HOWARD – When Mount Vernon resident Mark Booth disappeared into the Kokosing River on Thursday afternoon, only to be found dead the next morning, U.S. Geological Survey data shows the river was moving at 997 cubic feet per second.
According to Lori Totman, director of the Knox County Park District, that rate is almost four times higher than what would be considered safe for activities such as tubing, kayaking, canoeing or swimming.
“You would really have to be an extremely good paddler and swimmer to be on a river in those kinds of conditions,” Totman said.
Ideal water flow for swimming and paddling would be between 100-300 cubic feet per second, Totman explained. When it’s 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.
When people call Totman about water flow safety, she refers them to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, which tracks data such as river discharge (the volume of water that passes a given location within a given period of time, expressed in cubic feet per second) and water levels. The government agency records data on every national waterway, including Kokosing River, every 15 minutes. The Kokosing River’s gauge is located near Riverside Park in Mount Vernon, Totman said.
When the Knox County Dispatch Center received a frantic 911 call from Caves Campground at 5:04 p.m. Thursday, water levels were also abnormally high. USGS data shows the Kokosing River had risen to 5.33 feet, almost two feet higher than it was on Wednesday at the same time.
According to Weather Underground’s database, the Knox County area received over an inch of rainfall on Wednesday, including a torrential late-evening thunderstorm that bled into Thursday and registered .58 inches of precipitation.
This explains the rapid rise in water levels and discharge rates that followed; the Kokosing River’s discharge rate surged from 440 cubic feet per second at midnight to 1,030 cubic feet per second at 2:30 a.m. It peaked at 1,600 cubic feet per second at 5:15 a.m., and spent most of Thursday morning hovering above 1,400. Water levels peaked at 6.37 feet early Thursday morning, but remained high throughout the day.
While the Knox County Coroner’s Office is still investigating the cause of Booth’s death, the person who called 911 Thursday implied Booth and a 42-year-old woman had been swept up in a current. The woman grabbed a tree and survived, while Booth went under.
After a multi-day search involving dive teams and representatives from several local law enforcement agencies, Booth’s body was recovered at 10:45 a.m. Friday on the banks of the Kokosing River, approximately 4,500 feet downstream from where he was last observed.
In Totman’s six years as park district director, she said this is the first time anyone has died on the Kokosing River. There have been close calls in years past, she said, but no fatalities. While the park district technically does not claim or control the river itself, as it is classified as a ‘State Scenic River,’ Totman expressed her condolences to all impacted by the tragedy.
“There’s nothing else to say,” Totman said Friday, stunned. “It is extremely tragic.”
Totman said she had not been contacted by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, so she had no details pertaining to a potential cause of death. She did say that when accidents happen, victims typically are not wearing flotation devices.
“We always, always, stress – and anytime people call me about water conditions – we always stress, wear your personal flotation device,” Totman said. “Wear that PFD, that life jacket. It’s not going to do you any good if you’re sitting on it, resting your back on it, [or if] you don’t have it with you.”
People can be ticketed by law enforcement if they are seen on the river without a life jacket, Totman added.
Totman said heavy rainfall likely impacted the safety of the Kokosing River that day. When water levels and discharge rates are high, it becomes more dangerous for paddlers and swimmers to be out on the water.
“Because we’ve had so much rain, not only are water levels high, [but] the water’s running faster and a lot more erosion has occurred,” Totman said. This erosion, complimented by soil erosion currently coming down from agricultural fields, makes the water murky. This makes it harder for people to see potentially dangerous objects in the water, such as fallen trees, which could lead to an accident.
Even if someone was wearing a life jacket, Totman said, high water moving at a rapid pace still could cause a tragic accident.
Kokosing River water levels and discharge rates have dropped since Thursday, although they still hover above what Totman would consider safe. As of 9:15 a.m. Saturday, the Kokosing River flowed at 344 cubic feet per minute, with water levels at 3.82 feet.
Totman recommends people check the USGS website before heading out to a river, as the agency delivers timely, accurate information around the clock. Local officials can warn the public of high water levels and discharge rates, Totman said, but at the end of the day, it’s up to each individual as to whether or not they want to head out onto the water.
“It is just an extremely unfortunate happening,” said Totman, reflecting on Thursday’s accident. “I don’t know what else to say.”