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Team Agness Raft Recovery

I’m standing in the Oregon Paddle Sports Store and Chance has just handed me two splatter paint patterned new throw ropes, with hot pink mesh. Custom. Today I drove up 3 hours to Eugene to help my mom move some furniture and I love to stop by the local store to support them when I am in the area. I look at my texts and Sean has just sent me “sounds like Team Agness and Friend is pinned on a log on the McKenzie.”  I’m slightly worried. I message back “oh boy, should I give your sister a call or do they have it handled?” I let Chance know I need to step outside and make a phone call, and when I come back in and let him know what is going on, he offers me any rental gear I need from the store.

Team Agness is Sean’s sister’s boat from when they were teenagers and it was the first family raft. It’s a recognizable boat! It’s a 14’ red Odessey, with a big patch on one end where a bear took a bite of it while it was sitting in their parents’ carport in Agness. I glued that patch. The logo Team Agness and Friend is stenciled on the side. That’s right “and friend,” just one. That’s how small Agness is, where they grew up at the confluence of the Rogue and the Illinois Rivers.

“Sounds like it’s half underwater, bottom facing upstream” is the next text from Sean, who is at work in Ashland. Seans’ sister Mary, during our brief phone call, lets me know that everyone is ok and that they have gone back to their cabin, a spring break rental, to get warm and dry. They are visiting from the Portland area. They already tried to pull the raft out, but didn’t have enough pull power or rope…so it is still on a log jam around mile post 44 on the McKenzie River highway. I let them know I will be there ASAP as soon as I can rally the resources, which will realistically be in the morning at this point in the afternoon, it’s 4:00.

My first call is to Clinton Begley, American Whitewater Director. No, not to report the log jam; which by the way you can report river hazards here, but because I know he lives up the McKenzie and as an old friend of mine I’m hoping to call in a favor. The thing is, I don’t have any of my boating gear with me. Not even shoes.  So I am going to need a full PPE kit, a pin kit, and a couple rescue savvy friends. It goes to voicemail. At this point I am moving mattresses in the Friendly St neighborhood 30 minutes later and still calling people when I hear back from him. Clinton is out of town, but I’m able to get the name of the local agency to notify, McKenzie Fire and Rescue. I call and let them know that there is a raft pinned, visible from the highway at mile post 44, and that nobody is injured and we will try to recovered it in the morning. The guy on the other end of the line seems unconcerned, I offer him my contact info and he declines, but says to call back if we need help.

My next go to move is to hit up the fb groups to see if I can recruit the local boating community, my Eugene favorite is Team Tanhands, which is more of a close knit class IV crew and less of the “general public” than other groups. These are the guys I learned to boat with. The news is already out, Helfrich has a post that says “Red raft at milepost 44. Says Team Agness. Any Ideas?” and Gabe Flock sees my Tanhands post and connects us two, so I learn that the Sheriff’s dept is out looking with a drone for people in the water. So I wade my way through the non emergency number voice prompt phone system twice and get ahold of a Lane county deputy who takes down the relevant info. Apparently, the agencies had a communication breakdown and the info about everyone being ok was lost in translation.

Dove Miller offers to lend me her entire PPE kit, I just need to swing by in the morning to pick it up. By the way, I don’t know how other people feel about lending out their drysuites, but I once heard a boater say that it’s like asking to borrow underwear. I’m not sure what to make of that analogy, but yea it’s a big deal. Lee offers to come out in the morning too, and bring his rescue gear. Also a huge win for the cause.

Lee and Amy Baker meet me early on the side of McKenzie River hwy and it's gray and drizzling. Mostly log trucks drive by, decked out with burnt conifers. We bushwhack around the river right bank to get a look at it, Mary and Ari have showed up ready to help as well. Ari describes how their 16 year old son was rowing the raft when they came around the corner and were funneled into the V shaped log jam, with no eddies in sight. The front raft hit the log and tipped, dumping the boy and his mom swimming under the logs. Ari parked the second raft on a log, jumped out, and pulled it over in the next instant and he was able to help his family where they had swam to shore. The boat had gone vertical and stayed there, the downstream current rushing against the floor and the underwater frame and oar tower pinning it to an upstream protruding tree branch nub. They tried for hours to free the gear, Ari wading out onto the log jam and unstrapping the frame, and then returning to shore to pull on the bow line. The water was coming up. They had on their PFDs, but no dry suites, and so had to abandon the boat. Listening to him, I couldn’t believe how lucky they were to have passed under the logs without body entrapment, there are multiple logs wedged together, the worst of it at the apex of the downstream V, splinters and snags everywhere. The entire river's current funnels underneath the logs and boils up aerated below.

Lee, Amy and I get on our drysuites and gather gear and Bobby Brown shows up with some extra rope and saws if needed. Lee and I discuss some options for the direction of pull, and determine that the only way out was going to be up. Lee pre sets a rope off a tree high on the right bank. The way the current hit the raft from two directions, stuffing it into a V in the log jam, any direction of pull would have to be against the current. There was no with the current option. Rollan Cummins, long time local guide, shows up and we chat with him as he has the same ideas about rotating the boat upward and detaching the frame. He's pulled many craft from the McKenzie over the years.

