At 5:45 pm on April 28 Heather Bonser-Bishop, 39, was standup paddling on the Chetco River in southern Oregon when her surf leash caught on a submerged snag causing her to fall and be held under water. She drowned shortly thereafter.
Bonser-Bishop was enjoying some of the first spring sunshine with her family after a long, damp Oregon winter. She and her 10-year-old daughter had fallen behind the other members of their group.
There were several snags—branches from one or more fallen trees—in the area that Bonser-Bishop was caught in and, according to Curry County Lieutenant John Ward, you could see the ripples caused by the snags just below the waterline. The greenish-brown water was six to eight feet deep at the scene of the accident, roughly two miles up the Chetco from the Pacific Ocean. The river was 60 to 70 feet wide and moving quickly but was not quite a riffle. It was a deceptively calm stretch of water.
Bonser-Bishop fell from her board when her traditional surf leash attached to her ankle and dragging behind her caught on one of the snags. As she was pulled downstream her board and leash wedged against the log, holding her elongated in the current. Her daughter yelled for help and called to her mother. A man staying at the AtRivers Edge RV Resort across the river heard her cries and called emergency services. The daughter paddled over to him from the opposite shore when he came to the riverbank. It was too late.
Unfortunately, Bonser-Bishop was only wearing a wetsuit. She was not wearing a life jacket and didn’t have a knife, Ward said. She also wasn’t using a quick-release leash, which are specifically designed to release from a waste belt or the quick release strap on a rescue pfd.
River leashes are often coiled so the amount of cord dragging in the water is minimized. When using any kind of leash, coiled or not, it’s imperative to attach the ankle fitting to the quick release belt on the life jacket so you can reach the release at your waste. Current, even minimal, is strong, often making it impossible to reach a leash attached to the ankle in the river. It’s not certain whether any of these items would have saved Bonser-Bishop’s life.
Bonser-Bishop was a non-profit consultant that held an MBA from Humboldt State University. For seven years she served as the executive director of the North Coast Clinics Network, the regional group that represents local community health centers. She was living in Gold Beach, Oregon but planned on returning to Trinidad, California with her husband and two daughters later this year. —Will Taylor