A deadly season

The deaths of four rafters this summer have taken a toll on Maupin

Yoko Minoura / The Bulletin /

MAUPIN - On a recent, sun-drenched afternoon at the Sandy Beach boat ramp eight miles outside town, Lake Oswego resident Jeanne Kistner said she would never forget her first rafting trip on the Deschutes River.

”It's just beautiful out here,” she said. ”Beautiful country, beautiful place to be.”

The Lower Deschutes, winding through Maupin like a blue-green ribbon, serves as the lifeblood of this quiet community of 450. The town lies roughly at the halfway point of the 14-mile stretch of river from Harpham Flat to Sandy beach that thousands of whitewater rafters paddle each summer.

Rafting and recreational fishing businesses dominate downtown Maupin, where a small corner post office, an elementary school and neighborhoods of modest homes perch on a slope overlooking the river.

But the peaceful town has been rocked in the past two months by four rafting deaths, three of them along the most popular section of the river. Although none of the drownings occurred on a professionally guided trip, guide services said the news has made many customers skittish.

”It's hard to know, but I would guess our community has lost about $100,000 due to the deaths and the media's coverage of it,” said Silas Lewis, a river guide and manager of All Star Rafting and Kayaking in Maupin. He said that didn't include the trickledown effects to hotels, delis and shops serving visitors.

Residents said the deaths have also had an emotional impact on the town.

”It's hard on everybody,” said Postmaster Karletta Carrithers, who has been an emergency medical technician in Maupin for 16 years. ”I think we're calling it the summer from hell.”

Spike in deaths

Carrithers said the river usually claims one, two or - best of all - zero lives each summer.

Between 1998 and 2005, only five people drowned on the river between the town of Warm Springs to where it flows into the Columbia River north of Maupin, according to Lynette Ripley, Lower Deschutes manager with the Bureau of Land Management. In the same time period, nearly 740,000 boaters traveled some part of that same stretch safely.

But this year, on July 6, 17-year-old Danielle Hagler, of Oregon City, drowned after she was thrown from her raft at White Horse Rapids, roughly 15 miles south of Maupin. The Wasco County Sheriff's Office reported that the teen, who was rafting with a church group, was wearing a life jacket at the time.

Then, on July 23, 60-year-old Hillsboro resident Richard Ahrendt, rafting alone, was thrown into the water heading through the Wapinitia Rapids, about three miles south of Maupin. Ahrendt, who was wearing a life jacket, slipped under the water as he went through the Boxcar Rapids downstream, according to The Hillsboro Argus.

The river claimed the life of 27-year-old David Layman, of Phoenix, Ariz., on Aug. 8, according to the Wasco County Sheriff's Office. Layman, who was rafting with three friends, was thrown from his raft in the Wapinitia Rapids. He was not wearing a life jacket at the time, the sheriff's office reported.

The latest drowning occurred Aug. 19. Jaime Garcia, 55, of Woodburn, died after he fell out of his raft going through the Oak Springs Rapids about three miles north of Maupin. Garcia, who was rafting with family members and friends, was wearing a life jacket at the time, the sheriff's office reported.

Guides, residents and officials alike said they can't figure out why there have been so many deaths this year. Representatives from the Wasco County Sheriff's Office, who did not return calls, failed to specify whether drugs or alcohol may have played a factor in any of the drownings.

”The water's not higher, the water's not lower, there doesn't seem to be any explanation,” said Wasco County Commissioner Sherry Holliday, who has been an emergency medical technician for 26 years. ”I think we're all sort of shaking our heads and wondering what's different this year.”

Tim Thornton, manager of Maupin rafting company River Drifters and a river guide himself, pointed out that the water level in the Lower Deschutes is controlled by the Pelton-Round Butte Dam. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey's Web site, the flow generally hovers between 35 and 45 cubic feet per second throughout the year.

”Statistically, the drive out here is more dangerous than the river itself,” Thornton said.

River safety

The Lower Deschutes runs from Pelton-Round Butte Dam near the town of Warm Springs to the Columbia River, covering a distance of roughly 100 miles, according to the Bureau of Land Management's Web site.

The river drops a total of more than 1,200 feet along the way, at the roughly constant rate of 13 feet per mile along its entire length, according to the Web site.

But at White Horse Rapids, the river drops roughly 35 to 40 feet over one mile, according to the Web site. The rapids are rated Class III or Class IV, or intermediate to advanced difficulty, based on the water level, according to the Web site of the Maupin guide service All Star Rafting and Kayaking.

The stretch including the Wapinitia and Oak Springs rapids is rated Class III-plus, intermediate approaching advanced, according to the Web sites of All Star Rafting and Kayaking and River Drifters.

Guides in Maupin said they push life jackets as much as possible. On guided trips, properly-fitted life jackets are required at all times.

