rafting death on the Landsborough River recently…a really popular wilderness packrafting trip. It was initially (wrongly) reported in the news as a packrafting fatality. But it could have easily been a packrafter (everything leading to the fatality eg. Getting onto rising river, capsize and inability to get back into craft due to rising water levels, this river floods all the time and portaging the gorge is a bit of a nightmare bush-bash). I wonder if we should compile a few “near miss” case studies too. I have some friends with some gnarly stories. Too many people are afraid to share their near miss stories for fear of judgement. Reminds me of Sarahs IG post today – fantastic example of role modelling open sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dulkara!

      The APA Forum has a place for reporting accidents, but it doesn’t get any use. I’ve been in touch with American Whitewater about trying to get packrafts listed as their own category (they keep statistics on non-US rivers too). In my opinion, this would be the best place to list near misses since the AW site is already so mature. If AW isn’t a good fit, maybe APA would host something?

      Like

  7. Thanks for putting this together and keeping the risks real. I had a close call with a buddy getting pinned to a log jam (inexperience and poor trip planning), he ended up climbing out of his boat onto the jam and I went downstream after his raft. That’s when I realized that we had failed to discuss recovery plans. He had no drysuit so if he had gone for a swim it could’ve ended very poorly. Definitely a near miss that could’ve been avoided by better route planning and scouting blind corners. I also had to beg my little brother out of doing the Nenana Canyon without a drysuit, I could’ve very well be sans 1 little bro at this point! All that is to say, thank you for compiling this, it helps to remind us of the consequences of one poor decision.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I bought the Kokatat Swift Entry drysuit with relief zipper. It is size large and weighs 2lb-4oz or 1024g on my scale.

    Outdoor Play had a great price for a short period. I don’t know if that will come back around, but maybe worth watching their site. I took one swim in it (so far) and stayed totally dry and warm. I stretched the neck gasket over a large muscle-milk container for a day or two and it was still just a little tight. I don’t recommend trimming the neck gasket as you can easily ruin it – stretch it over a form and check it regularly so you don’t over stretch it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, I just found this. I can give a personal account of the Lions Head/Rinke incident. What is the best way to do that? (sorry could not figure out how to post a narrative – does it go here?)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, it was a swiftwater river between lakes at the Jokullsarlon Lagoon. Mostly Class II. I underestimated the river and capsized in a river-wide ledge. I was more used to Appalachian rivers, which tend to have big rapids separated by flatwater pools. So the takeaway is that glacial rivers tend to be more continuous. The other mistake was running solo. I cancelled a river trip the next day on that note and went day hiking instead.

        Like

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