A guide in the fatal rafting incident on Nooksack said he believed the victims swam to shore


David Rasbach / The Bellingham Herald

The Whatcom County whitewater guide in the fatal rafting incident earlier this month on the Nooksack River told rescuers he lost sight of the victims aged 55 and 10 after the raft overturned, but that they had swum to shore.

John Coleman of Berkeley, Calif., and his son died June 14 when they were swept downstream after a raft overturned on the North Fork of the Nooksack River, the County Sheriff’s Office previously reported. Whatcom. Two other female clients and a white-water guide who were in the raft when it overturned managed to get out of the river.

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The son’s name was not released by the sheriff’s office, nor was the name of anyone else in the raft at the time of the incident.

A public records request by the Bellingham Herald showed 51-year-old Paul M. Engel was the tour guide.

Engel is listed as the owner of Glacier-based Wild & Scenic River Tours Inc. in Washington State Department of Revenue records. Wild & Scenic River Tours first obtained a license in 2007, which is currently valid until 2023, according to Secretary of State records.

The Bellingham Herald has contacted Wild & Scenic River Tours for comment on this story, but phone and email messages have not been returned.

At approximately 2:59 p.m. on June 14, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue deputies were notified of an overturned commercially operated river raft in the North Fork of the Nooksack near the Snowline neighborhood in Glacier, according to the search and rescue report obtained by The Herald. Engel called the What-Comm 911 dispatcher to report that two male customers were missing, but Engel said he believed they were likely on the shore and in the trail system west of Snowline.

Rescue personnel from Summit to Sound, a K-9 team, whitewater rescue personnel, a drone operator, fire crews from Kendall and Glacier and local whitewater kayakers were quickly called in to help. to search for the two missing rafters, and Homeland Security later responded with a helicopter search.

Deputies spoke to Engel at Glacier Fire Station, and records indicate he reported:

— That the rafting party included a family of four (Coleman, a woman, a girl and the 10-year-old boy) and Engel, serving as a guide.

— The raft overturned in a rapid known as “The Nozzle” near the Snowline district.

“The two women were able to get out of the river on the right side, but Coleman and his son were swept downstream.

– Engel lost sight of Coleman and the 10-year-old child and did not see them come out of the river, but he estimated that they were about 5 feet from the left bank of the river and he believed that they had reached the shore.

“Engel and the two customers have finished swimming the upper part of the river where Coleman and his son were believed to have swum. The couple have not been located.

The client told deputies the raft overturned within the first 10-15 minutes of the trip and after it overturned she and the girl were on the river bank for over an hour and a half before being rescued and continuing down the raft. river, according to the report.

The report did not say if any other rafts or boats were part of the excursion and could possibly have assisted in a rescue.

Researchers and firefighters checked the trail system. Engel thought Coleman and his son may have attempted to hike, the report said.

During this time, whitewater technicians checked the banks of the river and a drone was used to check the river and traffic jams in the area, the report said. At approximately 7:30 p.m., the 10-year-old’s body was found by searchers in a kayak in a traffic jam about half a mile downstream from where the raft had overturned.

The search for Coleman was suspended until June 15, when he was located around 4 p.m. below the Mount Baker Highway bridge west of Glacier.

Coleman and his son were found wearing wetsuits, river-approved personal flotation devices and helmets provided by the outfitter, according to the documents.

None of the victims’ bodies showed obvious signs of trauma, according to a press release from the sheriff’s office at the time.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Deb Slater told the Herald the incident was not investigated as a crime.

On its website, Wild & Scenic River Tour lists the minimum age for white-water rafting trips on the Nooksack River as 10, with a written release from parents or guardians. According to the website, the river rafting season runs from May through the fall.

On the day of the fatal incident, water temperatures in the Nooksack River at the North Cedarville measurement location, downstream from where the raft rolled over, ranged between 45 and 48 degrees, according to USGS records.

The deaths of Coleman and his son represent just the second fatal incident on the Nooksack River involving a commercial rafting company listed in the US Whitewater Accident Database, which tracks injuries and river fatalities that have been reported to the organization since 1956.

The other fatal incident on the Nooksack involving a commercial outfitter, according to the database, occurred on July 28, 2001, when a 13-year-old member of a Seattle-area youth group allegedly fell from the raft when he hit a rock. and was washed under the boat.

The database lists three other fatal incidents involving private vessels on the Nooksack – the death of a 52-year-old kayaker who was pinned against a strainer near Douglas Fir Campground on March 28, 2015; two men stuck in a raft against a strainer on July 3, 1995; and a whitewater kayaker who swam through a colander on July 25, 1994. Colanders are obstructions — natural or man-made — that allow water through but trap larger objects, according to whitewaterguidebook.com.

A May 30, 2016 incident that injured three paddlers in a private rafting incident was the only other time the Nooksack was listed in the American Whitewater Database.

In total, the database lists 11 fatal whitewater commercial incidents on Washington state rivers since 1994 — less than one every two years — the most recent being on July 3, 2018 on the Spokane River. Health issues were listed as the cause of three of the 11 fatal incidents.


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