By BOB WHITE
Had their plans worked out, two good friends would have, today, been recovering after a weeklong paddling excursion through Mammoth Cave National Park on Green River.
Dangerous and powerful floodwater and unpredictable river debris, however, resulted Monday afternoon in both their kayaks being consumed by the Green River.
Gary Tyler, a relatively experienced 56-year-old paddler from Elizabethtown, managed to save himself by latching on to a log jam, then phoning for help.
On Friday, after a grueling five-day search, it was learned that Bobby Atcher, a novice 55-year-old kayaker from Radcliff, had drowned beneath a field of woody river debris swept up against an island head.
It was the end to, as Atcher’s wife, Debbie puts it, “his last adventure.”
That adventurous kayak and camping trip that Atcher and Tyler planned weeks before rains fell Derby weekend, was something that excited Atcher.
It was right up an outdoorsman’s alley.
Atcher was an outdoorsman.
Atcher’s sister, Ronda Wood – just a year younger – grew up riding horses, fishing and roughhousing with her brother.
He’d been crippled at 3, when a car crushed his little legs, but Wood said he never let his limp bring him down, or impact his abilities to go out and conquer the great outdoors.
Atcher helped Wood run City Pawn in Radcliff for a couple years prior to taking a maintenance job at Stithton Baptist Church, where he continued to work until this past week’s tragedy.
It was during his time away from work, that Atcher’s soul shined brightest of all. He served with the Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief group and Esther’s Closet – a clothing distribution center at Stithton Baptist Church.
Giving of himself, Atcher had gone on a mission trip to Alaska to build homes for the indigent a few years ago. Being an outdoorsman, he snuck in some panning for gold, fishing and exploration while he was there.
Regularly, Wood said her brother would hunt, fish and search for arrowheads in the wilderness with his buddies.
By all accounts, the wilderness was Atcher’s home away from home.
“He loved that kind of thing,” Wood said.
Two friends plan a trip
Tyler’s wife, Becky, said its that love of the outdoors that nurtured Atcher and her husband’s friendship that spanned back to 1978.
It was through Tyler, an RV tech at Phelps Dodge, from whom Atcher learned the ropes of paddling.
He enjoyed the sport so much, and the 10-foot boat’s ability to take him deep into the woods, that Atcher recently bought a kayak of his own – a pretty blue one.
The trip he and Tyler had planned together was slated to put the new kayak to the test -taking them both, over the course of several days, more than 20 miles from a launch in Munfordville to the interior of Mammoth Cave National Park.
Once inside the park, they’d have the unique chance to paddle directly into a riverside cave that’s accessible by small paddle boats when the water’s up enough.
The water was definitely up…
Rains Derby weekend delayed their planned weekend departure, but the sun shone brightly Monday morning, giving them the green flag to set out for their great big adventure.
Others witnessed the adventure begin
Atcher’s oldest daughter, Carrie, shuttled them to Munfordville, where, at about 1 p.m., they launched their kayaks onto the swollen passage that drains roughly one-third of Kentucky’s land.
Several people spoke with Atcher and Tyler before they set out. Some on the bank merely gawked at the river, then at the men and what they were trying to pull off. Some onlookers were aware of the risk, but Tyler and Atcher were grown men able to make their own decisions.
“None of us could have stopped him,” Debbie Atcher said. “I wouldn’t have taken that away from him.”
By noon Monday, rains caused the Green to spill well out of its banks, rising to 50-foot above flood stage and pushing so forcibly at 60,000 cubic feet per second that entire trees were swept downstream like toothpicks.
The river’s force was overwhelming, but Tyler’s wife said this wasn’t the first time the two had taken off on a challenging outdoor adventure.
“They’ve been through hell together,” she said.
Family members on both sides expressed gut feelings that the trip was too risky, but they knew that it was for this type of adventure that both men lived.
The Green, turned brown from stirred sediment, swept Tyler and Atcher briskly downstream. Their paddles steered them along as the powerful flow provided all the propulsion any paddler could ever need.
