Knoxville kayaker drowns in accident on Laurel River in Pisgah National Forest

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Paddler on the Laurel River Photo Courtesy of Kevin Colburn Stewardship Director for American Whitewater

Knoxville kayaker drowns in accident on Laurel River

A Knoxville woman has died after a kayaking accident on the Laurel River in Pisgah National Forest. April Morton, 31, was a member of the Chota Canoe Club in Knoxville and considered an expert paddler. “She was going through some rapids and got hung underneath a tree, which she didn’t see as she was going through the rapids,” said Louis Roberts, Madison County Emergency Management coordinator told the Citizen-Times. “We had quite a bit of rain a couple of days before,” Roberts added. “The water level was elevated.”

Roberts said Madison County EMS was the first on the scene, at 1:55 p.m., followed by the Walnut Fire Department and then Emergency Management, where friends of the patient and medical personnel who happened to also be kayaking in the vicinity were in the process of performing CPR on Morton about 2 miles from the trailhead. The Stairstep Rapid is where a fatal kayaking incident occurred.

Morton was an experienced kayaker, by American Whitewater, a national river conservation nonprofit that works to protect and restore America’s whitewater rivers and to encourage their safe use. She was known to love adventure and her community and to always wear a smile.

The accident report by American Whitewater states that the section of rapids the group was paddling is class III+, well within Morton’s ability, and was reported to be at a medium water level. Fellow boaters said that the water had pushed her too far left towards a dangerous sieve, causing her to flip into a tree that was hidden underwater. Once she was out of her boat she immediately was pushed into the sieve in a head-down entrapment.

“What I do know is that she was with a very competent group of paddlers that were well versed in swiftwater rescue practices as well as advanced first aid and resuscitation (CPR) techniques. It was a group of paddlers that I would entrust my life with,” Chota Canoe Club President David McConnell stated in a Facebook post on Dec. 17.

Morton’s death was the first kayaking fatality of 2019 in WNC, the Citizen-Times reports. In 2018 there were six reported kayaking fatalities in Western North Carolina. 

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