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How to stay safe on the Kokosing River’s most dangerous stretch

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Kokosing River water

BUTLER TOWNSHIP – Within a recent span of five days, two people went missing in the Kokosing River.

First, Mount Vernon resident Mark Booth. The 40-year-old was reportedly swept up by a current June 6 and found the next day 4,500 feet downstream, dead on the banks of the river. Next, Columbus’s Darnal Narayan, 15, who went missing June 11 under reportedly similar circumstances. Dive teams spent three days searching for Narayan before the rescue effort was called off Thursday. His body remains unfound.

In both cases, the victims went missing near Honey Run Park, located near Millwood.

While there is merit to the idea of happenstance – that these two incidents are isolated, and that myriad independent factors could have played into their outcome – those who know the river best believe location likely played a role.

“This is actually one of the worst parts of the river to get in, because of the undertow,” Millwood resident and lifelong Kokosing River swimmer Josh Endsley said. “It looks so calm on top, but the undertow is what’s so bad.”

“If I was just starting out, this wouldn’t be the river that I would start on,” said Dawn Roberts, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Central Region Watercraft Lieutenant.

What is it about the Honey Run area that makes it so dangerous? And what can people do to stay safe on the river? Knox Pages spoke with local and state experts to find out.

‘They think it’s a pool’

If anyone knows the Kokosing River – particularly, the stretch near Honey Run – it’s Endsley.

Endsley, 25, was born and raised in Millwood. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Endsley says he visits Honey Run Park several times each day to clear his mind. He likes to sit on one of the large riverbank rocks near Caves Campground and listen to music as the water passes by.

He also likes to swim in the river, as he’s done since his childhood. He claims to know every nook and cranny of the Honey Run stretch, which is often quiet, scenic and devoid of fishermen.

“I love to swim down here because it’s the deep spot,” Endsley said. “And plus, it’s where I feel the most comfortable because I’ve swam it all my life.”

But just as Endsley knows the perks of Honey Run, he also knows its perils.

The area is known as a tourist attraction for its scenic waterfall and shaded trail. Roberts said visitors will come from across the state to hike near Honey Run, and many walk along the trail that leads down to the river.

Endsley says he meets new people on the river nearly every day. He tries to warn them about the current, the ‘deep spot,’ and the undertow that hides below the river’s calm surface.

Often times, however, his advice falls on deaf ears.

“I personally tell people all the time, ‘If you don’t know how to swim or you’re not a good swimmer, do not get in this river. You will harm yourself worse than you will help yourself,’” Endsley said. “And countless times, they don’t listen. They hop in – ‘I’ll be fine’ – and then it happens.”

Endsley told Knox Pages he’s had to rescue “16 to 20” children from the river over the last four or five years. Most of the time, Endsley doesn’t have to call EMS; he’s taken wildlife educational courses and has a black belt in martial arts. Sometimes, however, he does.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “I mean people, they just don’t understand how much power is behind this water.”

What truly separates this area from the rest of the river, Endsley said, is the area called ‘Factory Rapids’ just a few hundred yards upstream. On the ODNR’s paddling map of the Kokosing River, which details every twist and turn and provides travel warnings, this is the only area in the 57-mile river marked as ‘hazardous.’

According to the ODNR’s map, the river can rise from Class 1 to Class 3 in the rapids based on the height and flow rate of the water. This area is simply “not for the novice swimmer,” Roberts said.

“The Kokosing’s beautiful, and it’s got a lot of amazing places,” said Roberts, who lives near Columbus and has been paddling in area rivers for 15 years. “But there are a couple sections of this river that, during high water and during storms, the skill level needs to be a little bit better for you to paddle it.”

ODNR Kokosing Map

The orange diamond near the intersection of State Routes 715 and 62 marks 'Factory Rapids,' a part of the Kokosing River that the ODNR has identified as hazardous.

Stephen Fleming, who founded the local nonprofit Paddle for Heroes, agrees. He began kayaking the Kokosing River as a teenager, and now frequently paddles in rivers around north central Ohio with his group.

Advanced kayakers will travel far distances to paddle Factory Rapids when the river is high and fast, Fleming said. In a state where most rivers are calm and monotonous, this section of the Kokosing is the closest thing boaters have to a whitewater experience.