It didn’t take long for trouble to surface.
Two hours and 4.5 miles into the trip, the pair was thrust into a woody debris field at the head of an island – a literal dead end.
Overturned and smashed into a log jam, Tyler clawed on top of it and clung to a tree.
Atcher, who from behind saw the trouble Tyler was in, knew what was coming.
Some say Tyler last saw Atcher praying with his eyes closed and heading into disaster.
He’d never again see his friend alive.
From atop the debris field, Tyler called for help using a cell phone that had been stowed away in a Zip-Loc baggy.
According to Hart County Emergency Management director Kerry McDaniels, Tyler was in grave danger when rescuers arrived.
“He was in the middle of the river holding onto a log,” McDaniels said. “Luckily, we had a well-trained swift-water rescuer team able to get a boat over the fast water and to him.”
Despite a search lasting into the dark, there was no sign of Atcher on Monday.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed, with each day remnants of the expedition being found.
All the items found – camping gear, coolers, Atcher’s boat and life-jacket – were concentrated at a single log jam within 75 yards of the spot where both paddlers got into trouble.
Due to that, McDaniels said volunteers from 10 different agencies focused their search for Atcher in that same area.
When a cadaver dog with a Jefferson County search team “hit” on that same location late on Thursday, it confirmed searchers’ suspicions that Atcher was beneath the debris field.
While searchers had a clue to Atcher’s whereabouts, the high water made recovery almost impossible for several days.
Then late Thursday and early Friday, the water dropped almost 20 feet, like some sort of other worldly occurrence.
“That’s faster than what it should have dropped,” Atcher’s wife, Debbie said. “We’d been holding out for a miracle and that was the one God gave us.”
A grueling five-day search ended Friday morning, when searchers returned to find the kayaker beneath the woody debris.
McDaniels said the dropping water level made all the difference in the search for Atcher.
It wasn’t the miracle family had been hoping for, but Atcher’s wife said finding him after five days was still a blessing.
Atcher, Wood and McDaniels each credited the many volunteers for the week-long search and recovery.
Search and Rescue teams from Radcliff, Louisville, Munfordville, Hart County, Metcalfe County, Barren County, Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and others put themselves and their gear at risk to search the floodwaters.
The gave of themselves, their own financial resources and sacrificed time with their own families to help provide another family some closure.
Atcher and Wood said they’re grateful to have been so lucky to have such a wonderful crew of volunteers assist in the search.
“Central Kentucky has the best volunteers around,” McDaniels said.
Atcher’s wife said the mission to find her husband was the type of search he would have jumped right into, donating his time and personal resources too, for the benefit of others.
Atcher’s being put to rest on Tuesday.
Nelson-Edelen-Bennett Funeral Home in Radcliff is in charge of Atcher’s final arrangements. Visitation will be held there Monday, then at Stithton Baptist Church Tuesday, from noon until the time of his funeral service.
Atcher asks that people touched by her husband’s story remember the many different volunteer groups, from those her husband supported to those who helped recover him from the river this past week, and donate to those groups whenever possible.
Since Kentucky law prohibits volunteer search and rescue groups from charging for their services, McDaniels also emphasized the importance of donations for their support and operations, such as this week’s search for Atcher.
Last week was a deadly one.
Atcher’s death was one of several across the state this past week attributable to flooding, according to Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Spalding Hurst, a whitewater paddler familiar with the Class 1 Green River and other Kentucky streams, said rivers that seem peaceful can become deadly with a little rain.
“The river’s speed and power increase tremendously as the flow increases, raising its difficulty,” Hurst said. “Brush, fallen trees, bridge pilings, undercut rocks or anything else which allows river current to sweep through can pin boats and boaters against the obstacle. Water pressure on anything trapped this way can be overwhelming.”
Even experienced whitewater paddlers must consider the many factors of paddling any stream, even when they’re equipped properly.
“If your inexperienced and don’t have proper equipment — don’t even think about it,” Hurst said.
Reporter Bob White can be reached at (270) 505-1750.