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

Cell phones would have been benificial in this situation, assuming they were useable, and would keep SAR better informed and less liable to injure themselves.

Tom Tom--

I agree, but cell phones in many areas in the national parks, forests, wildlife reguges, and BLM areas are useless. There is no service. The only thing that appears to be 100% reliable are satellite phones which few of us can afford to carry. I am in favor of low tech safeguards, one of which is a PFD. They cost about $60 bucks, don't depend on the presence of towers, and, if you take care of them, will last longer than your contract for cell phone service. By all means, carry a phone. If it works in an emergency, you have hit the jackpot. If not, you are still floating.

Rick Smith

1. Never paddle WW without a PFD and helmet.
2. Never paddle a river unless you know that section of the river very well, or you have someone with you who knows it very well.
Aren't these "1st grader level rules" of WW paddling?

Editor's note: Out of respect for Mr. Evan's family and his paddling companions, this comment was edited to remove disparaging comments.

I want to be sensitive to the emotions of the family and friends of the victim in this tragic situation, and as has been pointed out, a cardiac problem or other medical event may have been a key factor. It will never be known if a good PFD which kept the victim's face out of the water until help reached him would have made any difference in this case, but it sure couldn't have hurt.

That said, the comments about the importance of every boater wearing a PFD while on the water are right on target. I was involved in the recovery of a number of victims of boating accidents during my career, and they all had one common denominator - none of them was wearing a PFD. Several of those incidents involved fishermen on calm water in good weather, so the need for responsible safety isn't limited to whitewater.

If this discussion prompts even one person to use good judgment on the water in the future, then at least a little good will come from this loss.

My deep condolences go to the Evans' family. Angel Falls is a much-touted spot on the Big South Fork (BSF). For years TVCC (Tennessee Valley Canoe Club) paddlers have respected it - even at low-water levels. Fortunately, the leader(s) of my numerous trips on this beautiful river knew the potential danger - and more importantly - knew where the rapid was located - with or w/o a warning sign on the bank - as we approached several miles downstream from our start at Leatherwood Ford.

The portage around Angel Falls over a knarly hill will probably now be more acceptable to paddlers. Tony Evans' death may or may not have been due to respiratory compromise. A canoe capsized in swift water, paddler wearing no flotation (life jacket) is a pretty scarey, heart-grabbing scenario.

Again, my sympathy to Tony's family at their loss. CarolZ

I have been planning a paddling trip to this park for memorial day weekend and when I heard this story I remembered that I had just read this on the website a few days ago.

Leatherwood Ford Bridge to Station Camp or Blue Heron Mine

Distance 8 or 27 Miles
Difficulty I-II (Angel Falls & Devils Jump IV)
Average Drop 5
Use Season F-W-Sp-Early Summer
The stretch from Leatherwood to the Blue Heron Mine is a two day run combining moderate paddling difficulty with spectacular scenery. Angel Falls is two miles below Leatherwood Ford and should be portaged on river right at any level. Devils Jump is located just above the take-out and should be portaged on river left. *The portages are not signed*, be sure you are familiar with the landmarks which are associated with the approach to each rapids.

This came directly from the River Safety section on the BSF Park website.

I worked last summer at Big South Fork, and hope to clear up a few points of confusion here. Before I do, however, please understand that I do not speak for the National Park Service - only for myself, as a private citizen, and that this is how I understand the situation at Angel Falls (it could have changed after I left the park, or I could be altogether mistaken).

I often would meet park visitors who planning a trip from Leatherwood to Station Camp, and when asked about the lack of signage at Angel Falls, my standard response was that there used to be a sign many years ago, but that it continued to wash away in seasonal flooding. The sign was eventually never put back up because of liability issues (eg - if someone floated the river, expected to the sign but never saw it (for whatever reason), then NPS-BISO could be held liable for not keeping the sign there). Park staff keep a small photo album at the front desk of the main visitor center showing the Angel Falls area that is used when talking with folks about to float this part of the river. Just before you reach the portage, there is a large, long cliffline that is the traditional landmark for the portage. It is the only such exposed cliffs you will see between Leatherwood and Angel Falls. Park staff have always gladly made copies of the photo showing the cliffs for people who ask for one.

As far as cell phones (and sometimes park radios) go, good luck getting a signal in the river gorge. Unless Verizon or someone else plops a cell tower in the river, chances are your cell phone will be useless.

Angel Falls itself is a deathtrap except for in extremely low water conditions. It is a place that is beautiful to hike to and observe safely, but it has claimed even the most experienced of boaters.

A death at Big South Fork is always a tragic event. It's something that affects everyone, including the closely-knit park staff, and my deepest sympathies go out to the families.

Chance -

Thanks for providing some valuable insight into the area.

Certainly a tragic event, but somewhat disturbing are several comments related to the lack of cellphone service. I believe we need to rely less on phones to bail us out of trouble and more on pre-trip research and common sense. As much as possible, we should avoid installation of cell towers in the parks on ridges, etc.

If people are going to engage in high adventure then they have assumed the risk. It is regrettable that a person died. But basic safety precaution when on any water is a PFD. A cell is no good without service or when it gets wet.
People have to learn to be responsible for their own safety and that means research when traveling an unknown area. Even check out the conditions when it is a known area.
I have done WW rafting Class IV an V and fallen off is dangerous water and the guide was very quick to get me recovered since it was an underwater ledge spot. That was with all the safety precautions. I was in little danger due to good guides.

I like adventure but it always has risk. I do not like the idea that NPS is responsible for warning when people choose to go off the beaten trail.

If this area has more deaths then maybe more warnings are in order. But since it may have been a cardiac condition that is not warranted yet.

I was paddling the exact same route this weekend. I had no prior knowledge of this incident. The portage is completely ambiguous to first time travelers. We had a map, we knew the portage was to come up soon. We tried to paddle to the right bank as soon as we saw it ahead, but the current was too strong and drug two of our canoes directly into the rapids.

We were lucky enough to have survived. We also hiked the rugged climb up to the Leatherwood trail and back to the camp after one of our boats was destroyed by the rocks.

Whether the portage take out sign has to be replaced monthly, weekly or hourly, the effort would be worth it. The rapids come up quickly and without any notice to first time travelers.

as we all hate that Tony is gone ---we also know he was doing what he loved. I met him kayaking many times as he help teach me some of his own knowledge and experience.. Tony was well educated and was quite aware of the rules the extreme dangers and for his loss i am sorry to hear about.The water we shared common love for, as still as the water can be it also can speak loud and angry...we al must remember that...as i lift tony up and whispers as angels dance.... for those in charge of making our water ways safely traveled its only my hope we gain more directions for thos that are new to the water ways so there is no guess that they need to exit before approaching a class level they may not be prepared for.... as white water rescue i am seeking so that if by any mis hap that i miss my departure and find myself into this sitiuation i want to be better educated but as we seen no matter the experience its all about respecting the dangers and trying to learn as much as we can befor we even travel our water to make sure we have safe passage.... (tony)..nina