Kayaker Dies on the Little White Salmon

Washington's Little White Salmon is the most difficult regularly run river on the West Coast, yet it has only claimed two kayakers. The second, Jenna Watson, died on June 16. Here's the story.

Watson navigating Gettin' Busy 30 minutes before she drowned.     Photo: Nate Pfeiffer

On Saturday, June 16, Portland, Oregon-based kayaker Jenna Watson drowned on the Little White Salmon, a tributary of Washington's Columbia River. Watson, 38, was an experienced kayaker, and this was her first trip down the Little White, a Class V river known worldwide for the quality of its challenging and dangerous whitewater.

“When you go in there you shouldn’t be questioning your skills at all. It’s rapid after rapid after rapid,” says Lane Jacobs, a Portland-based paddler who calls the Little White the most difficult regularly run river on the West Coast. The Little White was first kayaked in the early '90s, but saw few paddlers until the 2000s, when boat technology, paddler skills, and the river's reputation for clean, big whitewater began attracting top kayakers from around the globe. Today, as many as 10 boaters a day—20 on a busy weekend—run the river. Yet Watson is only the second kayaker to drown on the Little White. “It’s a serious, serious river. I’m kind of surprised there haven't been more deaths on it," says Jacobs.

Watson and the group of nine kayakers she was paddling with had negotiated the first two miles of Class V rapids—Gettin' Busy, Boulder Sluice, Island Drop—without incident. “She was having great lines," says Robert Bart, a Portland-based kayaker on the water with Watson that day. A second team of kayakers were setting safety on river left when Watson's group came upon S-Turn, a two-tiered rapid that begins with a 12-foot waterfall and flows into a recirculating hydraulic with an undercut wall (a cave) on the left. Watson was the fifth paddler to drop in. She boofed off the left side of the waterfall and paddled hard to punch through the recirculating hole that forms the crux of the second drop. When she hit the wall of water, she caught an edge, flipped, and was flushed into the cave.

“I was in an eddy six or seven feet from her, but I just couldn’t do anything,” says Stephen Cameron, an urgent care doctor in the area. He watched her pink helmet and the blue tip of her kayak vanish into the cave. She never resurfaced. As the seconds passed, the kayakers scrambled to shore and threw ropes for Watson to grab hold. A minute after she'd disappeared, her kayak surfaced beside the cave—she wasn't in it.

Ryan Bradley, a kayaker from Bellingham, Washington, watched the accident unfold from the bank. Seven years ago to the day, his brother had drowned on the Class V Clavey River near Yosemite National Park. Bradley, who had never met Watson, grabbed a rope and clipped it to his rescue harness. "Pull me out in 30 seconds," he told two kayakers who held the line. Then he dove in. Twenty seconds later, Bradley resurfaced with Watson, who was unconscious, in his arms. She'd been under for four minutes.

“After 20 minutes of CPR, I knew it was over,” says Cameron. But the group continued to administer CPR for the next two hours while waiting for a rescue helicopter that, through some miscommunication, never came. At 4:45 p.m., Cameron and the team made the call to hike Watson out of the canyon. Using life-jackets for padding, they strapped Watson's body to a kayak and carried her 800-feet up a scree slope to the road. Her baby-blue boat was left on the banks of the Little White, where in the days following the accident, paddlers placed flowers to commemorate Watson's life.

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