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Whitewater deaths surge in U.S.

From Drew Griffin and James Polk
CNN
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MULE CREEK CANYON, Oregon (CNN) -- Fifty people have drowned this year in accidents during trips down whitewater rivers in the United States, where state-by-state safety laws can be spotty.

The 50 deaths this summer are approaching the recent high of 57 in 2003, according to the nonprofit American Whitewater organization's Web site. It's the third time in the past 12 years that 50 or more people have died in whitewater accidents in the United States.

Fewer than half the states where victims have died on commercial rafting trips in the past four years have laws or regulations requiring people to wear life jackets on whitewater rivers.

Other states mandate that jackets be on board, but do not require passengers to wear them, CNN found in an informal state-by-state survey.

Oregon leads the nation with eight drowning deaths this summer, despite a law that went into effect this year that requires life jackets be worn and a rescue rope be present on every guided excursion through rough waters.

Julia Clark's father drowned in Mule Creek Canyon on the Rogue River when a fishing boat overturned in swirling waters in autumn 2002.

"The guide wasn't wearing his life jacket and he didn't have safety training," Clark said. (Watch Clark's sad journey to tragedy site -- 3:49)

Her father, Chapin Clark, 71, was the retired dean of the University of Oregon's law school. He was pinned against rocks on the side of the river in a dangerous area called "Coffee Pot." The fishing guide had no rescue rope and it took up to 30 minutes to get Clark to shore. By that time, he had gone underwater at least twice and could not be revived.

Julia Clark formed a family foundation that pushed successfully for the new safety law in Oregon. Now everyone on a guided whitewater trip through a Class III rapids or worse must wear a life jacket, and guides must carry a rescue rope in a throw bag.

Of the 15 states where victims have drowned on commercial rafting trips since Chapin Clark died, only seven require rafters and others to wear life vests. Six have laws or regulations requiring a throw rope on board. Some states, such as California, have no safety laws for whitewater trips, CNN learned.

"Not wearing a life jacket and alcohol are the two biggest problems that we would see down here on a daily basis," said Brad Niva, owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures in Merlin, Oregon.

Niva's guides carry first-aid kits, a rescue rope, spare oar, an emergency radio and provide an extensive safety lecture before every trip.

"I think the best thing in this business is to be a little scared, and I've been scared on the river," Niva said.

Twenty-five people, including one guide in Washington state, have died so far this summer while rafting on whitewater rivers. An equal number have drowned in kayak, canoe and other river accidents.

Despite its new law, Oregon has had five rafting deaths this year on just one river, the Deschutes, which flows out of the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia River. There was a sixth rafting death on another river and two kayak deaths on the Rogue River.

The worst rafting accident in the United States this year was the drowning of three guests on a Grand Teton Lodge rafting trip down the Snake River south of Yellowstone Park in Wyoming in June. The raft flipped when it hit a tree that had fallen in the river.

According to the Grand Teton Lodge Co., a park concessionaire, each of the passengers was wearing a flotation device, as required by park regulations.

Ten million Americans take whitewater trips each summer. Two of the most popular states are Colorado and West Virginia, which have some of the strictest safety laws.

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A Texas family bounces through Tyee Rapids on the Rogue River during a trip in Oregon in August.

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