Columbia University student dies while whitewater kayaking on Potomac River: NPR

Washington-area whitewater kayakers lay flowers on the rapids of Potomac’s Little Falls, near the rocks that trapped visiting kayaker Ella Mills.

Michael Graham

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Michael Graham

Washington-area whitewater kayakers lay flowers on the rapids of Potomac’s Little Falls, near the rocks that trapped visiting kayaker Ella Mills.

Michael Graham

A Columbia University student has died during a whitewater kayaking trip on the Potomac River along Washington, DC.

Ella Mills, a junior at Columbia, drowned Sunday while kayaking with a group of two dozen members of the university’s whitewater kayak club, according to the Fire and Rescue Department of Montgomery County. The death remains under investigation by the Washington Metropolitan Police Department.

She and three other members of the group capsized while going down the Little Falls Rapids, said local whitewater kayaker Tim Atwell, who frequently travels that section of the river and tried to help save Mills.

“I saw all three of them turn around one after the other. And with the speed of the current, they just didn’t see it coming when they turned around,” he said.

Atwell watched the boaters capsize while positioned in an eddy above Little Falls Rapids, talking to a fishing friend – concerned about the group’s level of expertise and unfamiliarity with this section of the river.

Little Falls Rapid is a section of the Potomac River commonly traveled by many Washington area kayakers. According to American Whitewater – the national organization that promotes safe river navigation – Little Falls is a Class II/III (IV) rapid, meaning it is generally suitable for everyone from novices to experts .

“We think it’s pretty safe, but not without danger,” said Washington-area kayak instructor Ashley McEwan, who has guided many beginning boaters on this part of the river.

It’s an ideal training ground for teaching whitewater navigation and whitewater rescue skills, McEwan said.

What is most unusual about this, including for local kayakers, is the lower than normal water flow in recent weeks due to the lack of rain.

Washington-area kayakers who paddle Little Falls almost every day haven’t seen the river this low in decades. The low water flow caused resurfaced rocks, stuck logs, and other unknown hazards that even experienced paddlers have never seen.

When Mills turned around and got out of her kayak, her spray skirt — an essential piece of equipment used to enclose herself in the kayak — became stuck between rocks that are normally deep underwater. She was stuck face down, according to Atwell.

Atwell said he paddled to her rescue as quickly as he could and summoned the others to help free her from the rocks and pour out. “We reached her in seconds. But her head was submerged underwater,” he said. “It was a wasted effort. She was really stuck.”

Atwell and other boaters did what they could while the Montgomery Potomac County Swift Water Rescue Team arrived on the scene. MOCO Fire & Rescue released a statement saying Mills was “likely drowned” by the time they reached her.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik released a statement to the university community saying Mills was a third-year student who moved from Dublin to New York earlier this month to begin her studies at Columbia. Shafik said Mills was survived by his parents, brother and sister.

The Washington area whitewater community came together to reflect on and learn from the tragic drowning. Some local instructors are considering revamping their training and knowledge base on the Potomac as waters remain low.

“When the river level is this low, you can see new hazards and add that experience to your toolbox of knowledge and river geology,” McEwan said.

“This is also a time to remember to practice fast water rescue techniques and not get complacent. And to practice your trapping, rescue and self-rescue skills over and over again,” she said. McEwan said.


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