Local kayaker resuscitated after incident at Oh Be Joyful Creek

“I absolutely got a new lease on life”

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

As rivers most likely peaked for spring runoff over the weekend, a local kayaker nearly lost his life after getting pinned in a section of Oh Be Joyful Creek (OBJ) on Friday, June 7. The coordination of his fellow kayakers, the fortuitous placement of others just downstream and the good fortune to have skilled responders on scene got Cole Brunner out of the creek just in time to avoid a 23-foot waterfall and essentially brought him back to life after nearly drowning. He is now doing well and taking stock of this happy ending to a harrowing situation.

The 31-year-old was kayaking with three friends on Friday afternoon when the incident occurred. Brunner does not have any memory of the events that occurred once he got into trouble on the water, but his friend Rob Dickinson was one of those paddling alongside him that day, and with Brunner’s permission he relayed the story to the Crested Butte News.

“Cole and I paddle together a lot,” says Dickinson. “We paddle OBJ together all the time. He and I had both six or seven laps there this year, which is a lot considering you have to hike up there and it had only really opened for paddling the week before.” 

The OBJ water levels had come up to runnable levels around Thursday, May 30. 

Dickinson emphasizes two things about their day on the water last Friday. First, Brunner is a highly competent kayaker; Second, the group of friends did not take safety or the water level fluctuations lightly at any point.  

“Although the Gunnison and other rivers nearby are reaching these all-time highs right now, these headwater creeks are diurnal in nature. So they are very reactive to the sun hitting the snow,” he says. “We were actually timing the low point in that diurnal flow and the water level at the time of Cole’s accident was on the low side of what we call high. Furthermore, he is a highly skilled kayaker. He and I had walked up for what was going to be an evening lap two days earlier and decided to walk back down because the flows were too high. This was a calculated effort.”

The four friends, Brunner, Dickinson, Holden Bradford and Carl Anderson, put on the creek at about 2 p.m., doing a practice lap on the racecourse for the OBJ Steep Creek Race scheduled for the next day. 

“We ran the top drop twice just to get some extra practice on that line,” recounts Dickinson. On the second run, they paddled down in succession. “There are three falls. The put-in drop is 15 feet, then there is an eight-foot drop, then a 23-foot drop. The incident happened between the eight-foot drop and 23-foot drop. There is a slide under the eight-footer that ends in a hole called the ‘speed trap.’ Cole was caught in that hole.”

A hole, or hydraulic, is a water feature in which water recirculates around a rock or other submerged obstacle. In this case, the hydraulic pinned Brunner and his kayak in place and Brunner was unable to paddle out of it.

The “speed trap” hydraulic caused a similar incident in 2020 for another local, who was also trapped and submerged for an extended period and later resuscitated.  

Dickinson recalls the situation that unfolded as he and the others paddled there Friday. “Cole was trapped in that hole, and I came through and saw his boat upside down. I attempted to bump his boat out of the hydraulic, but unfortunately, I slid right over it. I believe Holden did the same thing with the same result.”

Carl Anderson, who is an ICU nurse, had been at the front of the group and ended up slightly off his intended line and in an unusual eddy that proved to be auspicious later.

“Holden and I caught a little micro-eddy just downstream of that, on the other side of the river,” says Dickinson.  “Carl pretty quickly got out of his boat and got his throw bag [rescue rope] and waited for an opportunity to ‘bag’ Cole. Cole exited his kayak after a few attempts at rolling up.”

At that point Brunner was being recirculated, or held in the hydraulic, while fighting to swim free. When he went unconscious and stopped trying to swim, the hydraulic released him.  

“Then he floated downstream unconscious. Holden and I were downstream and hit him with our throw bags but he was still unconscious. We watched him float past us, toward the 23-foot drop,” says Dickinson. He acknowledges that it was tempting to jump in after their friend, but they knew not to endanger additional people in trying to rescue one person.

