High water levels due to recent storms and melting snowpack apparently contributed to a fatal rafting accident on the Klickitat River Saturday afternoon.
Jeff Driver, an experienced rafting guide and lifelong White Salmon resident, and Rollin Schimmel, a passenger from Pendleton, Ore., both died when a group on a river rafting excursion encountered a logjam.
Driver, 50, owned All Adventures Rafting, Inc., with his wife, Karen. He was a Coast Guard veteran and had worked as a rafting guide for about 25 years.
"It's sad, very sad," said Mark Zoller, owner of Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys, a White Salmon-based rafting company. "In my book, there are three people who know that river better than anyone on the planet, and Jeff is one of them."
Lyle resident Hope Jones was among those who remembered Driver as a friendly guy.
"We were both raised in White Salmon. We went to the same middle school and high school in White Salmon, and he had been a good friend," Jones said. "It's sad and shocking."
Schimmel, 61, was the 1967 NAIA wrestling champion in his weight class when he was at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Ore., and he was a longtime wrestling coach at Pendleton High School. He was inducted into the Oregon Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2001.
According to the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, 19 people from three rafts were dumped into the water when the rafts hit the logjam. Seventeen of those who went into the water reached shore safely, although two people were injured. The injured were taken to Skyline Hospital, and one was later transported to Emanuel Hospital in Portland with serious injuries.
The accident happened at about 4:35 p.m., near the Yakama Nation's Klickitat Hatchery east of Glenwood.
Schimmel was at first unaccounted for, and the Klickitat County Search & Rescue team mounted an extensive search assisted by several law enforcement and emergency response agencies, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, a private helicopter, and a river rafting company.
Schimmel's body was located in the river on Sunday morning, but recovery was hampered by the remote location, steep terrain, and what the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office characterized as "unusually swift water conditions." The recovery was not completed until about 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Zoller pointed out that Driver had a reputation as being one of the best guides in the business, and was keenly focused on safety.
"This was a freak situation," Zoller said. "I don't know all the facts, but knowing Jeff, that's what I believe. If there was any boat I'd want to be sitting in if there was a problem on the river, Jeff would be one of the top three people."
Zoller noted that there was no obvious sign of danger along the river on Saturday.
"There were lots of outfitters on the river that day, and private boaters as well," Zoller said.
Gerald Stockwell, owner of the Husum Highlands Bed & Breakfast in Husum, said several of those on the ill-fated rafting trip were staying at his B&B over the weekend.
"We had a family on the first raft," Stockwell said. "We're really upset. Karen and Jeff are good friends of ours. Jeff has been doing this for many many years, and in fact he does four or five of the rivers in the area."
Stockwell said the wives of those going on the rafting trip had gone to Hood River for movies and shopping while their husbands were on the rafting trip. They began to grow concerned as more time passed and there was no word from the rafting party.
"They were expecting contact earlier and were getting worried," Stockwell said. "Finally at about 10:30 p.m. one of them called the Sheriff's Office and Skyline Hospital. It wasn't until about 11:15 that she was contacted and told her significant other and sons were all en route back to the B&B, and they got there about 11:30-11:45."
Stockwell said one of the young men staying at his B&B climbed out of the river canyon after the accident to try to get help. He had to break into a truck in an effort to call for aid on a CB radio, but whoever he reached did not take his call for help seriously, delaying the arrival of emergency assistance.
"He climbed up the cliff after the accident to try to get on a radio, and they thought it was a kid playing a prank," Stockwell explained. "But whether you think it's playing a prank or not, you have to make sure. I couldn't believe no one believed there was a problem. That really hurt me. Out there on the Klickitat, there is no cell phone reception, and no local telephone you can run up and grab. When you're on that river, God's in control of you and that's it."
Stockwell said river conditions can be tricky.
"The Klickitat is running stiffer than normal because of extra rain, high snowfall and the melting we had. It's running a little swifter and picking up more debris, and that's what caused it," he said. "Jeff is very knowledgeable and extremely safety-conscious. For something like this to happen is really out of the ordinary."
U.S. Geological Survey data showed that the river was running at about 4,100 feet per second on the day of the accident. The Klickitat River normally averages about 2,500 feet per second at this time of year.
River conditions are always unpredictable, Zoller said.
"Things can change quickly on all rivers," Zoller explained. "For example, one day on the White Salmon River we'd just left BZ and were on the river for about 45 seconds. Five seconds behind us, a tree fell into the river, and it was five seconds in front of the next boat."
Zoller said he'll miss seeing Driver on the river.
"He was a good guy," Zoller said. "He loved the river, and he was a quality person who was passionate about what he did. It'll be sad not having him in our group of local rafters."