by Mark Millican
Rescuers in the mountains know navigating a whitewater river to find a lost boater can be both daunting and perilous.
But what about finding three kayakers on a rollicking mountain stream — in the pitch black dead of night?
That was the challenge facing Gilmer County Fire and Rescue team members Sunday night and early Monday morning after they got a report three boaters were missing on the Cartecay River somewhere below the Blackberry Mountain residential development.
Chief Tony Pritchett said 15 rescuers — five in kayaks, several more searching in the woods and some at a command post — got started on the Cartecay operation between 10 and 11 p.m.
“It was in a fairly remote part of the river, near the Clear Creek area and Blackberry Mountain Road and Bernhardt Road,” he said of the location. “For the most part, they were in the dark, just relying on their training. There was a little bit of moonlight, but not enough down there to see by the laurel thickets.”
Pritchett noted there was also the possibility searchers could get separated in the area some paddlers call the “primitive section” of the river.
“They did the best they could to make contact with each other — they kept a radio on and would stop about every 20 minutes to radio in to the command center so we could make sure they were OK,” he explained. “They felt their way down through there. Now I’m not going to tell you they didn’t tumble out and get wet and all that, but they made it safely and were able to get to them.”
They found the two females and a male from the Canton area — all described as being in their late 20s — around 1:30 or 2 a.m. Monday morning on the side of the riverbank. But the operation didn’t wrap up and get out of the river area until about 4 a.m., Pritchett said.
“They were very cold and wet, they’d had nothing to drink and no food source, no cell phones, nothing,” he reported of the lost kayakers. He was asked about injuries or possible hypothermia.
“They just needed to get warm and get fluids for the most part,” he replied. “They weren’t suffering from hypothermia yet, but if we hadn’t got to them when we did they’d have been in a pretty tough situation.”
Local whitewater enthusiast Joseph Gudger, who also teaches kayaking on the Ocoee River where the 1996 Summer Olympics paddling competition was held, said boaters need to be prepared if they’re going to continue past the Stegall Mill rapids at Blackberry Mountain.
“It’s kind of a more remote run than the Cartecay section,” he said of the less-paddled stretch. “Once you’re in it, you’re going to have to stay in it. There’s some bigger rapids and bigger holes. At normal flow, it’s not that big of a deal, but when it starts getting a little higher the hydraulics form (below the rapids) and it’s definitely more dangerous.”
Gudger said “knowledge of what you’re doing and the right gear and a good team” is critical on that stretch of the Cartecay.
“Anytime I go on more of a wilderness run like that, I always take water and food because you never know when your plans may change or you may have to get out of there and don’t know how long that may take,” he cautioned.