Kayaker’s Life Lost on the Laurel:

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Laurel Creek (photo courtesy American Whitewater)

Knoxville, Tenn., kayaker April Morton, 31, died in a paddling accident on Sunday, Dec. 15, on North Carolina’s Laurel River, according to a story in the Knoxville Citizen Times.

Morton, a faculty member and doctoral student at the University of Tennessee’s Bredesen Center and research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was an experienced kayaker, according to a report issued by American Whitewater. In social media tributes, Morton, a member of Knoxville’s Chota Canoe Club, was described as kind, sweet, caring, intelligent, humble and joyful, always wearing a smile.

Kayaker April Morton, who was killed on the Laurel River in North Carolina.

How It Happened:

The following is according to a report on American Whitewater:

“This is my account of the drowning on Big Laurel, N.C. I did not witness the entrapment but I’ll start from what I saw and then paraphrase a first hand account of the entrapment.

I was paddling with one other kayaker, it was close to 2 PM Dec 15 2019.  The level was around 6 inches on the bridge gauge, a low medium. We had paddled about 1 mile in when we were flagged down by some boaters running upstream on the riverside trail to cell service.  They warned us that a boater was getting CPR at the first big rapid called stairstep.

Myself, being a paramedic, and my fellow boater, a firefighter/EMT, knew we would be able to help in some way, with both of us doing CPR regularly on the job.  We arrived to find a group doing excellent CPR, with at least one EMT in the group. We joined in and continued until paramedics and local volunteer firefighter/ rescue crews arrived.  Their response was timely, especially considering there was no cell phone service at the scene and then they had to hike in a mile once they arrived.

Advanced life support was initiated and every effort was made.  As a paramedic I can say that everything was done that was possible to reverse the cardiac arrest.  The ACLS algorithms were followed just as they would have been in an emergency room. An ED doctor happened to paddle in and contributed to the efforts as well.  All the professionals on scene agreed her best chance was to continue resuscitation efforts there on scene where the highest quality CPR could be delivered as well as the medications and defibrillation- just as it would have been at an ED.  After over an hour of CPR the extraction began and the first responders and responding paramedics heroically continued CPR as best they could as she was carried, and then moved on an ATV, and then to the ambulance, and as I understand it they worked all the way to the hospital as they ensured the any possible hypothermia was reversed.

From a member of her party, I got an account of the entrapment.  She was a solid Knoxville boater with several years experience. It happened in the sieve on the left after the top drop of stairstep. This is the one that is known to have had some close calls. She apparently got kicked left in the top drop and flipped when her boat hit a log lodged between the two rocks. When she came out of her boat she went straight into the sieve.  It was immediately a head down entrapment. Her group rushed to help and were able to get to her to get a rope around her leg. They could reach her from the rocks forming the sieve. They couldn’t get her out with a direct pull over the force of the water.  With the help of another crew who had arrived,they set up a mechanical advantage.

They got her free. There was a log in the sieve that had to be moved for her to get free. It was said she was heads down around 20 minutes.

Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director for American Whitewater who has paddled the Laurel River dozens of times, said there is a known sieve near Stairstep Rapids, one of the harder rapids on the run. “It gets paddled a lot. There are thousands of descents a month,” Colburn said of the Laurel, adding it’s “not impossible” to get kicked over to the sieve on the Laurel by the current.

Last year there were six reported kayaker fatalities  in Western North Carolina.

“We want people to learn from accidents and not repeat them,” Colburn said in the report, touring the organizations river flows and safety education programs.

“She was with a very competent group of paddlers that were well versed in swiftwater rescue practices as well as advanced first aid and resuscitation (CPR) techniques,” Chota Canoe Club president David McConnell said in the report. “It was a group of paddlers that I would entrust my life with…Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and everyone in the community who connected with April.”

Read the full American Whitewater accident report here:  https://www.americanwhitewater.org/…/deta…/accidentid/59957…