Expert weighs in on kayaking tragedy in Niles

BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. – “It’s a tragedy, you hate to see it happen, but I always wonder when these things happen how experienced people are. It’s probably a tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” Rob Pearce, a staff naturalist at Sarett Nature Center and kayaking expert said.

Early Wednesday morning, Niles police received a 911 call about kayakers whose boats had overturned.

Thursday, we are learning their names, 40-year-old Jean Claude Mutabazi of South Bend passed away.

He was with three other kayakers at the time, 81-year-old Ted Knudsen, 72-year-old Tom Lehman and 37-year old Pierre Celestin – all of whom survived.

According to Niles police, the four men launched kayaks near the dam at French Paper on the St. Joseph River at a legal launch site.

When first responders got to the scene, one of the kayakers was spotted clinging to a buoy and was rescued by a boat.

Another kayaker who was in the water swam ashore and the third kayaker was still in his kayak and was trying to help the others.

The fourth kayaker is now identified as 40-year-old Jean Claude Mutabazi was missing for four hours.

Police say Jean Claude was swept downstream, grabbed onto a tree branch that was stuck into the top of this dam structure but he couldn’t hold on and that’s when he went out of sight.

They found him underneath that tree and he was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

ABC57 spoke to a kayak expert Thursday who explained exactly what happened and why.

“When you got more flow when it’s deeper flooded, it tends to flow faster so if you could get caught against a tree, it holds you against a tree and that’s very dangerous,” Pearce said.

Even though all of the kayakers wore flotation devices, he said: “you can get pinned and it will just hold you and sometimes you can get sucked down, even with your flotation device, you can go under.”

And with the river temperature recorded at 39 degrees with an outside temperature of 25 degrees, he said: “you have to be careful about getting wet, develop hypothermia, your body can’t keep its temperature up, you go numb and you can drown very quickly.”

That’s why Pearce says you need to be experienced if you go kayaking during this time of year.

“One of the cardinal rules of canoeing and kayaking – you don’t grab a tree if you are near it. It can cause the boat to capsize; you can get tangled in the branches. The current can suck you down to a degree under the water,” he said.

Even experienced kayakers, he said, are wary to go near the dams because of the currents.

If you do want to kayak this time of year, Pearce said you should only do so if you're experienced. Also, go in groups and wear a dry suit because of the colder than normal temperatures.

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