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Whitewater Drowning Death

Leads to Improved Safety Laws

A former University of Oregon Law School Dean was killed on the Rogue River during a professionally guided fishing trip. The fishing guide was taking him and another passenger in a drift boat through the Rogue’s beautiful but dangerous Mule Creek Canyon.  As they approached “Coffee Pot,” a place on the river within the canyon famous for its unpredictable and powerful hydraulics that seem to boil like a coffee pot, the guide turned the boat sideways and capsized it.  

The Dean was thrown out of the boat and into the boiling waters, surrounded by vertical canyon walls.  The guide lacked the necessary rescue skills and safety equipment needed to save the Dean’s life. The outfitter business that employed the guide had not set up safety protocols to protect its customers, and had not established or practiced necessary rescue protocols.

The case highlighted that in Oregon at that time, there were no laws requiring rescue skills and equipment for businesses involved in one of the state’s more popular outdoor activities.  What happened should have been against the law.

We worked with the the Dean’s family to get new laws passed to raise the safety standards for professional river guides and outfitters. Don Corson wrote the preliminary legislation that would require the higher standards. Julia Clark (the Dean’s daughter), Mari Anne Gest (Julia’s friend and environmental lobbyist), Phil Barnhart (Democratic Representative from Eugene), and Floyd Prozanski (Democratic Senator from Eugene) crafted and negotiated the final bill and worked with Oregon Guides and Packers to get it passed.

The updated river safety laws required guides and outfitters to carry life vests, throw bags, and other equipment necessary for successful water rescues. They must also receive formal training in river rescue techniques, emergency procedures, and equipment recovery. These changes have protected countless lives on Oregon’s waters.

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