Those same conditions can also make Factory Rapids risky, however.

“That section of the river is probably the most dangerous, and in the state of Ohio, it’s probably the most thrilling for thrill-seeking whitewater paddlers, especially during high water. Like, if it gets to 1,000 [cubic feet per second] we’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s go down to the Kokosing,’” Fleming said. “That’s not something I’d recommend for anybody unless you’re experienced. It’s very dangerous.”

Even Fleming, who has paddled around the world as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, still gets queasy when he approaches Factory Rapids. After paddlers make it through the rocky rapids section, they encounter a three-foot drop that looks similar to a low-head dam. The river narrows and the water becomes very deep. Massive sandstone boulders sit submerged beneath the surface.

When the water traveling downstream collides with these boulders, it causes water underneath the surface to become turbulent. Inexperienced paddlers may not notice the above-water signs of this tension – namely, the upstream ‘V’ that tends to occur with water boiling on top – and may choose to continue traveling in that direction.

Rapid passage

Doing so can cause turbulence strong enough to flip a boat and pull a passenger under, similar to how a riptide would work.

“That’s why that’s the most dangerous [part], because it’s the deepest part of the river, it’s the fastest part of the river, and I don’t know what’s underneath there, too – because all the flood waters we’ve had, there could be trees underneath there and strainers,” Fleming said.

“The strainers actually will suck you under, too. So if you get pulled under and you get sucked into a tree, you might get tangled and you can’t get out.”

River hazards

The strong current and deceptive undertow in this area puts inexperienced swimmers and paddlers at risk, Endsley said. It’s seemingly always been this way; according to research from Knox Pages history columnist Mark Sebastian Jordan, there have been at least eight reported incidents – all but one fatal – on the Kokosing River “in the Millwood area” over the past century, not including the two that happened last week.

In 1916, a local couple “waded into the Kokosing and unknowingly stepped off the edge of a hole eighteen feet deep,” according to the Wilmington Daily News. Four people drowned in the recovery effort.

Men and women of all ages have suffered similar fates along the Honey Run stretch. They were swimming, fishing, and canoeing. Their reports read eerily similar to those from the past week; Booth was reportedly swept away with the current, while Narayan was last seen swimming before he went under.

“They see that it’s calm and they stop right in the middle, and that’s where that current swipes you down,” Endsley said. “Last year I pulled two people out last Memorial Day because they almost drowned. I pull kids out of there all the time. People just… they think it’s a pool. They don’t understand that the current’s there, they don’t understand the timing of weather, any of it.”

So, how can people stay safe while navigating the scenic – yet potentially harmful – Honey Run stretch? Local and state experts have ideas.

Preparation, composure and basic safety measures

They key to staying safe on challenging rivers, according to Roberts, is preparation.

The first thing people should do before entering any river is read the ODNR’s map for that river, Roberts said.

The ODNR provides detailed maps of each state river on its website, identifying hazardous areas and providing a sense of direction for users.

Kokosing River map

This map is posted at the Kokosing River's Laymon Road Bridge access point.

The second thing people should do is scout the river out in person.

“Either scout it out by land or scout it out with somebody that knows it,” Roberts said.

This way, people can learn about what to expect when they get in the water. Where are the major rocks and trees that may have fallen? What does the current look like today? Where are potentially turbulent areas, and what is the plan to avoid them? These are all questions swimmers and paddlers should be asking – and answering – themselves before entering the river.

To that end, Roberts encouraged the public to learn how to read rivers. The watercraft training class she took with ODNR was “the most valuable training she’s ever had,” she said, and it’s also available to the public.

“I take my kids out and we stand at a high point, and I point down at the river and I start pointing things out. I take pictures and I white-mark – I take a marker, I really do, and say, ‘Look, these things will help you, these things won’t. You want to steer away from this but you want to use these,’” Roberts said. “And most people don’t know that without the training.”

After reading the river, people will have to make the decision: Is this river appropriate for my skill level?

