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, surprisingly swift water. Wind was a factor in two of the 2019 fatalities. Insufficient safety equipment (PFD and/or drysuit) was common in the earlier accidents, and perhaps less so more recently.

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!

Map locations are general guesses!


Brooks Range, Alaska (2019)

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.

Probable Factors

  • high water
  • cold water

Þingvallavatn Lake, Iceland (2019)

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).

Probable factors

  • inclement weather (wind)
  • solo
  • cold water

Nass River, British Columbia (2019)

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.

Probable factors

  • solo

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)

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.

Probable factors

  • no PFD or drysuit
  • cold water
  • limited experience

References

American Whitewater Accident Report

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

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; I am sure he was in full safety gear.

Probable factors

  • flush drowning
  • cold water

References

American Whitewater Accident Report

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (2015)

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.

Probable factors

  • inclement weather (wind)
  • solo
  • cold water

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

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.

Probable factors

  • flush drowning
  • cold water
  • no drysuit
  • significant experience, but considerable discomfort with water

References

American Whitewater Accident Report

Katete River, Alaska (2012)

Class 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.”

Probable factors

  • presumed flush drowning
  • high water
  • cold water
  • solo?

References

Wrangell Sentinel

Sag River, Brooks Range, Alaska (2009)

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.

Probable factors

  • no PFD or drysuit
  • cold water
  • limited experience?

References

Packraft Forum
Fairbanks Daily News Miner, page 1 and 6

14 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.

    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.

      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

  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.

  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” >

  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.

  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.

  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!

    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?

  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.

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