”As long as you keep your life jacket on and (it's) adjusted properly, the river is very forgiving,” said Nick Lafin, a river guide and manager of Deschutes U-Boat, a guiding and rental service.

”If it's not adjusted properly, it might as well be in the bottom of the boat,” Lafin said.

A properly adjusted life jacket will not move more than three inches up the torso when someone grabs the shoulders of the jacket and lifts it, according to the Oregon Marine Board.

Lafin said he estimated that roughly half the rafters on the Lower Deschutes choose to rent or use a private craft, while the other half opt for a guided trip. The roughly a dozen guide companies in Maupin routinely rent out their rafts and safety gear to private groups.

”There's a lot of talk around town about what we can to do to prevent (accidents) when people do rent a boat,” Lafin said.

The marine board requires children up to 12 to wear a life jacket when they are in any sort of watercraft. The board also requires that the craft carry life jackets for every adult, but adults do not have to wear them.

Many said visitors who plan on rafting the river also need to understand there are always risks inherent in rafting. Guided trips have less variables because guides must be certified in first aid and CPR and rafts carry rescue equipment, but accidents still happen.

”They have to have respect for this river. There are rapids, there are undercurrents,” emergency responder and Wasco County Commissioner Holliday said.

Ripley, with the Bureau of Land Management, agreed.

”It's always a risk, even if you have a skilled boater,” she said. ”I think the general public needs to understand this is not a controlled environment, like an amusement park. This is a wild and scenic river, and at any time there are unknown elements that can occur, even when you do everything right.”

Ripley said the bureau plans to meet with local governments, the marine board, Oregon State Parks, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and other managing agencies to see if they can do anything to prevent more drownings.

Currently, bureau rangers talk to rafters at popular put-in and take-out points, Ripley said, to educate them about safety, alcohol and other regulations. BLM rangers and the deputies from Wasco County Sheriff's Office also patrol the river by boat.

”If I had a top 10 to tell people on whitewater safety, some of those top 10 would be never boat alone; always wear your life jacket, and it needs to fit properly; don't drink and boat; know your river, know the rapids, have experience and skill; and also, know what to do when something goes wrong,” she said.

Ripple effects

Many Maupin guides said some media reports of the drownings distorted the risks of whitewater rafting, dealing a blow to business.

Several media reports of the drownings near Maupin also mentioned three people who drowned in incidents unrelated to whitewater rafting: a Keizer woman, who drowned after she tumbled through the Colorado Avenue spillway in Bend, a Gresham teen who died after jumping from a rope swing into the river near Benham Falls in Bend and a Warm Springs tribal member who apparently fell into the water from the riverbank.

Thornton of River Drifters said he has had more than a few cancellations.

”(With) a lot of church groups, school groups, youth groups, either numbers were drastically down or trips canceled,” he said.

Lafin of Deschutes U-Boat said he has fielded a number of calls himself, but said he doesn't believe he lost business because of the news.

”As long as you inform them, people tend to come anyway,” he said. ”People understand accidents happen.”

Vicky Hachler, co-owner of Henry's Deli-Mart, a sandwich shop and convenience store in Maupin, has seen a slight drop in customers, but said it seems several factors are at play.

”What I'm hearing from people, it's not as much about the drownings but about higher (boater) permits,” she said. The rising cost of gas also seems to be keeping some people away, she said.

Some rafters on the Lower Des-chutes, however, said the media coverage raised their concerns.

Lake Oswego resident Kistner said she was very nervous about running Oak Springs Rapids after she learned that a man had drowned there on Aug. 19.

But Kistner, who went rafting with her husband, children and two friends, said her fears were eased when the leader of their trip, Connelly Woody, had the group pull ashore before the rapids and scout ahead.

Woody, of West Linn, is not a professional river guide, but he said he has run the Lower Des-chutes for seven or eight years.

All the members of his party wore life jackets - on his orders.

Portland resident Chris Richardson, who rented a boat to go whitewater rafting with his wife and her parents, said the reports kept friends away.

”We had other people that we invited that wouldn't come with us because of the deaths,” he said.

Richardson said thousands of rafters paddle the Lower Des-chutes every weekend during the summer, and relatively few get into accidents.

His entire party also wore life jackets. Richardson, who is not a professional river guide, said he took a rafting safety class from All Star Rafting and Kayaking in Maupin last year and a refresher course this year. The staff at All Star, which provided their raft, also made sure their life jackets fit properly before the group hit the river.

Officials and residents said they believed chance was ultimately responsible for this summer's spike in drownings.

Lewis at All Star Rafting and Kayaking said he thought the number of drownings was simply a case of tragic bad luck.

And Holliday, the Wasco County commissioner, said the recent drownings have taken a larger toll on Maupin than visitors may realize.

”It's not only been an economic issue to the rafting business but an emotional issue to the whole town,” she said. ”We're a pretty tightknit community. To have a drowning happen so close to our town is real difficult.”