5 Most Dangerous White-water Rapids

White-water rafting can be dangerous, but it's also exhilarating. See more pictures of extreme sports.
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It's pretty safe to assume that no one's going to raft or kayak over Angel Falls, a waterfall that drops 2,648 feet (807 meters) off the side of Venezuela's Auyantepui Mountain [source: Angel-falls.com]. But there are plenty of other whitewater rapids out there that are navigable -- that is, if you're a skilled kayaker or rafter seeking a risky and exhilarating ride.

Most often, a river's "danger" is graded on the International Scale of River Difficulty from I to VI, with I being a stagnant lake and VI being the absolute limit of what you can conceivably run. On these rivers you'll find a mixture of fun and danger -- fun and danger that an estimated 35.6 million Americans take advantage of each year [source: AmericanWhitewater.org]. And a search through the American Whitewater accident database shows that, due to the much higher number of people rafting the easier waterways, the baddest rivers with the biggest drops aren't necessarily the ones that kill or injure the most people.

Rivers seem benign enough, but the ugly fact is that white-water rapids do kill. Nevertheless, intrepid boaters, floaters and/or oak-barrelers continue to throw themselves at them in reasonable numbers.

So which are the wildest rides?

Mickey's -- Ocoee River
A kayaker takes on an eddy called "Hell Hole" on the Ocoee.
A kayaker takes on an eddy called "Hell Hole" on the Ocoee.
Gerard Fritz/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In 2011, the stretch of Tennessee's Ocoee River known as "Mickey's" saw two deaths within two weeks [source: TimesFreePress.com]. That said, the river isn't necessarily the churning monstrosity you'd expect. In fact, the stretch from Mickey's to Roach Motel, the site of the 1996 Olympics challenge course, is categorized as class III, sometimes pushing into class IV depending on water levels.

Sure, there's a fork that forces paddlers to choose between a 5-foot (1.5-meter) ledge drop into a deep hole or a rocky descent down a 4-foot (1.2-meter) ledge; and there's a trail of features with names like Best Ledge, Smiley Face, Slam Dunk, Conveyor Belt, Calahan Ledge and Humongous [source: AmericanWhitewater.org]. But more than the bone-crushing rapids or death-defying drops, it's sheer numbers that makes the Ocoee seem dangerous.

Located in the Chatahoochee National Forest, just 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Atlanta, the river attracts 250,000 paddlers a year [source: TimesFreePress.com]. Even in class III, when a quarter million people run the rapids, deaths are more than possible. Tragically, in 2011, a 16-year-old drowned when the entire raft flipped in Mickey's and the teen got his foot trapped in underwater rocks. There've been seven rafting deaths on the Ocoee in the last 20 years [source: TimesFreePress.com].

Forks of the Kern River
Some rafters ride Kern River's rapids in California.
Some rafters ride Kern River's rapids in California.
Robert Ginn/Photolibrary/Getty Images

At 14,494 feet (4,418 meters), Mount Whitney is California's highest point [source: Mount-whitney.com]. Its snowmelt drains through the tight canyons of the Kern River, 165 miles (265 kilometers) south to Bakersfield. Of course, massive flow through tight canyons equals big white water. Nowhere is this more true than in the section known as the Forks of the Kern River, which originates near Mount Whitney. To take on these white-water rapids, adventurers must hike 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the put-in, while mules carry rafts.

A sign along the highway at the Bakersfield mouth of the river is updated with the number of people killed since 1968. As of May 26, 2011, it read "257" [source: Bakersfield Californian]. As the LA Times put it: "If you survive the 10-foot waterfall, there's a suck hole 20 yards beyond. Hit that wrong, and your wife is dating again" [source: Latimes.com].

Upper Yough River

Check out just a sampling of the named features in this 9-mile (14.5-kilometer), predominantly class IV to V run: Bastard, Triple-Drop, Zinger, Meat Cleaver, Powerful Pop-Up, Cheeseburger Falls, Double Pencil Sharpener. Here's one guide's description of how to run Pop-Up: "Pop-up is run left to right. Death slot is to left of pop-up chute. Run slot left to right and try not to broach on triangular rock" [source: Northeastern Whitewater]. While the jargon may be a bit hard to decipher for the inexperienced paddler, the gist is this: "Dude, if something called the 'death slot' is lurking around, don't screw up."

