August 6, 2008 Edition

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River trip results in
near-death experience



Mike Gray of Black Rock survived a near-fatal accident while canoeing on the Spring River on Sunday. He and 15 others were caught by surprise when their trip was interrupted as they were swept into a logjam in a bend of the river.
Vivian Heyl
Staff Writer

Black Rock resident Mike Gray planned a relaxing day Sunday with his family and friends. They were going to float down Spring River from Ravenden to Imboden.

The day started out picture perfect with the river flowing lazily. "There were 16 of us all together," Mike said. "My wife, Kim, and I and our two sons, Brandon and Tyler, and a group of friends." Mike was paddling a canoe and Kim was paddling a kayak. There were two canoes and two kayaks, as well as several floatation devices in the group.

Mike said the group set out from Ravenden at about 10 a.m. and began the trip downriver. It's normally about a four-hour float and they were all looking forward to it.

"I thought what a fun day," Mike said. "But little did I know that the fun day was going to turn into a near death experience."

The river was moving unusually slow and it was taking longer than normal to move downstream. As they neared a section of the river where a tornado had passed through some years previously they could see the path it took as it swept across the river.

Mike said, "All of a sudden I saw what looked like a big log from a fallen tree lying in the water. The water had suddenly become swifter but we thought we could go around it.

"I saw Kim start to tip over and I tried to go to help her but my canoe was swept into the log, spun around and then turned over, sending me down under the water."

Jim Stevens of Black Rock who was paddling the other canoe on the float trip said he also tipped over and when he surfaced he saw that Kim was in distress and went to help.

Meanwhile Mike was caught in the undertow of the river and jammed up against the log and other debris hidden below the surface.

"I remember thinking 'This is not good,'" Mike said. "I kept telling myself keep cool, don't panic, just get to the surface.

"There was a terrific pressure from the water trying to pass through the fallen logs and other stuff that had been trapped in that part of the river and I couldn't get loose. I remember pushing as hard as I could against the log and rising enough to see light over my head."

Above him Kim had also been swept into the log but instead of going under she was pinned between her kayak and Mike's canoe.

"I saw Kim was sandwiched between the canoe and the kayak and went to help her," Stevens said. "I could see our stuff floating down the river but I didn't see Mike anywhere."

"I swam over to where she was and pulled the kayak away from her. When I looked down I saw Mike's orange shirt."

Mike said he told himself he didn't want to die this way and he reached up to grab the side of his canoe to help pull himself out of the water.

As he did so Stevens grabbed his hand and helped haul him out.

"He looked like a ghost," Stevens said. "I saw his hand come out of the water and I grabbed him and pulled. My wife had arrived by then and she was pulling on me as I pulled on Mike. We got him out onto the bank and then pulled Kim out."

"It was an overwhelming experience," Mike said. "I'm a fireman and I've had training in how to respond in dangerous situations. Maybe that helped me to get myself up to the surface instead of drowning but it was a near thing.

"I want others to know that if they float down the river they need to be aware that there are dangerous places that could cause a fatal accident. Those trees are still there. Don't float the river without knowing where the obstacles are and wear a life jacket."

"I was wore out," Mike said. "We still had to get back into the water and finish the trip. I kept a sharp eye out and every time I saw something that looked different I was extra cautious. Finally five hours later we arrived at Imboden without further trouble."

"It only took us nine hours to do the four hour float," Stevens said. "We didn't have any more problems, which was a relief to all of us."

Mike said, since the accident, he has been talking to different agencies to see what it would take to get the logjam removed from that section of the river.

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