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High flows prompted whitewater group to cancel trip on Moyie River where rafter died

Fri., May 12, 2017, 11:55 a.m.

A day after a Spokane whitewater group canceled a trip on the Moyie River because of high flows, a 60-year-old Spokane man with another group apparently drowned in a rafting accident on the North Idaho river.

James Harston was found face down, floating in North Idaho’s Moyie River near the Moyie Dam hours after his solo cataraft overturned on Monday, according to Boundary County Sheriff David Kramer. Harston was wearing a wet suit and life jacket at the time he died, Kramer said.

Witnesses told Boundary County Sheriff’s Office that they had seen the victim fall into the river from his raft by Meadow Creek Campground on Monday. Because of the speed of the river, the group said they were unable to reach him.

Sheriff Kramer said Wednesday that Harston was running the river solo on a cataraft while his three companions were in a raft.

“The raft had flipped, too, but they were able to swim to shore,” Kramer said. “They said they went around a point where they thought they would find him, but saw him floating down the river face down.

“They said (Harston) was the most experienced rafter in the group and was well outfitted. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, but there’s no indication that had anything to do with his death.”

Boundary County Emergency Services had posted a flash flood warning for Friday because of area thunderstorms. The U.S. Geological Survey gage at Eastport showed a significant spike of Moyie River flows from 2,500 cfs to 5,500 cfs through the weekend.

The American Rivers online writeup for running the Moyie starts by saying, “Anything above 5,000 cfs is pretty high for this river…”

Spokane-area members of the Northwest Whitewater Association canceled their planned weekend trip to the Moyie because of river conditions, a member said Wednesday.

“We had a group of eight total in four catarafts and one paddle-raft crew of three scheduled to boat last weekend,” said veteran rafter Bart Rayniak.

“I watched the gauge go up last week,” he said, noting that he also called each morning for flow reports from Moyie Hydro, (208) 267-4377, to get the most up-to-date fore bay level at the dam.

“I thought Saturday might be OK, but woke up in anxiety at 3:30 a.m. and checked the level on my phone and intuitively knew the river would be too high. I was making phone calls at 6 a.m. to cancel the trip.

“We changed our plans and ended up floating the lower Spokane, something familiar and safer, navigated the big waves at Bowl and Pitcher and the Devil’s Toenail…”

Whitewater runners don’t point fingers at victims of accidents but rather try to analyze their situations and the river conditions in order to make the best judgments going forward, he said.

“The waves and holes above the Meadow Creek Campground are huge at that water level and are difficult to navigate safely in a boat, let alone swim through them,” Rayniak said, offering grief for Harston and sympathies to the rafter’s family.

He said he checked Wednesday and the Moyie flows were still high and on the way up with rain forecast for the weekend.

“Way too high for this boater,” he said. “St. Joe will be on the rise too if you look at the river forecasts and long-term weather.”

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