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Originally published Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 8:23 PM

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Skilled rafters flip in Skykomish rapids, unwittingly trigger rescuers

Ten friends rafting the Skykomish River got more than they bargained for after their rafts flipped and a bystander called 911, prompting a big emergency response. All the rafters made it to shore on their own and continued on their trip, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office said.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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GOLD BAR — A group of whitewater rafters who tumbled into the Skykomish River got a wild ride and a lot of unwanted attention Tuesday when a well-meaning 911 caller triggered a swarm of rescuers and media.

The 10 friends, in two large rafts, were thrown into the fast-flowing river at the bottom of the notorious Boulder Drop rapid east of Gold Bar.

“We just got pummeled by a wave,” laughed a dripping 38-year-old Sean Horst as the group hauled their rafts out of the water about an hour later.

“The river was running at levels where we knew there could be some carnage,” a giddy Horst told the TV cameras waiting on shore. “It was a good time. Nobody got hurt.”

But a witness on shore, who saw the group tumble into the water, didn’t know that and called 911 to report the mishap. It prompted a major response by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatched divers and a fast-water rescue team.

Horst said he and his companions are experienced outdoorsmen and women, all employed at Stevens Pass Ski Area, where he works as a ski patroller.

Chris Hunter, another ski patroller and an experienced rafter, said some of the group were carried a quarter-mile from the bottom of the rapids. Everybody was able to swim to shore — five on one bank, five on the other — and Hunter, of Leavenworth, Chelan County, said they were easily able to ferry across and continue their trip.

“We were never in any real trouble,” said Horst. “However, it was the most humbling swim I’ve had in a long while.”

Even so, Horst and Hunter praised the response of the Sheriff’s Office.

After rescuers accounted for all of the rafters, the group continued on their rafting trip to Big Eddy River Access Park.

Once they arrived, Horst said, they were surprised to see members of the media waiting on the shore. Some of Horst’s friends snapped photos of the photographers who were recording the return.

The rafters were prepared for the kind of wild ride that stretch of the Skykomish is known for. They wore helmets and life vests, and most were in dry suits because the water temperature is a chilly 50 degrees.

The Skykomish River is one of the most popular in the state for rafters. Because of spring snowmelt and recent rains, Western Washington rivers are running high this time of year.

Blair Corson, one of the owners of Outdoor Adventure Center in Index, which wasn't connected to the group of rafters, said thrill-seekers come from all over the world to ride the rapids at Boulder Drop, one of only a handful of class 5 rapids on the West Coast.

“This is one of the most exhilarating times to go down the river. It’s running at 7,000 cubic feet per second, and it’s thrilling if you have the skill set to navigate it,” he said.

Corson said rafts that are navigated through the rapids in the center of the river have a 90 percent chance of flipping.

“It’s almost guaranteed.”

That contributes to the excitement, and many customers seek it, he said.

Corson said his company routinely takes its guides on trips that are likely to end in a dip in the water. However, they take the precaution of placing other rafts, boats and kayaks downriver to provide a safety net.

“In about a week, we’ll be out there flipping people,” he said. “It’s a training situation, and we do it on purpose so that our guides will know how to deal with it when it happens.”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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