The March 20 rescue scene on Dry Creek, near Auburn, Calif.: The crew works to keep Jason Craig, across the creek, warm, while figuring out how to get him out from the base of the falls and across the river. (Large diagonal crack on right is what Craig's partners Z-dragged him up). Photo: Darin McQuoid

By Joe Jackson

Accomplished kayaker Jason Craig sustained severe injuries—pelvis and sacrum fractures, and torn dural sac, at the base of his spine—after impacting a rock while running an unnamed 30-foot waterfall on Dry Creek near Auburn, Calif., on March 20.

Craig, 17, a world champion freestyle kayaker from Reno, Nev., was the third of his group of seven experienced paddlers to run the drop; their outing followed a deluge of March precipitation that opened up new Northern California runs.

Jason Craig in the hospital, and all smiles. Photo: Jason Craig Recovery Fund/Facebook

Photographer Darin McQuoid and Taylor Calvin, the first two boaters to run the falls, glanced a rock on the left side of the landing and made note of it to the rest of the crew. Some members of the group heard a loud thump when Craig landed, and soon knew he was in trouble. “When he came out of his boat he was clinging to a rock not active,” McQuoid said.

Gareth Tate, a wilderness EMT instructor who was filming at the waterfall drop, crossed to river-left to assess Craig’s situation. “We decided to use the SPOT [GPS beacon] and cell phone at the same time [to call help],” McQuoid said.

A rescue helicopter responded, but was unable to land, members of the party reported. After determining Craig’s injuries were such that it was too dangerous to try and swim with him at all, the party waited for additional help. About an hour and 15 minutes after the accident, rescuers from the Marysville, Calif., fire department arrived on scene, river-right, with a backboard.

Robby Hogg looks up during the rescue helicopter fly-by. Photo: Darin McQuoid

Craig’s paddling partners ferried the backboard across to Craig’s position on river-left, and commenced a four-hour extrication. “We backboarded him, Z-dragged him up a cliff, and then traversed him downstream to an eddy. The crux was when we had to ferry Jason across the river,” said boater/filmmaker Cody Howard, a fellow paddler on Dry Creek that day. “Darin did a river board move and got him across the river. Thankfully Darin knows rivers so well; he stuck the perfect ferry angle and got him across safely.”

“It was all pretty tricky,” Howard continued. “Things move a lot slower when someone’s spine is in jeopardy. But he’s an incredibly tough kid and he was with us through the entire extrication. That’s why it went so smooth, he took it all under control.”

The accident happened late in the afternoon, Howard said, “and by the time we finished the extraction, it was dark. I mean, we used every minute of daylight.”

McQuoid also noted how well Craig dealt with the pain throughout the ordeal. Any movement with a torn dural sac — basically a bag of nerve endings at the base of your spine — creates excruciating pain. “Normally with an injury of that magnitude you expend so much energy keeping the person calm. We didn’t need that energy with him,” McQuoid says. “He was so tough.”

Once at river-right, rescuers moved Craig into the back of a pickup truck and drove him up a two-and-a-half mile dirt road to a parking lot to where an ambulance awaited. Craig was then rushed to a hospital in Marysville, Calif., where, after X-rays, doctors decided to move him to Sutter Hospital in Sacramento. There, Craig underwent a six-hour surgery that doctors said went as well as possible. Craig was then moved to the UC Davis Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, where he spent two weeks recovering and undergoing physical therapy.

Craig walked with assistance a week after the accident, and he reported regaining feeling and movement in his body on a daily basis. He was released from the hospital on April 12. Despite the long road of physical therapy now ahead of him, Craig has maintained the positive attitude that his buddies love him for on the river.

“His spirits are amazing,” McQuoid said. And it shows on Craig’s posts on Facebook. “Still a lot of work to do in PT, but now I’m back in a place with good healing vibes and lots of friends and family. I can do this!” he wrote after arriving home from Shriner’s.

The road ahead for Craig will also be an expensive one. Paddlers have been coming together to help raise money for his care and recovery. For details, please visit the Jason Craig Recovery Fund page on Facebook.

Will Pruett scouts out the swirly lip of the 30-foot waterfall prior to Craig's accident March 20. Photo: Darin McQuoid