On Saturday, April 24, 2004, a group of Dallas Downriver Club and Texins Outdoor Club paddlers went to Edge Falls Road to paddle the Upper Guadalupe River about 15.5 miles down to Weidner Ranch where we had camped the night before. Overnight, the skies opened up in a torrential downpour that lasted two or more hours, and the storm that hit us had also hit many miles upriver in Kendall and Kerr Counties. Upon arriving, we unloaded and were watching the river while our drivers shuttled the vehicles back to the ranch, then returned to paddle with us. While awaiting their return we witnessed a near carnage and assisted in the rescue of several people, as well as the prevention of many other rescues.
Guadalupe Canoe Livery had taken a very large church group of novice paddlers and two small Boy Scout groups with limited experience to Bergheim and put them on the river at the FM 3351 bridge in a flow of more than 2,500 cfs. None of the paddlers in the church group appeared to have any previous experience. There was no discernable group leader, and nobody exhibited any knowledge of river rescue skills or the ability to recognize impending disasters. Nobody in the church group exercised any type of adult judgement in determining that river conditions were unsafe for inexperienced paddlers, especially their very young children, several of whom were pre-teens.
Typically, the Upper Guadalupe River is considered unsafe for tubers when flows exceed about 1,000 cfs, and outfitters generally do not provide rentals or shuttles for anybody unless their skills and experience are known when flows exceed about 1,500 cfs. There is no law governing such decisions, and typically outfitters exercise a great deal of caution out of concern for their customers as well as protection from legal liability in the event of injuries or deaths.
As we observed the river we started noticing paddles, PFDs, water bottles and other items floating downriver at a very fast speed. Shortly thereafter we saw overturned canoes, mostly submerged, being carried by swift currents toward the low-water bridge at Edge Falls Road, and a short distance behind the boats we saw people in the water being swept toward the bridge which has three channels open beneath it through which water passes - two of the three channels were already clogged by huge piles of deadfallen tree debris that had been swept downriver in the rising water overnight. Normally, you can paddle a canoe or kayak under the bridge, often without having to duck your head. On this day the water was at least 4 feet deeper than usual.
Immediately, I ran to the center of the bridge and started signalling to paddlers in the river to swim aggressively to the river right bank and get out of the water. Others in our group joined the effort, with some working their way up the bank on river right as far as they could go to assist swimmers in getting safely ashore. The Boy Scout groups arrived first, and we got them all safely out of the water above the bridge. The church group was another matter altogether. None of them appeared to be making any effort to get to safety on dry land. Going to the bridge was a prescription for disaster, and probably would have resulted in several fatalities as swimmers became trapped in the strainers that formed under the bridge.
One father and young son paddled perilously close to the bridge and at the last minute realized they did not have the strength or ability to avoid being swept under the bridge. The father instinctively jumped out of the canoe to push it to shore, but went into water well over his head and was completely ineffective. I managed to snag the grab handle on the bow and pull the boat with his son to shore and get the boy out of the boat, but the father was swept into the bridge abutment.
Thanks to swift and effective efforts by members of our group we were able to snatch him from the river before he was swept under the low-water bridge. A short time later another father and very young son were in midstream and heading right for the bridge. We were yelling for them to swim to shore, but the boy was completely unresponsive and the father was following his son about 15 yards behind him trying to get to him, which he managed to do just as they approached the bridge. Valiantly, one member of our group grabbed the child whose father had lifted him from the river just before he was swept under the bridge, but we had no chance to grab the father. He must have smashed his head on the underside of the bridge and became momentarily hung in debris, because it took about 45 seconds for him to sweep out the other side. I thought we had our first fatality, for sure. He came out the downriver side floating face down with his hands on the surface, fingers spread and no movement. He suddenly snapped his head up. I threw a rescue rope right over the top of him, but he was too dazed to grab it and was washed downriver.
By this time we had safely gotten some 78 members of the church group plus about 10 Boy Scouts out of the river. The members of the church group were worthless in doing anything to help their own cause, and about the only thing positive they did was get out of the way by gathering on the bank and starting to pray. They did not even bother to do a head count to see if anybody was missing. It was the single biggest example of ineptitude and lack of judgement I have ever personally witnessed on a river.
The man who washed under the bridge got to the bank some distance downstream, then found a boat that had gotten away and climbed back in, only to capsize again less than 50 feet downstream, where he then swam almost all the way to Guadalupe River State Park. We sensed that some in their group were actually contemplating climbing back into boats and continuing on downriver. Seeing that we had safely pulled everybody we had seen from the water, we made a decision to get into our own boats and get downriver ahead of them. If they were going back into the water, then we did not want to be anywhere near them because it could have resulted in injuries or deaths to members of our group.
I caught the man who swept under the bridge just about a half mile above the park and got him out of the river. After depositing him on dry land on river left I instructed him to stay where he was and I would send law enforcement personnel and/or park rangers to rescue him and get him safely back on shore (my whitewater boat is equipped with a solo saddle and airbags, so there was no way I could carry him with me.) He did not heed my instructions, and some fifteen or twenty minutes after we arrived at Guadalupe River State Park he came ashore in a boat with two other men who had picked him up in a tandem canoe - a very dangerous feat in that high water condition.
Between the time he went under the bridge and the time we departed Edge Falls Road the river had risen at least a foot, and the flow increased substantially to about 3,270 cfs. It was no place for inexperienced paddlers, and no responsible livery would have put those people on the river in those conditions. We ended up having to steer some 40-50 people out of the river, assist in getting more than 20 swimmers out of the water and watched as about a dozen boats were swept under the bridge and downstream.
Thanks to the quick and decisive efforts by paddlers in our group there were no serious injuries or fatalities. Guadalupe Canoe Livery lost a lot of boats, paddles and PFD's, some of which were not even being worn by paddlers on the river in those conditions. I have to wonder about an outfitter who would even put people on the river in those conditions, let alone allow them to get into his boats without first securely donning their PFDs. It is a mark of greed and lack of concern for one's customers to put them in harm's way to make a buck.
This event emphasizes the need for paddlers to be swiftwater rescue trained, prepared with the proper gear for the conditions to be encountered, and possessing the ability to work together as a team to effect rescues. We may have prevented at least 15-20 fatalities by quick efforts and rescue skills. Had we not been there, then the weather story that made national news would have been changed to a story about many deaths occurring on the Upper Guad that Saturday.
I want to express my gratitude to all those whose efforts contributed to preventing any serious problems, and hope that we all learned valuable lessons about river safety from what we observed. After the carnage, we had a great 15.5 mile trip down to Weidner Ranch with only minor mishaps that were quickly resolved without the loss of paddlers, boats or gear. Several people in our group of trained and skilled paddlers made a decision not to paddle that day because they saw the conditions as being beyond their skill levels and did not want to risk injury or death.
KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS! EXERCISE GOOD JUDGEMENT! If the river is beyond your skills level and you are not in the company of others who can assist you quickly, then make the decision NOT to go. The life you save MAY be your own! - Or, that of somebody else!