LEAVENWORTH — It’s named for the sound of a beating heart, and Tumwater Canyon certainly sets the hearts of extreme river runners racing as they plunge and roll through its enormous rapids each spring.
Some say the nine-mile stretch of Wenatchee River that cuts through the narrow, steep canyon west of Leavenworth offers the best and most consistent whitewater thrills of any river in the continental U.S. Many highly skilled kayakers and a new breed of river rafters ride the river at its highest and most dangerous levels to train for running even wilder rivers elsewhere in the world.
“Locals have no clue, but at high water Tumwater Canyon is one of the best four or five whitewater rivers in the world,” said Cashmere’s Marco Colella, a world-class and former professional whitewater kayaker who is widely considered to be one of a small group of people skilled enough to kayak the canyon’s rapids at their highest flows.
But it’s not only experienced athletes who are drawn to the river. Kayakers and rafters with the right equipment but not enough experience want to try their hand at it, too. And locals and tourists are lured by the calm waters and beaches that lie between the rapids.
Sometimes they get in over their heads.
That was apparently the case in late May, when an Oregon doctor wanted to ride the river in his Creature Craft, an inflatable raft with a roll bar designed to keep it upright in turbulent water. At that time of year, with the river swollen with snowmelt, the canyon’s rapids are considered greater than 5. According to the internationally recognized whitewater classification system, rapids those big are considered nearly impossible and extremely dangerous, even for experts, and pose considerable risk of death.
Dr. Kenneth Tyson, 54, had never rafted rapids greater than class 4, but was determined to try his raft in Tumwater Canyon, according to a Chelan County Sheriff’s Office report.
The other rafters in his group tried to talk him out of it for two days. He was not in good enough physical condition to swim the rapids if he came out of his boat. He weighed more than 300 pounds, the report states.
“He was going to do it, either with or without us,” said Darren Vancil, owner of Colorado-based Creature Craft, who was part of the rafting group. “We decided to go with him to watch over him.”
The group of seven rafts was partway through The Wall rapids when the raft Tyson was riding alone in nearly flipped completely over. He slipped out of the Velcro thigh harness and into the water. He attempted to swim but the other rafters and spotters on the shore quickly lost sight of him in the violent water.
Vancil estimates he and others were able to reach Tyson within six minutes, but they could not resuscitate him.
“Those rapids are so long and so high that when you’re in the water, you’re not swimming,” Vancil said. “You spend most of the time being pushed under by the current.”
“If you’re swimming,” he added, “there’s a high likelihood that you’re not getting out alive.”
Tyson was the sixth person to die in that stretch of river since 1996. Two swimmers died when they got sucked into rapids; two other rafters died while maneuvering rapids; and one man died while trying to wade across the river and got swept into rapids.
Colella said people generally don’t understand how dangerous the canyon really is. At the peak of spring runoff, “there are maybe four or five people in the world that can do it. If you aren’t at that level, you have no business being there.”
He said that advances in equipment, such as Creature Craft rafts, give less experienced people the feeling like they can go anywhere.
“It’s very frustrating for people with the proper experience to see these kinds of things happen, to see people die,” Colella said, adding, “Equipment, no matter how good it is, will never come close to experience.”
He believes more public education about the river’s dangers — both in the canyon and farther down the river between Leavenworth and Cashmere — is needed.
“Because by the time the 911 call goes out, it’s often times a body recovery,” he said.
Even when rescue teams get there in time, they probably won’t be able to save people in Tumwater Canyon’s big rapids.
“We don’t have anybody qualified to go through the 5-plus rapids there,” said Sgt. Kent Sisson, head of emergency management for the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the department’s whitewater rescue team.
“We would only be able to rescue them once they got into calmer waters,” he said.
Chelan County Undersheriff John Wisemore said, “The canyon is too swift and so full of whitewater that you can’t see what you’re doing. … I don’t know of any team that would go into a place like that and successfully get someone out.”
Vancil said he knows the dangers of rafting Tumwater Canyon during its highest flows, and that’s what attracts him and other extreme kayakers and rafters.
“We know that we play hard,” he said. “But that’s true in all extreme sports. If it isn’t a little scary, it’s not so much fun. You’ve got to get that adrenalin running.”
But Sisson said people need to know their own limitations.
“There are people who do 5 and 6 rapids in kayaks and it’s not a big deal for them,” he said. “They are very experienced and at the top of their game. But there are only a handful of those people in the entire world.”
Colella said a lot of world-class kayakers try their hand at Tumwater Canyon and come up short. They get dumped in the water and may even need to be rescued.
“It’s big, big whitewater,” he said. “It’s pushy, and it’s got holes, rocks, trees, logs, strainers, metal. There’s nothing safe about it.”
He added, “There only three people that I know of (including himself) that paddle Tumwater during high water on a consistent basis in the last decade. And some years we don’t go in there at all during high water.”
But authorities can’t keep anyone away from them.
After two young women drowned in rapids in 2006, the Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Forest Service partnered to post warning signs. But the river is never “closed” to boaters.
The canyon’s popularity for kayaking and rafting has increased as equipment has improved, Wisemore said.
“With this Creature Craft issue — the adrenalin junkies — the canyon is one more untamed thing that man wants to conquer,” he said. “They are able to go down places that a regular kayak or raft normally can’t. … People are always looking for that next great adventure.”
“It’s the whole extreme generation,” Colella said. “We think that we’re invincible, and Mother Nature is very, very unforgiving.”