A kayaking group apparently was ill prepared for the lethal combination of near-freezing temperatures, cold water and high winds that took the life of a Gonzaga University honors student April 1 at Rock Lake, according to a report released Tuesday by the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office.
Chris Gormley, a GU freshman, died after capsizing in high winds and being immersed in the deep 7-mile-long lake for more than an hour.
Paddlers told deputies the wind was strong when they started from the boat launch at the south end of the lake, but waves became much bigger when they had paddled about 1 mile and were midway between the two rocky shores.
Water temperatures were around 40 degrees. Deputies reported the air temperature was 35 degrees when they arrived on the scene after receiving a 911 call shortly after noon.
Tucker Brinkman, the first of three paddlers to capsize, told deputies he became concerned about the wind, tried to head to shore and was tipped over by a wave.
Gormley also capsized. They spent about 20 minutes trying to get back into their boats before deciding to swim toward shore. Brinkman said Gormley soon stopped swimming. He could yell for help but could no longer move his arms, Brinkman said, noting that he tried to pull him along but couldn’t.
All of the paddlers were wearing life jackets, but when Brinkman finally reached shore, he said he couldn’t see Gormley, apparently because of the big waves.
Brinkman said he was so cold when he crawled onto shore he could no longer move.
Neither of the students was wearing a wet suit or dry suit, gear that trained paddlers recommend for cold-weather paddling.
Gormley was wearing athletic pants, two layers of shirts and a rain jacket.
Ryan Griffith, city parks recreation supervisor, arrived at the scene and told Deputy Brian Keller that kayaking trips normally wouldn’t continue under the weather conditions he observed after the accident.
Griffith could not be reached for comment on whether the kayaks had spray skirts to prevent waves from lapping into the cockpits. Kayaks are less maneuverable when filled with water.
The group was organized through GU Outdoor Center and was being led by Brandon Lebaron of the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department and Mary Jantsch of the Gonzaga outdoor program.
Jantsch and three other women were in two larger tandem kayaks, which they were able to paddle to shore when the wind picked up.
Meanwhile, Lebaron tried to rescue the two capsized paddlers in waves up to 5 feet tall, the report says. As he unsuccessfully tried to pump water out of Brinkman’s kayak, Lebaron noticed Gormley had capsized, too.
Lebaron used a rope to tow Brinkman and his boat over to assist Gormley, but soon Lebaron also capsized.
All three men began swimming to shore with frigid waves crashing over their heads.
Sheriff’s marine rescuers found Gormley shortly before 1 p.m. floating face up in his life jacket but unresponsive. The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office has completed Gormley’s autopsy and is awaiting toxicology results to determine the cause of death.
Attempts to contact students or leaders involved with the trip were unsuccessful.
A Spokane angler who showed up at the lake about 8 a.m. that day said he looked at the waves from the parking area and didn’t even launch his 16-foot deep-hulled fishing boat.
“I should have checked the weather forecast before I drove all the way out there,” Charles Connor said. “It was cold, sleeting or spitting rain and there wasn’t another car in the parking lot.
“It was super windy. It was rough at the launch area and that’s usually the calmest part of the lake. It gets a lot worse out in the middle, so I turned around and headed home.”
Connor heard the news of the fatality that night. “I was a little floored they decided to go out that day, from what I saw and the reputation of that lake.”
Long and narrow, Rock Lake is known for rising in wrath to southwest winds.
The windy conditions on April 1 were no secret. The National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory at 3:37 a.m. that day for the Palouse effective from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The advisory warned of sustained southwest winds of 25 to 30 mph with gusts of up to 50 mph. The strongest winds were expected between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The kayak group launched about 10:30 a.m.
Kristie Slattengren, one of the paddlers, had run up from the lake and entered one of the few homes in the rural area – unoccupied at the time – to call 911 while the three men were in the water. Mobile phone service is spotty at the lake, which is about 20 miles south of Cheney.
Area paddlers say the tragedy underscores the training they’ve devised based on boating accidents.
Dennis Andrew, who teaches the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club’s annual June kayaking class, said the first thing they show students is a video about the dangers of hypothermia.
“It’s called ‘Cold Water Boot Camp’ and it’s on YouTube,” he said. “That’s where we start before we talk about paddling.”
Jerry Cesaratto, the club’s paddling safety chairman, said the “100 degree rule” is decades old: “If the combined air and water temperature is 100 degrees or less, use caution and wear a wet or dry suit,” he said.
“Cold water really zaps you, and the fittest, strongest, leanest people might be the most susceptible to going numb and helpless in minutes.”
Cesaratto, an American Canoe Association certified instructor, said he’s heard good comments about Spokane Parks outdoor recreation trips over the years.
“A lot of judgment calls are made in paddling,” he said, noting that paddling close to shore in windy conditions or changing the trip to another lake are options groups must consider. “But there’s no guarantee.”