The W.Va. Division of Natural Resources has closed access to the Middle Fork River between Audra State Park in Barbour County and the Tygart Valley River until further notice.
Lawrence Messina, communications director for the DNR and the W.Va. Department of Military Affairs, said in an email Friday evening that the river would be closed while the DNR Police completed a recovery operation of a kayaker who is presumed to have drowned last Sunday.
“The [closure] is necessary as DNR Police are bringing in equipment including ropes and cables to assist with the recovery of the kayaker presumed drowned on Feb. 9,” Messina wrote. “DNR Police hope to resume recovery operations Sunday morning, but continue to monitor water levels and conditions at the site to ensure personnel can re-enter the water safely.”
Jamie L. Gray, 41, of Hacker Valley, W.Va., has been missing since her kayak overturned Sunday.
“At around 1:53 p.m. while about one half-mile below Audra State Park, Gray’s kayak capsized and she was swept downstream,” Messina said in the email. “A short distance from where she capsized, Gray was swept under a large rock in the river and never resurfaced. Members of her group attempted to reach where she was last seen, but were unsuccessful.”
The experienced group of about 10 kayakers were boating down river from Audra State Park, toward where the Middle Fork meets the Tygart River. Gray’s kayak and life jacket were recovered downriver.
Search and rescue crews cut a path through rugged terrain to reach the area where Gray was last seen, but were unable to locate her Sunday.
On Monday, “DNR Police, State Police and other personnel trained in water rescue and recovery returned to the area,” Messina said. “Over the course of that day, they encountered worsening weather including heavy rains that caused the river levels to rise. Conditions in that stretch of the Middle Fork became too dangerous for rescue personnel, while shoreline searches were also conducted.”
According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the river gauge at Audra registered about 4.3 feet at the time of the accident Sunday afternoon. While that is higher than normal, it is within the American Whitewater recommended flow range of 3.2-6.0 feet for that section of the Middle Fork River, which includes Class III and IV rapids, or intermediate to advanced.
By Tuesday, the river level had risen to nearly 9 feet, according to Messina, which prevented personnel from entering the water.
“The W.Va. Division of Forestry and the Marion and Monongalia County offices of Emergency Services have offered assistance including multiple drone aircraft and pilots to search the area and downstream from where the incident occurred,” Messina added. “Together, seven drones have conducted 18 flights over a 6-mile stretch of the river and surrounding area.”
On Thursday, Messina asked that outside groups not attempt recovery efforts of their own.
“DNR Police urges the public or would-be volunteers who are not part of the response to this tragedy to avoid this area or attempts to attempt their own recovery or search efforts,” Messina said. “DNR Police and the other entities involved in the response have sufficient resources as they continue to assess and monitor conditions at the scene.”