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Missed Portage Leads to Death At Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area


A missed portage around Angel Falls Rapid has led to the drowning of a Tennessee man. NPS photo of Angel Falls Rapid.

A missed portage around Angel Falls Rapid in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area has led to the death of a 61-year-old paddler.

Tony Evans, 61, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was one of four men who headed off on a two-day canoe trip on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River around 3 p.m. last Friday, launching their two open canoes at the Leatherwood Ford river access.

Park rangers say that about two miles downstream the four missed their intended portage at Angel Falls Rapid and were swept into the Class IV whitewater, where both canoes overturned. All four men were washed through the rapid and emerged in a large pool of flat water. They were able to establish voice contact with each other and verified that all four had emerged from the rapid.

The two members of the group who were furthest downstream secured the canoes and equipment on the west bank of the river and awaited the arrival of their two companions. They saw Mr. Evans swimming toward them, then suddenly give a shout and begin having trouble staying afloat. The two men swam to his aid and found Evans face down in the water and unresponsive. They pulled him to shore and attempted to revive him, but without success. Mr. Evans was not wearing a lifejacket at the time.

One member of the group hiked about a quarter-mile through very rugged terrain to reach a hiking trail, then followed it for about two miles upstream to Leatherwood Ford, where he used an emergency phone to call 911.

Rangers Tom Barnes and Howard Duncan responded along with personnel from Scott County EMS and the county’s rescue squad. Rescue team personnel used ropes and a litter to pull Evans up a very steep and muddy river bank and carried him to a trail where an ATV was used to transport him back to an ambulance at Leatherwood Ford. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy is pending.


The title of the article assumes drowning as the cause of death, but the autopsy results have not been released and the assumption of drowning alluded to in Mr. Repanshek's title has not been corroborated by any hard evidence.

So noted.

This could well be a cardiac death.

I would have one question. Is there a warning sign indicating the take out site above the rapids? I once investigated a death in the Grand Canyon of the Sturgeon River in the UP of Michigan as a medical examiner about 15 years ago where a kayaker missed an unmarked take out point, got funneled into a high wall canyon with no escape, and went over a large water fall with virtually no chance of survival. When I inquired as to why there was no signage to indicate the take out point, I was told by the US Forest Sevice that because this was a Wild and Scenic River as designated by Congress, such signage was frowned upon. It seems to me that in that case, scenery trumped human life. I wonder if the same situation exists on Big South Fork. If it is the case, imo, priorities are twisted.

Your question about priorities is not the first time that has been raised, although perhaps not specifically in terms of signage.

At various times on the Traveler there have been discussions about how far the NPS should go to make the parks safer for visitors. More than a few have raised the opinion that parks shouldn't be sanitized for our safety, that they should remain fairly wild places where we have to rely on our own skills.

Not having been to Big South, I can't say whether there's a sign alerting paddlers to the rapid or not. Looking at the photo of Angel Falls, and having paddled for many years, it looks fairly obvious that on your approach you would realize that there's a significant rapid ahead, one you surely would hear. But that interpretation is just from glancing at this small photo. Without being on the river under the same conditions it's hard to say what transpired. They very well could have recognized the threat too late to pull off.

There is (was) a warning sign prior to the Angel Falls rapids location, but the sign was alledegly washed away a couple of weeks ago during flooding of the river.

Which goes to show (Michael Robinson's response) about information vs judgment. If a sign was washed away, then for all we know, the boaters had been told of and were looking for the sign and ignored visual and audible warnings that they were approaching a dangerous area.

"Mr. Evans was not wearing a lifejacket at the time." That could be the biggest problem he had.

Please, people in boats, use life jackets. Even Michael Phelps could hit his head on a rock and not be able to swim out of trouble. In the Grand Canyon, personal flotation devices are manadatory. Although there are long stretches of calm water between the big rapids, you must keep your lifejacket on. It's just smart.

Rick Smith

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