Snoqualmie man dies during kayak run

SNOQUALMIE — Chris Ringsven, a music teacher who

moved to Snoqualmie in August, drowned this month while kayaking down

the Nisqually River in Pierce County. Authorities aren't sure how or why

he drowned. Ringsven was 27.

Ringsven led a group of five kayakers down the 1.7-mile run of

rapids on Saturday, Dec. 2. It was the final weekend of the final year of

the three-year trial period to evaluate the safety and demand for the water

releases, which were intended to provide whitewater rafters and kayakers a

periodic taste of rapids in LaGrande Canyon. The release produces

rapids with difficulty levels of IV and V on a scale of I-VI. Level VI is

designated too swift to paddle safely.

Kayakers must use ropes to lower themselves down a 200-foot

canyon to the water. And once they start, there's no turning back.

Ringsven was still alive but unconscious when fellow kayakers and

rescuers reached him, said a Pierce County Medical Examiner

spokesman. However, the man was pronounced dead by the time he

arrived by helicopter to the Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis.

In his home state of Minnesota, Ringsven's father, Arthur

Ringsven, and other kayakers who knew him said the 27-year-old man was an expert

at running difficult rapids. He had nearly seven years of experience.

"He was very conservative, always safe," Arthur Ringsven said. "The

rivers and the mountains were his friends. He wasn't a risk-taker. The fact

that he went first means it looked fine to him."

Ringsven moved to Snoqualmie from Minnesota in August to

begin working as a music teacher at middle and high schools in Cle Elum.

Playing the piano and exploring the great outdoors were his son's

passions, the elder Ringsven said. And moving to Washington to be near

the mountains was something he had long worked toward.

"He finally had the opportunity to live there," he said. "That was

his dream."

Ringsven's death is threatening the future of semiannual whitewater

releases into the Nisqually River at LaGrande Dam.

Whitewater enthusiasts have pushed for years to restore the

expert rapids. For thrill-seeking kayakers, the November and December dam

releases are rare opportunities to tackle expert-level rapids.

But even before the Federal Emergency Regulation

Commission (FERC) ordered the three-year release trial period, Tacoma Public

Utilities officials said it was too dangerous.

Now, with the recent drowning death of Ringsven, public utilities

officials are saying, "I told you so."

"We had very strong reservations for public safety about kayaking

on this river from the beginning," said Sue Veseth, spokeswoman for

Tacoma Public Utilities. "And we still think there's a great deal of risk. It's a

very steep canyon. You have to rappel into it. We think it's very hazardous."

What seems dangerous to some is an alluring challenge to others.

As Ringsven's family and friends made their way to Minnesota for

his funeral Dec. 9, a close-knit community of kayakers mourned the loss

of a friend. But the enthusiasts also hope what they're calling an

unfortunate accident doesn't stop the whitewater releases for which they began

fighting in 1994.

John Gangemi, conservation director of American Whitewater

Affiliation, said the Nisqually run is considered challenging and should be

tackled only by expert paddlers, but it's not the toughest rapids around.

The run's Class V rapids are considered low-end Class Vs, he said.

"Most of the expert paddlers that go on it say, `Yeah, it's difficult,

but I've run harder,'" Gangemi said. "What happened here was an

accident. These guys knew what they were doing, and they did everything the

right way. They were all competent. They all had the skills to be in there."

Tacoma Public Utilities was set to begin its final evaluation

before Ringsven's death, and the study to determine whether the water

releases are to continue will begin as scheduled, Veseth said.

Gangemi said the American Whitewater Affiliation supports

the evaluation process, and the organization intends to stand behind

whatever Tacoma Public Utilities and FERC decide.

"If the facts show the whitewater flows aren't warranted, we'll

support that decision," he said.

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