Rangers Rescue Solo Kayaker from Snake River

July 17, 2009
Grand Teton National Park rangers conducted a full-scale search for an overdue, solo kayaker on the Snake River late Wednesday night, July 15 and early Thursday morning, July 16. Jane Dukes, age 71, of Colfax, Indiana, was spotted by rangers and members of the Teton interagency helitak crew from the park’s contract helicopter at approximately 8:15 a.m. Thursday after she spent an unexpected night out on the river. Dukes was found unharmed, but she did float several miles beyond her intended destination of Deadman’s Bar landing; she was located two miles upstream from the Moose landing, near the Bar BC historic site.

Dukes launched an inflatable kayak at 6:30 Wednesday evening from the Pacific Creek landing, telling family members that she would either float a short distance and paddle back to the launch site, or continue on to Deadman’s Bar, some 10 river miles downstream. Dukes was unfamiliar with the Snake River, and although she has experience canoeing on lakes and small streams, she lacked experience with both a kayak and a swift flowing river—the Snake River is currently flowing at approximately 4,300 cubic-feet-per-second below the Buffalo Fork confluence. When darkness overcame Dukes around 9:30 p.m., she beached her kayak on a sandbar in the middle of the river and stayed put, rather than continuing to float downstream on an unknown course. She also turned her kayak over and took shelter from a cold breeze. Overnight temperatures on the Snake River reached 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and Dukes had no supplemental clothing or equipment to protect her from the elements.

Rangers received a report at 9:47 p.m. that Dukes was overdue and her whereabouts were unknown. Due to the late hour and decreasing temperature, rangers quickly organized a wide-spread search that included checking several river locations. Rangers also used night-vision goggles to attempt to detect her in the dark conditions before the moon rose, but were unsuccessful in their efforts. A more extensive search was organized for first light on Thursday morning, and the Teton interagency helicopter was summoned to assist with an aerial reconnaissance. A total of 19 park personnel and Teton interagency staff ultimately assisted with the search and rescue operation.

Although Dukes was wearing a sage green life jacket that blended in with her surroundings, rangers spotted her when she waved her arms at the sight of the helicopter on Thursday morning. Two additional rangers were able to launch a raft from the west bank of the river and reach her shortly after she was spotted from the air. They then floated her to a location near the old Bar BC Dude Ranch, where a park ambulance was waiting. Emergency medical personnel assessed her physical condition and determined that she should be transported to St. John’s Medical Center for additional medical care.

Rangers credit Dukes with keeping her wits about her and for beaching on the sandbar rather than continuing through the braided and debris-strewn river channels beyond. Although this incident had a positive outcome, it could have resulted in serious injury or worse for Dukes because of the late hour of the day and her lack of river knowledge.

The Snake is a natural river and its current and water temperature can be deceiving. Novice boaters should never underestimate the river and should consult with rangers before beginning their trip. Anyone planning to float the distance from Pacific Creek to Deadman’s Bar should get an early start to avoid fading light and reduced visibility as dusk sets in.

This marks the second significant search and rescue operation involving ill-prepared boaters on the Snake River.