Recent attempts by several kayakers to run the North Fork of the Virgin River through an area in Zion National Park known as The Narrows were far from successful. The result was a challenging search and rescue mission which became even more interesting after two of the boaters found themselves stranded 800 feet above the canyon floor.
The Narrows is known as a location for a spectacular and challenging hike. It can also be very dangerous for those who are unprepared—or who fail to check the weather forecast. A park publication describes the area:
The Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon, 16 miles long, up to 2000 feet deep, and at times only 20-30 feet wide....It is not, however, a trip to be underestimated....There is no maintained trail; the route is the river. The current is swift, the water is cold, and the rocks underfoot are slippery. Flash flooding and hypothermia are constant dangers. Good planning, proper equipment, and sound judgment are essential for a safe and successful trip.
During the spring snowmelt runoff season, the flow of the North Fork of the Virgin River is occasionally high enough to allow for whitewater kayaking, so the trip changes from a hike to a very challenging boating trip. According to a park report,
This year, five boating parties obtained permits for one-day trips through the Narrows over the weekend of April 24th.
Members of four of the groups unintentionally spent nights in the Narrows, with kayakers in two of the groups losing their boats and requiring assistance to complete their trips.
On the afternoon of Friday, April 24th, kayaker Curtis Martin was washed under a log jam. Fortunately, he was not trapped by the hazard and was able to safely reach the river bank, but his boat was lost downstream. The remaining two members of his party left him their extra food and warm clothing and continued on their way. They eventually came upon another group and both groups spent the night together.
On the following afternoon, Martin’s party reported his predicament to the park, which organized a rescue team that including roads and trails foreman Don Sharlow, ranger Dan Hovenac, and local resident Logan Hebner.
The team began its descent of the Narrows on Sunday morning. A Bell 47G helicopter served as a radio relay. Two of the other groups that had planned day trips for Saturday failed to clear the Narrows by day’s end. The first group, consisting of two hard shell kayakers, provided Martin with additional food, then continued downstream; members of the second group, who were in two inflatable kayaks, invited Martin to accompany them.
On Sunday morning, Martin and his new travelling companions came upon the boats of the hard shell kayakers who had passed Martin the afternoon before. One boat was on a gravel bar in a narrow section of canyon. The boat was tied to a rope which was anchored 80 feet up the difficult-to-climb cliff face. A second boat was found upside down, downstream.
Those were not promising discoveries.
Martin finally exited the Narrows on Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after losing his boat. When Martin’s party came out of the Narrows, they reported the abandoned kayaks. The Bell helicopter began searching the mesas above the kayaks.
The two kayakers were discovered, cliffed-out 800 feet above the river, unable to climb up or down. The two had attempted to climb out of the canyon after one of the kayakers lost his boat. They were concerned with fluctuating river levels and flash floods.
Therein lies one of the major risks of trips in the Narrows—due to the steep terrain, it is difficult to usually impossible to climb out of the canyon along most of the route, especially without proper climbing gear and skills.
The two stranded boaters were very fortunate that weather conditions permitted use of the helicopter to locate them and determine their plight. However, their saga wasn't over.
The helicopter’s pilot was unable to land near them due to heavy brush, so Grand Canyon’s short haul team was requested.
Due to higher rotor clearance, the Grand Canyon MD 900 helicopter was able to locate a safe landing zone and the two kayakers were picked up and flown out of the backcountry.
The availability of the second helicopter from Grand Canyon and its ability to land and safety extract them from their perch, 800 feet above the bottom of the canyon, was a key piece in the successful completion of this mission.
Zion Narrows was temporarily closed to boating while the causes of the multiple incidents were evaluated. They were reopened on April 30th.
The NPS has advised prospective boaters that they should be comfortable with Class V whitewater prior to attempting the Narrows run. At some levels, the rapids may warrant a lower classification, but the extreme difficulty of rescue requires that boaters be highly proficient and self-sufficient.
Once incidents such as the one described above are completed, the people who participated in the original SAR mission are often forgotten, so I contacted the park to inquire about that side of the story. What happened to the three rescuers who had entered the canyon Sunday morning to conduct a search?
Ron Terry, the park's Information Officer, confirmed that Don Sharlow, Dan Hovenac, and local resident Logan Hebner all safely kayaked the length of the Narrows—no small feat in itself, given the fate of the boaters whose trip prompted the rescue in the first place.
The park's press release on these incidents offers a good summary, and a reminder for those planning similar trips:
Rescue in the Narrows, if possible at all, will be significantly delayed due to the extreme inaccessibility of the canyon. Boaters are also reminded to plan for unintended overnight stays and emergencies.