“A few others, Scott Dillard, Mat Dumoulin and Andre ‘Coto’ Robles were downstream,” Dickinson says. “We all blew our whistles for them to help him, and these guys were experienced kayakers also prepping to do their run. There is a bend in the river, where the water packs into the wall on the right. Cole floated into that wall, and they grabbed him by his helmet. He had no vital signs, so they started CPR. 

“Carl had gotten back in his kayak and paddled down to that eddy,” continued Dickinson. “Carl assumed command of the resuscitation efforts, and gradually brought Cole back to life.” Dickinson adds that Anderson had also successfully resuscitated another kayaker on the Green River in North Carolina just last fall. “So Carl is going around saving kayakers’ lives.” 

Meanwhile, Bradford and Dickinson were on the other side of the river and had to hike back up to a safe spot to ferry across and join the rescue efforts. Bradford also took that opportunity to call 911,  alerting local EMS of the situation. 

According to Mt. Crested Butte police chief Nate Stepanek, “At approximately 3 p.m. on Friday, EMS was dispatched to OBJ for a male in his 30s, reportedly unconscious, with CPR in progress. We activated Search and Rescue, and a care flight was called.”

Within minutes, the Crested Butte Fire Department, an ambulance with two paramedics, Mt. Crested Butte police department and Crested Butte Search and Rescue (CBSAR) arrived in quick succession. As Brunner was slowly regaining stable vital signs and consciousness, several EMS responders who knew Brunner were a part of the effort. CBSAR showed up right around that same time and used an inflatable litter to pass Brunner hand to hand up to the wheeled metal litter on the trail above. 

“By that time, a lot of racers were there. There was a lot of help from very competent people,” says Dickinson.

Randy Felix, acting as Crested Butte Fire District fire chief that day and also president of CBSAR, says the overall response went so well because of both fast EMS responses and because of the bystander rescue that got Brunner out of the water and back to breathing. He pointed out that quick responses can’t always happen in the backcountry, but the right circumstances happened to align that day. “A Careflight 4 [medical helicopter] was on scene within nine minutes of EMS activation, which is awesome,” he says. 

 Responders then wheeled Brunner out about one and a half miles to the road where he was met by the ambulance and handed off to the helicopter and headed to Grand Junction. By that time, Brunner was starting to speak a little bit as well.  

“The kayakers and bystander rescue is really what made that call,” says Felix.

In an unlikely second occurrence, another experienced kayaker named Cole also had an incident on OBJ that day and agreed for his name to be released. Cole Conger, who is from Ft. Collins, was kayaking the same run when, as Dickinson describes it, “He apparently landed weird off the big drop and hurt his back.”

A trip to the hospital and a series of x-rays showed no lasting injury, however. 

Between what appeared to be surging water levels and two difficult incidents that day, race organizer Paul Raymond made the decision to call off the race that was scheduled for Saturday.

Raymond has been organizing the race since 2017, and says while the two accidents factored into the decision, it wasn’t solely because of that. “We take everything into account when making a decision like that. It was more due to the fact that the level was really high, and safety became a concern with the level at what it was. And I got a feeling that a lot of people who had signed up for the race were nervous.”

Raymond says he was seeing a range of flows, but there is not a direct gauge for OBJ. “There are a couple markers we use to holistically think about the overall flow levels,” he explains.

Those markers include the Slate River gauge at Baxter Gulch and a newer foot gauge at OBJ campground, as well as a particular triangular rock along OBJ Creek that can be an indicator of general levels based on how much of it is submerged. 

“But you still get a big range,” says Raymond. “The diurnals are pretty big and pretty dramatic. OBJ can fluctuate 200 to 300 CFS in a day.” Raymond also viewed footage from 2019, another high-water level year, as he weighed his decision. 