Ari says the frame was snagged in the tree and that if we could find a way to detach it, the raft might come free. The problem being…the D rings and straps were underwater. We hike down from river right, where we find an access trail downstream of the site. From the right bank, there is a way to get onto the log jam from shore, with a bit of wading and climbing. The bank above the site is totally cliffed out, made of eroding lose cobble and mud. Remnants of a wire fence dangle above us from the burnt property. There is logging cable and cement rubble attached to rusty metal littering the shore above the logs. The runout/ potential swim out of the site was thankfully ideal, with a deep moving pool and good access to shore. Well there were blackberries and some barbed wire. But that’s still good by Oregon standards. I climbed out and tested the logs for stability, they were solid.

I set a boat anchor using two wraps of tubular webbing around the raft tube that was exposed, through the bailer holes, then I clip into the static haul line and Lee, Ari and Mary pull down, using the tree as a direction change, to lift the boat up. The boat flexes but we don’t get any real movement. I re anchor to the frame only, using a sling to create a basket hitch, and they try again; doesn’t budge.

At this point Lee comes out to the raft as well and we bounce around ideas, he tries reaching inside the boat and feeling for the frame straps. Lee is able to use his river knife to cut through a strap, maybe. I let some air out of the underwater tubes. We try pulling the boat free of the frame again, both of us lifting and pushing this time, and we see that although the boat is moving, it is still held in place by the frame, which is bending now with the force of us pulling. We needed more power. The next thing we try is calling down Bobby to help pull, then Lee and I came to shore too. With 5 people pulling, we brake the anchor on the tree and we all sit down hard on the rocks (and barbed wire). Mary ended up getting wet, she and I on the end of the rope slid into the water when it failed. I have on a dry suit but she doesn’t, so she tapped out to go get changed into dry clothes. We decide to call it. The “boyscout pull” with the direction change isn’t going to work. The next logical progression is to put some redneck on it. Let’s combustion engine that bad boy. Ari asks how much a ticket will cost if we can’t get it unpinned. I say we’re just getting started, there’s no way we are leaving this boat here. Either we move the boat or we move the logs.

Bobby and Lee hike back up the hill and we use Bobby’s rope to pull our haul line further upstream to the top of the cliff where we are able to drive a vehicle over. We need probably 300 feet of rope (more initially) to make this happen. Bobby ties the rope directly to his van using a bowline, no hardware; I reset the boat anchor so that it captures both the tube and the frame, and we get ready to pull with some real force, Bobby’s van force! I give the signal from shore and they take up the slack, Bobby’s van fishtails and lurches and is even pulled backward by the spring in the rope, until he engages the e brake. The raft comes completely vertical, then over vertical, and looks like a contortionist bending over backward. The rope goes slack and the red boat rebounds to its original shape. Its position on the log has moved a little, there is more of it out of the water now. As the plan progresses, it became apparent we are "gunna need a bigger truck."

Round two. The raft and frame deform again and I can’t believe the tubes don’t rip apart, the metal frame tears its welds, and the oar tower where it was pinned finally comes free. I give the signal to stop pulling, then climb out and heave the boat over the righthand log to get it into the eddy where Ari and Amy are waiting, I signal for slack so they can pull it over, but the deflated tube is bogged down and the eddy is flushing, they are barely able to pull it in to shore. I signal to Lee to communicate to the driver to take up slack again, and they are able to get it to shore. Ari looks in amazement at the bent oarlock and the broken frame.


The frame was mangled but Team Agness held enough air after we pumped it up that we were able to portage it around the logs, borrow the two kayak paddles, and R2 it downstream almost a mile where Mary met us with the raft trailer. We had the whole scene wrapped up in under 4 hours!


Lee and I did a debrief over the phone on my drive home and we agreed that the boat recovery went well and was a great training exercise for us. There are some broader take away moments that I want to highlight as well. Of course the most important thing in a mission like this is COMMUNICATION. I should have communicated directly with the Sheriff earlier, as soon as I had gathered the info from Mary. I had thought the local McKenzie Fire and Rescue would be the governing body for the incident. By the time I followed up with the Sheriff, they had already sent people out with drones to check for victims in the water. I checked back in with the Sheriff in the morning after we recovered the gear. It wasn’t a huge deal, but could have been endangering the sheriff’s team on the ground unnecessarily.

Lee and I have boated together and trained together for the American Canoe Association L4 Swiftwater Instructor certification, so we were on the same page with hand signals and big picture ideas. In hindsight, we could have pre-communicated more with the other folks helping just to set some hand signals and expectations. Lee was up top at the cliff edge to relay communication between the driver and myself. I was on shore next to the log jam and boat. Amy was with me, and her and Lee used their phones to communicate between the two stations. There were bushes obstructing our view of each other, and it was too far to hear, so this was a huge win. I think I’ll add radios to my rescue kit, as most riverside scenes do not include cell service.

The other communication take away is BE SPECIFIC. If I ask someone for the rope, I might ask for the clean end specifically (which I did) because a knot or a bag in the log jam is going to snag (which it did). If I might say “hold this rope” I could instead say “hold this rope out of the water.” It also helps with specificity if folks all know the terms used for the gear and systems.

