Josh Lowry still isn’t sure how he managed it, but he pulled himself and a stranded, scared woman across the swiftly-flowing Alcovy River one-handed via a rope. And that was the third person he rescued Sunday.
Lowry, 33, fellow lifelong resident and native Justin Hodges and their fellow kayakers Moana Hassan and Lee Court helped rescue three unidentified people who had become stranded on the river after attempting to tube down it Sunday afternoon despite water levels that created Class 4 whitewater rapids.
The kayakers had finished one run down the river and were preparing for a second journey when a man came blazing down the road in a pickup truck, looking for help. He said his daughter, son-in-law and a friend were stuck in the middle of the river.
Two kayakers headed back to Factory Shoals Park to get back in the water and try to get safety gear on the people if possible and tell them not to move, while others hiked back up the river to scout out the scene.
The daughter was more securely positioned with her torso and part of her legs pulled up on a rock, while the two men had made it out of the main current but were precariously positioned on underwater rocks, struggling to avoid being pulled farther over the Class 3 rapid only a few feet downstream. The stranded people were about 250-300 yards from where the river dumps into Jackson Lake.
“The one guy feels fairly confident, but the other guy I can tell is gripped with fear,” Lowry said. “They’re struggling to stay there and not get swept over the rapid, with one guy kind of pushing the other guy, if their footing slipped, to help each other stay in position.”
The three were all located much closer to the eastern side of the river, so Lowry and the father hiked back up to Newton Factory Bridge Road to cross over. The kayakers wouldn’t be able to hold onto anything near the two men, but there were some trees on a submerged island near the woman they were able to attach to. While they talked to her, Lowry took his kayak throw bag, which contains a 50-foot rope connected to a bag, and began throwing it, trying to reach the men.
Lowry said the men might have been able to survive a tumble over the rapids, but he didn’t guess the odds would be any better than 50-50, given how much rock is below the rapids.
After his first several tosses came up short, Lowry finally managed to reach the first man with the rope. The man began tying the rope to wrap it around his arm, but Lowry had to yell to have him just hold on with his hands.
“The first rule in swift-water rescue is do not tie any rope to yourself, because if he ties it to his arm and he were to get away from me, now you have a rope that can get caught on something as well, and then you’re trapped,” Lowry said. “’You need to face to the upstream side and keep your legs high and kick as hard as you can and swim toward me and I’ll pull as hard and fast as I can.’ I think he heard some of that.”
Once the man understood and had a good hold on the rope, Lowry gave him the OK sign and then took off running back upstream as fast as he could in an effort to pull him to the other shore as quickly and safely as possible.
The man successfully crossed the stronger current and grabbed on to some overhanging limbs as other people helped pull him up to the shore.
The second man seemed surer of himself and Lowry had him carefully and slowly navigate a few feet closer to shore. The lessened distance allowed Lowry to toss the rope to the man on the first try.
The third rescue would prove more challenging.
Third time the hardest
First of all, she was scared.
“(The kayakers) kept trying to get her from the rock to them; they kept trying to get her to a safer position, but this young girl was so scared, she was frozen with fear,” Lowry said. “These people we rescued were not boaters. They had no life vests, but were just in inner tubes, with (swim suits) and barefoot.”
Second, and more importantly, she was out of rope range. After a few futile rope tosses, Lowry realized even two ropes tied together wouldn’t reach her. Luckily, another kayaker from the original group showed up with his rope.
He headed back up the river, got in and met up with Hodges and gave him the third rope, and then headed farther downstream to wait in case anything went wrong. That process alone took maybe an hour. All the while. the level of the river was slowly rising from upstream rains.
Hodges tied one end of the first rope to a tree in the river and then tied the two ropes he had together.
He got out of the kayak and went to meet the woman on the rock. At that point in the river, he was still able to stand, and he began slowly working toward shore so he could catch the third rope that Lowry threw in the river.
In a precarious situation himself, Hodges managed to tie the ropes together, forming a tension rope across half of the Alcovy River.
The original plan was for the woman to pull herself along the rope until she reached Lowry’s rope and then Hodges would untie the ropes and she could be pulled to shore. She made it out part way, but when she felt the water getting deeper and the current getting stronger, she stopped.
“She locks up and decides she’s not going to move,” said Lowry, who also started to doubt whether she would be able to hang on, anyway.
By this time, some other people had shown up on the shore, including a police officer.
Plan B was formed. Lowry attached himself via carabineer to the rope and handed it off to the men behind him.
“I told them, ‘You cannot let go. I’m attached, and I’ll drown’,” Lowry said.
Lowry began traversing his way across the river to meet the woman.
“I tell her she’s going to be OK and I’m going to get her across. There’s a fairly fearful tremor in her voice and I could barely hear her say, ‘I’m so scared. I have two children; I just want to see them again.’”
The woman wrapped her right arm around Lowry’s neck and he put his left arm around her waist, with each of them keeping one hand on the rope.
“With my right arm, I pull myself across. I don’t know what happened. I gripped the rope and slid across and never let go. I dragged me and her maybe 30-60 feet. It seemed like a mile,” Lowry said. “When we hit the main flow of the river, it kept pounding on me and my head is kind of going under water and I’m trying to grab a little gasp of air and keep going.
“At one point, I just remember thinking how I would do it, but I just went and it worked.”
Lowry, who works in construction for the family business, said his hands were already rough and weren’t much the worse for the wear.
Somebody on the shore asked the woman if she would get in the water anytime soon, and she said she wouldn’t even get into a bathtub, Lowry said.
Lowry said he didn’t think that stretch of river was safe to tube at the level it was and definitely wasn’t safe under any condition without a helmet or life vest.
“If you’re not whitewater-comfortable and don’t have the correct gear and haven’t spent time on rivers, I wouldn’t get in the river if there’s any amount of rain in there,” he said.