He says it was on the higher side of water levels to put on the race, and he had paddled a lap on Thursday and had seen an inch or two showing on the indicator rock. “And occasionally it was surging and lapping over the rock. It was definitely more high water, and it’s much more challenging at that level. So, I hiked up there on Friday around noon to hang some signage for the race and rope off an area for spectators. And it looked great, there were tons of people paddling it…And then when I went back at 3 p.m. the water had come up.”

Raymond likens the risks of kayaking to other extreme sports.  

“It’s a lot like backcountry skiing. We talk about that a lot. At that highest level of difficulty there’s always things that can happen. High water certainly doesn’t make those kinds of risks lower. I don’t think anybody was being reckless by paddling it. The risk tends to be a little higher but those people know how to manage that risk, and take care of each other. 

“We’re really happy that no one is more seriously injured, and Cole is alright, both Coles are alright and we’re looking forward to putting on the race again next year,” says Raymond. 

Dickinson reiterates that “OBJ was not Richter high at that point when we dropped in. It was a fluke accident for a very, very skilled boater. The ‘speed trap’ becomes more retentive at higher flows, but most of the time if you hit it straight, you blow right through it. He just got a bad bounce. As Cole has said, sometimes it’s a game of inches.”

Last, Dickinson says, “We’re all really glad he’s still around.”

Brunner’s perspective

Brunner spoke with the Crested Bute News this week having fully recovered—at least physically, from his ordeal. 

“I’m back to work today,” he said on Tuesday. He reported that while his chest was sore from the CPR, he has no broken bones and no lasting injuries. 

“It’s surreal not having suffered any long-term injuries. I’m glad to get back to life,” he commented. 

“From what I understand they were able to rescue me within about 150 -200 yards of when I started floating downstream,” he says, which may be how he avoided significant trauma. 

“I’m feeling pretty good. Every day just seems like a gift. I absolutely got a new lease on life.”

Brunner says it is hard to reconcile what happened, though. “It’s hard to wrap my head around the accident. I think it’s going to take some time. I had a GoPro on and watched some of that film yesterday. It was hard…I’m a big advocate of learning and growing, and from watching I could see what went wrong. I didn’t watch any of the CPR though,” he says. 

Brunner said he had already gone for a bike ride this week, and also says he is happy to be back at work at Adam Chater Design, where he is an assistant welder. He says he feels like the self-care he practices physically and nutritionally also helped in this situation, which inspires him to keep it up.

Brunner says his memory of the day includes putting on the river, the first rapid, and then parts of the helicopter ride. “Although I was awake when I was being brought up from the creek, I don’t really remember it,“ he says.

He says he is particularly thankful to Scott Dillard and Matt Dumoulin, “Who first had hands on me, and then Carl who is amazing. He’s a good person to have around. He is somebody special to me already, and this adds a new level.” 

Brunner says he is grateful to the entire teams of responders as well. “I was told they were quick and prompt, it was just a seamless effort. There were a lot of people around there preparing the day before the race, so it was a good time to have an accident. “

As for safety precautions, Brunner echoes Dickinson’s thoughts. “We all talk about that and have discussions. If one person says no, none of us go. This run wasn’t on a whim. Kayaking is a very dangerous sport, but so is skiing, so is driving and so is life. We all have our own risk management policies, and they were being followed.” 

Brunner’s friend Heath Bradley set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for things like Brunner’s helicopter ride and hospital expenses, and the kayak paddle that was slated for the winner of the OBJ race will be raffled off as part of the fundraiser.

“I’m just so grateful to everybody. Gosh, it just feels like a bad dream. But it’s not, it’s a chance to reflect and focus on the things that are important in life. It’s unfortunate that it takes an accident like this to realize who loves you and cares, but it does,” says Brunner. “I am just so grateful to the CB community, the kayaker community and to my boss who is a part of CBSAR. It shows how small and tight knit our community can be. You just never know who’s going to be there to help you. More often than not, it’s going to be someone you know.”

Brunner’s GoFundMe site can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-cole-with-emergency-medical-expense

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