In Life and Death, a Reminder of Whitewater's Power

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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, July 31, 2005

When the Tygart River claimed the life of John Mullen last weekend, his colleagues at The Washington Post and regular readers of this outdoors page lost a man in full in the prime of life.

Mullen, 37, drowned in the turbulent West Virginia whitewater last Sunday after running the first of two drops at Valley Falls. He was pinned underwater for several minutes after capsizing by recirculating water at the base of a 10-foot waterfall.

His paddling partner, Patrick Henry, 39, of Fairfax, stood ready with a safety rope, "but there isn't any rescue scenario when the guy doesn't come up. You're supposed to come up," said a disconsolate Henry, who swam after Mullen and spent half an hour working to resuscitate him when he finally surfaced.

For the last three years, Mullen has written the weekly Sunday feature Outside Line on this page, in addition to working as a full-time copy editor on the sports pages. He was a formidable figure in the newsroom, well over six feet tall, loose-limbed, tanned, perpetually smiling, all muscle and sinew. "John was a horse," Henry said. "He exercised every day, didn't drink alcohol and ate perfectly. The guy was ripped with muscles."

Four years ago, Mullen took an interest in whitewater kayaking that came to dominate his life. He was fond of mountain climbing, biking, running, lifting and other recreational pursuits, which he often covered in his columns, but in recent years he got swept away by paddling.

"He paddled whitewater 280 days a year," said Jason Beakes, a former member of the U.S. whitewater slalom team and a frequent companion of Mullen's. Beakes said he recently took Mullen to Great Falls for his first descent of the famous, 30-foot-high "Spout" near the Virginia shore, and after it was over Mullen said he intended to spend 200 days at the falls next year.

That ambition may have contributed to his death. Beakes and others in Washington's elite kayaking community counseled Mullen that before he devoted so much time to a place as treacherous as Great Falls, he should work in more moderate waters solidifying skills. In particular, Beakes said, he needed to work on his Eskimo roll to make sure he could execute the critical maneuver in the roughest conditions.

"I told him to go up to Valley Falls," Beakes said. "It seemed like a good place to work on basics -- tough, but not too threatening. John had a tendency to come out of his boat. It was his greatest weakness and he knew it. He was diligently trying to gain composure so he could do multiple rolls" instead of exiting the boat if his first attempt failed.

"That's why it's ironic," Beakes said. "This was basically a step back for him, to work on that."

Valley Falls State Park, near Fairmont, W.Va., lies 10 miles below an Army Corps of Engineers dam that controls the water flow. The half-mile run over two, 10-foot waterfalls at the park is popular with skilled paddlers. In certain conditions, it can be run safely even by intermediates under supervision, said Tom McEwan, longtime dean of the Washington whitewater community, who occasionally takes students from his Liquid Adventures paddling school over the falls.

McEwan prefers relatively low flow for his classes, and last took a group over Valley Falls on July 4, when the river ran at a level of 4.97 feet on the gauge below the dam and flowed at 326 cubic feet per second (cfs). At noon Sunday, when Henry and Mullen ran it, it was at 6.75 feet and running at 1,545 cfs, according to Army Corps of Engineers data, a level McEwan described as significantly more dangerous. Henry said he and Mullen had never run that particular stretch of river but had run in water he considered much more difficult as recently as the day before on the nearby Upper Youghiogheny.

But from Henry's perspective, it was runnable and safe. Indeed, he ran both falls first without incident, then portaged back up the bank to set up a safety line for Mullen. According to Henry, Mullen went over the first waterfall in good form, hit the foaming whitewater below upright, but his kayak bobbled on a boil as he pulled out of the rapids at the base of the falls and flipped. Mullen tried to roll up once and failed, Henry said, and was setting up to try again when he and the boat were drawn back toward the waterfall by the recirculating water at its base.

At that point, Mullen exited and he and the boat were separately thrust under the deluge with astonishing ferocity. "They both went down hard and neither one came up for a long time," Henry said. Finally the boat surfaced, alongside bits of Mullen's gear, but the first Henry saw of his partner was when the top of his helmet appeared downstream, just 30 feet from the next falls. Henry leaped into his boat, followed the unconscious Mullen over the falls and swam to his rescue in the pool below. But it was too late.

Ron Fawcett, the park superintendent, said it was the first paddling fatality at the falls in his 10 1/2 years there, though "we've had to rescue a few. It's a very dangerous place," Fawcett said, "and the water was up that day."

Many in the Washington paddling community were shocked by the accident. While whitewater is universally acknowledged as dangerous, the loss of skilled paddlers remains rare. "In all of paddle sports," said Gordon Black, director of safety education for the American Canoe Association, "fatalities average about 60 to 70 a year, and about two-thirds of those are generally males fishing in flat water without life jackets." Serious whitewater paddlers wear life jackets at all times on the water, as Mullen did.

Black, who at 54 continues to tackle big water in his kayak, said the loss of a paddler like Mullen reminds all whitewater enthusiasts of the inherent risks in the sport, but is unlikely to scare any away. "We do paddle in the face of some hazards," he said, "but there are rewards that we consider worth it. There are thrills, the satisfaction of taking on a challenge, fitness, the beautiful environment.

"This is a wonderful sport. My kids do it. But you have to remember there are risks, and no matter how well you prepare, the risks still exist. Some of the finest boaters occasionally die."

And sometimes they are among the finest people. Friends and colleagues of Mullen gathered at The Post last week to toast his memory. He was remembered for his bright spirit, his lofty prose in the Outside Line and his utter devotion to the thing he loved best, whitewater paddling.

"His life story makes perfect sense to me," said his younger brother, Kurt, "and if it had gone on, I know he would have just kept getting better and better at being John Mullen."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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