Interestingly though (and you'll see a theme developing here), most of the deaths on the Yough are along the relatively benign Lower Yough, where rafting newbies flock in droves. Specifically, between 1976 and 2006, 18 boaters died on the Lower Yough, and half of these deaths were associated with a feature known as "Dimple" where an undercut rock sits staunchly in the middle of the channel. Tragically, rafters have become trapped in what is effectively an underwater cave [source: Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources].

As for the Upper Yough, it's gnarly, but tends to run in a relatively safe way -- meaning that its rapids and drops will throw you around, but it's less likely you'll become pinned like you might on other popular class V rivers.

Deschutes River, Ore.
Amazingly, salmon are able to swim upstream through the Deschutes River's powerful white-water rapids. These platforms are set up for salmon fishing.
Amazingly, salmon are able to swim upstream through the Deschutes River's powerful white-water rapids. These platforms are set up for salmon fishing.
Bob Pool/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Given that the Deschutes River originates in a mountain range named after water falling downhill -- the Cascades -- you'd be correct to expect a flow. Eventually this water flow leads to the city of Bend, Ore., where the river drops 100 feet (30.5 meters) in one linear mile (1.6 km) [source: WaterfallsNorthwest.com].

The reason for this drop is the split around Lava Island. Think you'd rather portage (carry your watercraft around) this class V to VI mile? Think again. The Web site GORP writes that "the portage over the falls is over one mile of lava, brush and hills. It is likely this portage would result in personal injury" [source: GORP]. Basically the section of river around Lava Island is so tricky you don't even want to walk around it.

Even more hardcore than walking around it is, of course, running it. GORP describes this section like this: "Class VI. Lava Island Falls is a continuous Class IV-VI rapids for about a half mile, followed by mostly Class VI interspersed by lesser rapids. Not recommended for floating" [source: GORP]. Still, while you'd be hard pressed to find a guided float trip that runs this section, there's no surfeit of kayakers and other private paddlers who run it every season. If you plan to be one of them, listen closely to these instructions from Allaboutrivers.com: "To run the second drop you have to make a hard right to left move in order to avoid a nasty hydraulic called 'Brad's Butthole'" [source: Allaboutrivers.com]. Nobody wants to get stuck in Brad's Butthole.

Lochsa River
A kayaker on the Lochsa River in Idaho
A kayaker on the Lochsa River in Idaho
Noah Clayton/Photodisc/Getty Images

The Lochsa runs 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Powell to Lowell, Idaho, with its headwaters melting from the snowpack of Lolo Pass, which separates Idaho and Montana. Along the way, you'll find 63 rapids graded class III or above [source: GORP].

In fact, Lochsa (pronounced "lock-saw") is a Nez Perce Indian word meaning "rough water," and rough it is, especially along the 13-mile (21-kilometer) stretch between Indian Grave Creek and the Wilderness Gateway Bridge. GORP notes that this section of the river should "be attempted with extra precaution only by skilled kayakers and rafters with dependable, heavy-duty equipment" [source: GORP].

Described by New York Times writer Timothy Egan as a "ferocious and explosive whitewater for hard-core rafters," the river includes challenges with names like Grim Reaper, Bloody Mary and Termination [sources: The New York Times, Allaboutrivers.com]. If you're unsure about running it, consider scouting ahead, which is easily done by driving up U.S. Highway 12, which runs along the river's length.

Unfortunately, this section of river has taken lives. In May 2011, a 35-year old Wisconsin man fell from his raft during a guided trip and, despite two kayakers providing support by throwing the man a safety line, he was swept downstream and tragically perished [source: Spokesman-Review].


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  • Boggs, Alison. "Wisconsin Man Dies in Lochsa River Rafting Accident." The Spokesman-Review. May 31, 2011. (Jan. 30, 2011) http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2011/may/31/wisconsin-man-dies-lochsa-river-rafting-accident/
  • Egan, Timothy. "The Last Wilderness." The New York Times. July 1, 2007. (Jan. 30, 2011) http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/travel/01Last.html?pagewanted=all
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