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

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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.

Comments

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


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.


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.


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.


Chance -

Thanks for providing some valuable insight into the area.


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.


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.


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


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