Let’s call the next take away concept KNOW BEFORE YOU GO. The river wide log was a known hazard among the local guide community since January, also the Sheriff’s department knew about it and told me over the phone that they had been hoping to work with the Forest Service to remove it. Since January. This accident happened on 3.28.2024. The log had been previously cut on both ends, but had not moved and has continued to collect additional logs. At this point, it has become a log jam on a blind corner with no eddies. The boating party checked with the owner of their rental cabin, a mile upstream, and were told the section they wanted to float was clear of wood. They also called the local ranger district before launching. It's difficult when doing your due diligence before a trip to know who has the current and accurate information. I want to share some know before you go resources and mention what Lee and I did to gather our own know before you go intel.

Aaron Helfrich was super helpful (of course) during the recovery planning stage and was able to connect me with the info for the adjacent landowners at the exact location. I felt a little bit bad calling the landowners at 8pm, but they didn’t pick up so I left a message. Kyle Duke (McKenzie River Guides Assoc) sent me an email with some up-to-date access info for the public lands river left, which burned badly and are still being rebuilt. We found out a new road had been cut, and that there is a trail to the river on the left. I learned from Dove that the back water channel on the left would need to be crossed to access the log jam, and that we would need a watercraft to do so. I gathered photos from the accident and accident site and used those to decide which resources we needed. Boaters can check the McKenzie River Guides page for news on log hazards, river flows and weather before launching. The primary large scale resource river runners should be using is put out by American Whitewater in partnership with the Oregon State Marine board. WE BORT is designed for whitewater boaters to report hazards like this one. This hazard was reported there on 1/29, but the exact location is difficult to load on a mobile device, it looks like a map of all of Oregon, covered in yellow diamonds. It takes some patience and a good connection to use. This log was also posted on the Eugene Rafters Association Facebook Page as a local KEZI news article. I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of current and accurate local knowledge. Sometimes you really have to dig to find it or be ready to road scout/ boat scout thoroughly.


Our team also had a couple close calls and did some hazard mitigation during the boat recovery effort. The original tree anchor for the boyscout pull redirect broke because we did not use strong enough anchor material and had not planned to put much force on that tree. In hindsight, always setting up the rig to take a full load is a better idea because plans change and evolve during the effort. We might need that anchor for something else later. We kept adding force as we tried to budge the boat and should have considered that 5 people pulling on a rope meant that the anchor should be bomber enough to put people on (not just gear). It’s failure put people in the river.


We also had local bystanders and helpers showing up without PFDs on. I laid down a hard “no” on that for the people I didn’t know. I actually had to mime it to the guy on shore from my position on the log jam. I signaled to him that if he was not wearing a PFD, that I did not want him standing on shore with a throw rope. I had to use the phone to call Lee and get him to have the same man step back from the cliff edge later on during the combustion engine pull. However, when Bobby showed up not in a PFD, someone who is a very well-informed boater and rescuer, I did not stop the scene and ask him to go put one on. I feel like in the moment I justified that because Bobby understands the risk he is taking. In hindsight, it was my Rescue Scene, and I should have. I also kept everyone else off the log jam besides Lee and myself, the two people with the most experience and the proper thermal protection for swimming.


There were a couple close calls that ended up NOT happening because either Lee or myself anticipated the hazard and adjusted our actions before problems could arise. One item I mentioned is the clean end of the ropes being used. Another is that Lee called a stop before we pulled with the big truck, phoned Amy, and asked what the plan was for after the raft came free. We could tell it was getting close. Honestly I had not made a plan yet because I didn’t know what would happen. We could pull, the raft could come free, I could lift it over the logs and we could then bring it to shore with a throw rope tag line. This is plan A and is what we ended up doing. There was almost a miscommunication though, Ari was initially lowering the raft on the tag line instead of bringing it in to shore, presumably thinking to pass it through the small slot and over the logs there. I saw that location would likely pin the raft again, especially now that it was half deflated, so I called a stop and had the truck pull back upstream and had Amy and Ari work together to move the location of their pull upstream to utilize the top of the flushing eddy. They had to duck some dangling barb wire to get there. Some other possibilities were that once the raft came free, it would submarine on the end of the taught line in the current, or it could even dive further under the log jam if we didn’t get it all the way free in the final heave. We also were glad we tried the truck pull before any mechanical advantage systems. It was safer and we also had the flexibility to give and take slack multiple times quickly during the boat being freed and lifted over the log. If we had a brake prusik to deal with, that process would have been more complicated and endangered rescuers by putting them in line with the haul system to mind the prusik.

We tried to keep the rescue plan progression moving in a direction that tried the techniques that would be safest for rescuers first. It at one point did occur to me that if we pulled on the raft and the logs moved, (attached to the raft frame oar tower,) that a vehicle could be pulled off the cliff. I kept that thought to myself and trusted that the up top team was parked far enough away and taking every precaution. I can’t imagine how I could have run this recovery without a second capable person, Lee. The distances and communication barriers between the upper and lower sites were immense, a knowledgeable rescuer was needed at both.

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