Snoqualmie man dies during kayak run
October 2, 2008 · Updated 2:26 PM
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
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.