A Spartanburg, S.C., man drowned two days shy of his 57th birthday near the Blossom Bar rapid of the Rogue River last Friday.
According to Sheriff John Bishop, volunteers from the Agness Fire and Rescue Department and Sheriff's Marine Deputy Ted Heath responded to the 4 p.m. report of a possible drowning at Foster Bar, about 50 miles up to Rogue River from Gold Beach.
Reports indicate Steven D. Hoyer was trying to negotiate the channel at the top of Blossom Bar known as "Picket Fence," and while trying to get his raft free, he slipped and fell into the river. Occupants of a private powerboat recovered Hoyer several hundred feet downriver and conducted CPR on him for about 30 minutes while help was en route.
Hoyer was an experienced rafter, and it is unknown at this time if he drowned or if his death is related to a medical condition.
Blossom Bar is located in the Wild and Scenic Area of the Rogue River and the Picket Fence drop is considered to be the second-most difficult section of the overall-Class III river.
That section of river is rated Class IV, among the more difficult of the rapids along the river. According to various websites about those rapids, Picket Fence has a large hole in which boaters can get stuck, as thousands of cubic feet per second pour in from behind and the "fence" of boulders blocks rafters from going forward.
According to BlossomBar.com, raft guides must make a quick left-to-right move to avoid the Picket Fence on the south bank. It's not a particularly difficult maneuver, but getting swept into the hole has had deadly consequences. Some get pulled and held under the rocks there. Others have tried to swim to shore and become tangled in boat rope and drowned. Others are tossed from their boats, various news accounts have reported.
Boaters are advised to scout the route, watch other boaters take the rapid, take their time and portage around if there are any doubts about getting through safely.
There were no deaths on the river between 1998 to 2007, but since then, and including Hoyer, six people have died.
Marty Law, boating safety program manager for the Oregon Marine Board, said that section of the river is among the deadliest rapids in the state. That takes into account the almost 13,000 or so rafters who ply the Rogue River each season, the force of the water, and that rescues are often difficult as the area is only accessible by powerboat or helicopter.
Many were wearing life jackets. Many had experience. But low discharge and water flows are hanging up even the most experienced boaters on the Rogue River this season.
It's been particularly rough on the Rogue with three out of five statewide fatalities occurring there since January, according to the Oregon State Marine Board.
"Even when the water levels are lower, the power and force of the current is so strong, that any loose clothing, lines, etc., can easily get snagged between boulders, potentially holding a person hostage or worse, leading to drowning," said Deputy Ernie Fields from the Josephine County Marine Patrol. Fields has been a marine law enforcement whitewater instructor for nearly a decade and has seen what the force of the rivers can do. "There are so many rocks and the water is so low - I haven't seen it this low in a long time," Fields added.
The Oregon State Marine Board and marine law enforcement strongly urge boaters to take the following precautions:
andbull;Scout the river before running it. Rivers are dynamic, and don't stay the same over time. Boulders move, trees fall, and currents shift. When in doubt -scout and portage out.
andbull;Float toys such as air mattresses, inner tubes and inflatable rafts were not designed for use on rivers. They do not provide adequate flotation and puncture easily. It only takes one tree limb. These float toys are also less maneuverable and often lead boaters directly into strainers and other underwater hazards. If you're on a river, be in a well-constructed boat designed for white water use.
andbull;Wear a life jacket. All boaters are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket when operating on Oregon rivers with Class III rapids or higher.
andbull;Boat with others and stay within sight of other companions.
andbull;Know your limits and how to self-rescue. Be sure your skills and experience are equal to the river and the conditions. If you're feeling tired and fatigued, find a place to pull off and rest.
andbull;Wear protective clothing for your hands, feet and head. Helmets are highly recommended in rapids with boulders.
Fields reminds boaters, "We want folks to have fun and create great memories, but be hyper-vigilant when it comes to your safety."