KANAWHA FALLS, WV (WOAY) – Sam Davis, a kayaker from Tennessee, came to West Virginia to paddle the Gauley River and ended up at the center of an unbelievable rescue effort by local kayakers at Kanawha Falls.
Davis is now sharing his story of survival and what happened in the hours leading up to the swift late-night rescue on Sunday as we spoke on the phone on Thursday.
On Sunday afternoon, Davis said he had just finished paddling the Upper Gauley, and he had planned on meeting another group to continue, but they never showed.
That is when he decided to just drive down to Kanawha Falls to do a couple of runs on it before calling it a day. An experienced kayaking instructor, Davis says he has done the drops there about fifty times over the years.
His first run was successful, but he quickly realized just how high the flows were that day. On his next run, he said the current pushed him more toward the middle on his drop causing him to lose control at the bottom.
He attempted to roll, but there was a new curtain forming because of the high water.
“In an effort to avoid that, it loaded up my stern, and I hit the undercut wall. And it shoved me and my boat under,” he said. “I swam once that happened just as soon as I started to go under because I knew how bad of a situation that can be.”
He was under water fighting to come up for about a minute and was hazy and catching his breath when he finally reached the surface. Davis came to the surface in a recirculating pocket behind the new curtain that was pushing him back into the falls.
At this point, he was stuck clinging to finger holes in the walls and treading water for about an hour-and-a-half quickly losing energy.
He then noticed an old bolt in the wall of the falls, so he held onto the wall with one hand and then he reached into his PFD where he found an extra piece of webbing and a carabiner.
“I used my fist to hammer the carabiner into the wall next to the bolt and then I was able to float, save energy and make a plan,” Davis said.
He noticed the back corner in the falls where the water was not circulating and he made about six attempts to get back there as he continued to be pushed down by the force from the falls.
He finally was able to swim hard and hoist himself up in the back corner in the small cave behind the curtain.
Davis stood ankle deep on a ledge against the roof of the cave. At this point, he began losing hope that anyone had seen him go under and was just hoping someone had found his boat.
He did leg lifts and squats as he began showing symptoms of hypothermia. When darkness fell, a small feeling of hope came.
He started seeing the lights of the search and rescue teams and he began to yell louder but with the rush of the water, it was not successful.
The search and rescue teams were no where close to where he was and he did not think it would be possible to for them to make it over with their big boats.
When they called off their search two hours in, things turned very grim for Davis and he began to grapple with the fact that he could die.
“And that was when my mindset kind of shifted to like ‘You’re battling hypothermia. You’re battling every second. Either you’re going to be or you’re not going to be. Like that’s your two options.’”
He started thinking of ways to ration his two granola bars so that he could make it until morning.
All the while, a massive rescue effort was being organized by the local kayaking community as local pro kayaker Corey Lilly had seen the photo of the empty boat posted to social media and heard that the search had been called off.
Lilly showed up with two other boaters and called in for backup when he saw where Davis was. Kayakers showed up in droves.
“They had like half of Fayette County’s boaters out in that parking lot,” Davis said. “That’s what’s been so humbling for me out of all of it. All of these people were heroes but if the people who were heroes hadn’t been, there was a lot of people in the parking lot to do the same thing, you know? And that’s, that’s so humbling.”
From Davis’ perspective, in his darkest moment, he saw one of the kayakers lift up a light and Davis began to yell. Because of the acoustics in the cave, the kayakers could hear him loud and clear. He just could not hear them.
He continued to yell to them what he was seeing and experiencing and just trusting by the consistent light that they were there and could hear.
The curtain of the falls had gotten heavier as Davis was later told the draining of Hawk’s Nest Lake made for heavier flows at night.
That is when they sent down a rope. He took it, twisted it the right way based on his training and was lifted up out of the falls.
After standing, fighting and swimming in water for about eight hours, he collapsed on a rock as cheers filled the air and he was covered by jackets and coats.
Davis later was treated at CAMC Memorial Hospital for hypothermia.
His family had been notified earlier in the day when the Division of Natural Resources ran his plates at the van he had left in the parking lot and confirmed he was the missing kayaker.
They were called on their way to West Virginia to be told he was, in fact, alive.
Davis is home now in Tennessee surrounding himself with friends and family as he continues to recover.
He says he knows paddling alone that day was a poor judgment call and that he hopes this serves as a learning lesson for all.
“The river does not care how experienced you are,” he said.
His mother is currently in the process of making a detailed timeline with everything from the woman who was fishing and posted it online to each person involved so that he can thank everyone as he says he owes them all his life.
“The amount of gratitude I have for those people I don’t even know how to express at this point in time,” he said.