Down the tubes and up a creek

Pair of tubers spend night in cornfield before rescue from aborted falls trip

July 18, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

On Sunday's steamy afternoon, Greg Dean headed north with two friends and three inner tubes for what was supposed to be a cool and lazy float down the Gunpowder.

Yesterday, Dean recalled a night of misadventure that left him and one of his pals stranded in a cornfield, coaxing a fire from some husks and trying to stay warm - and calm -as rescuers searched the woods and water for the castaways.

"We just sat there and thought, `What can we do?'" said Dean, a 22-year-old stocker at a liquor store. "I've never had to be in survivor mode before."

Police and fire rescue teams from Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties and state police in a helicopter searched from about 11 p.m. Sunday until about 4 a.m. yesterday before finding Dean and his friend, Matthew Wagner, 21, upstream from the Monkton Road bridge.

The men were unharmed except for a few scratches and bug bites. But fire and park officials say the experience demonstrates how important it is to scout out a tubing course beforehand and to give someone onshore a realistic idea of when to expect you back.

"It sure feels good, but a little bit of precaution will make it a fun day altogether," said Tina Bianca, the area manager for the northern area of Gunpowder Falls State Park.

Dean, Wagner and Wagner's stepbrother, Tim "T.J." Clark, 22, dropped large, truck inner tubes into the Gunpowder Falls at York Road in Parkton in the late afternoon and floated to Big Falls Road, stopping periodically to chat with others who were also enjoying the cold water. They traded some bottles of Heineken they had carried on the plywood bottom of their tubes for other beer with fellow tubers.

Dean said he has taken this trip at least once a summer since he was 14.

"This time, it was a little different," he said.

"We just tried to go a little farther this time and didn't make it," Wagner said.

Usually, they get out at Big Falls Road, but on Sunday the group left Wagner's car in a parking lot at Lower Glencoe Road, which a park official said would have been about 11 or 12 miles downstream from their starting point.

"We didn't know it was that far," Dean said.

Clark got out when they made it to the Big Falls Road bridge. Other tubers drove him back to his truck at York Road, and he went to Lower Glencoe Road to wait. But after more than an hour had passed, the other two didn't appear.

Clark, with the help of his girlfriend and a local resident, spent several hours checking other bridges and asking people whether they had seen his friends float by. He then called the police at about 11 p.m.

He recalled thinking, "If anything, they're really cold and they're really hungry. They've got to get out of the water."

When it got dark, "we couldn't see in front of us in the water," Dean recalled.

Wagner said he had been tubing after sundown before, but in a larger group.

The two tubers said they spied a small trail near a cornfield, but it ended abruptly. They went another way and found a marsh. They deflated their tubes so that they could follow the river through the field, but it was full of thorny bushes. Dean fell into a ditch full of them, he said.

They decided to stop in a small clearing within the cornfield until it was light. "We thought it was too dangerous to walk blindly," Dean said.

They hadn't prepared to stay out all night.

"All we had with us was beer on the river," Dean said in an interview at his North Baltimore home.

Wagner, who with his stepbrother lives in Rodgers Forge, still had Clark's cell phone in what was supposed to be a waterproof bag, but it was soaked. Clark tried calling them, but they couldn't press the waterlogged buttons to pick up the call, nor could they make calls. The battery eventually died.

"I was so glad. I knew he had to be looking," Dean said.

They pulled their T-shirts over their knees and wet swim trunks and used Wagner's lighter to start a fire to keep warm, also hoping that rescuers would see the light. The two heard a helicopter nearby but it never came close enough to see them, they said. Dean said he heard cars but could not find a way to the road.

Wagner said they were uncomfortable but had been camping before.

"I was just ready for the sun to come out so we could get the hell out of there," he said.

Finally, Wagner said, he saw a light. They heard a search team calling for them. The two got on the Kingsville-based search and rescue team's boat, were treated by paramedics and went home, police said.

On Sunday, the water conditions weren't unusual, said Elise Armacost, a county fire spokeswoman.

Often, tubers "start off on what seems to be a placid little stream, and they run into rough currents and they find themselves in trouble," she said.

People should tube in groups and "make sure you have scoped out the path that you plan to take" to ensure it's safe, she said.

Armacost and Bianca said tubers should understand how long it will take them to get from one point to another. Park stations have maps.

The stream usually has a 3 mph current, Bianca said. A person riding a tube would move about 2 mph. The water moves faster after a heavy rain, and tubing then is not advised, she said.

The water, which comes from the bottom of Prettyboy Reservoir, is very cold.

Tubers should wear flotation devices, Bianca said, adding, "With so many things under the water you don't know what can flip your tube at any point."

Still, riding the river in a tube is popular. During the July 4th weekend, park officials said the river looked like an amusement park ride, Bianca said. "Everywhere you went, it was just bumper tubes," she said.

Alcohol is prohibited in state parks except for certain picnic areas, Bianca said.

Before they went out last weekend, the young men had tentative plans to go tubing again this Saturday. They said yesterday that they probably wouldn't.

"If I do go," Dean said, "I'm going to be a lot more prepared."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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