If so, Fleming said there are several things paddlers should understand before taking on areas like Factory Rapids. Avoiding dangerous rock passages is crucial, he said. Being able to quickly decide which direction to go based off of water patterns and feel will prevent paddlers from flipping over.

If paddlers do flip over, however, they must try to stay calm.

“You don’t want to panic, you don’t want to fight. You just put your feet out in front of you, float on your back and let [the river] take you where it wants to,” Fleming said. “And when you go through the little rapids or ripples, right after that it’s going to be eddies.”

Eddies occur when water rushes around an obstacle, circulating towards shore in a reverse current. Eddies are an unseated paddler’s “best friend,” Roberts said. As soon as the paddler sees an eddy, “you want to swim for your life to shore because that will pull you to shore.”

Taking a relaxed, controlled approach is vital for both swimmers and paddlers in crisis situations, Endsley said. Panicking, although hard to prevent, will only make things worse.

“It don’t matter how strong you are, it don’t matter how experienced you are, [the current will] just suck you down. And it takes thousands and thousands of pounds to get you out, unless you relax and let yourself float out,” Endsley said.

“Let it take you where it wants to,” Fleming added. “Don’t fight it because the water will always win.”

There are other basic precautionary measures that can keep swimmers and paddlers safe anywhere. Wearing a life jacket is non-negotiable, Roberts said.

“Even just to wade, I don’t know why you wouldn’t have one on. We don’t do anything without them,” Roberts said. “That’s just the way we do business and now my family reacts the same way, and so do my kids. I just, I truly am passionate about it. You have to have a life jacket. It’s never going to fail you.”

Knox County Parks Director Lori Totman said people should also know a river’s height and flow rate before venturing out onto the water. By visiting the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, people can see how high and fast the Kokosing River is at any given time. The national agency uses a local gauge to track and record data every 15 minutes.

Conditions are favorable for paddling or swimming if the river is flowing between 100 and 300 cubic feet per second, Totman said. When the flow rate is less than 100, people are typically having to drag their canoes down the river. When it’s more than 300, people are running the risk of being swept away by the current.

Kokosing River Millwood

A view of the Kokosing River in Millwood.

Those preparing to paddle in the Factory Rapids/Honey Run area should also realize that the reading they see on the USGS website might be lower than what it actually is at that point in the river, Fleming added.

The Kokosing River’s gauge is placed near Riverside Park in Mount Vernon, where the water is typically flowing slower than it is near Honey Run. Tributaries near Mount Vernon tend to slow the water down, whereas flow rates typically rise near Factory Rapids. Because of this, Fleming said, paddlers and swimmers near Millwood should be extra cautious.

When it comes to warning signage near the river itself, Totman said she is working with the ODNR on a statewide initiative that is focused on river safety. The ODNR could not comment on what the initiative entails, and Totman said it is in the beginning stages, but she did note it would likely be the first of its kind.

Despite the two tragedies that have occurred on the Kokosing River over the past week, Roberts encouraged local residents to consider all potential factors. The Honey Run area can be dangerous, but relentless rainfall over the past several months might also have played a role. With both investigations still ongoing, she said, it is hard to tell exactly why these tragedies occurred.

All rivers are volatile, Roberts added, and sometimes an unfortunate string of accidents can occur merely by circumstance.

“Sometimes it’s an area that just poses a threat and [sometimes] it just happens to be that, you know, it happened that close together,” the 12-year watercraft lieutenant said. “A river is unpredictable. It just is, and I hate to say it. There’s no easy answer for the fact that we had one last week and now there’s one here.”

Most times, Roberts said, it goes back to safety. Those who take the time to educate and prepare themselves are least likely to succumb to tragedy. And on rivers like the Kokosing, in areas like Factory Rapids/Honey Run, this preparation becomes particularly crucial.

“Honey Run Falls is popular. It’s a beautiful place. I am from the Columbus area and I know about it,” Roberts said. “The only thing that we can do to keep people safe, because it could be anybody that this happens to, is safety equipment. Wearing your life jacket, getting some additional education and skill.”

Knox Pages history columnist Mark Sebastian Jordan contributed reporting to this story. For a deeper look inside the Kokosing River's darkest days, read his column this week: Kokosing River depths have a history of tragedy.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.