The North Fork of the Virgin River was closed to whitewater boating Monday after four kayaking parties were rescued over the weekend in the Zion Narrows.
Zion National Park officials reported that four of five boating groups with backcountry permits and plans for one-day trips ended up spending one or more nights in the Narrows because of high water this weekend.
Two of the parties lost boats and needed help to get out of the canyon. One kayaker was washed under a log jam, but escaped the craft, which was lost downstream. He spent two nights in the Narrows before being rescued by another boating group.
Two stranded kayakers tried to climb out of the Narrows, but were only able to climb 800 feet above the river. They were eventually rescued when a helicopter from Grand Canyon National Park was called.
Shannon Marcak, public information officer for the Grand Canyon National Park, confirmed that a helicopter was dispatched shortly after 4 p.m. on Sunday. "They were actually able to land near the hikers. ... They loaded them up and flew them down to the valley floor," Marcak said.
The kayakers apparently were not injured. "We had two rescuers on our helicopter but no mention was made to me that they needed medical attention," she added.
Grand Canyon performs, on average, four helicopter rescues in southern Utah every year, according to Marcak.
Jock Whitworth, superintendent of Zion, temporarily closed the Narrows to boating while the cause of the mishaps is evaluated to determine "why so many boaters underestimated the difficulty of the route," said a news release from the national park. "Rescue in the Narrows, or in Zion National Park, is never guaranteed. Rescue in the Narrows, if possible at all, will be significantly delayed due to the inherent dangers and risk to rescuers' safety."
Paul Tanner of Salt Lake City was planning to run the Narrows on Friday, but ended up putting in the river downstream.
"I am bummed that I didn't get to float it, but it is probably better that some of the other [inexperienced] people in my group weren't on the river," he said.
Zion officials also are checking on why an unusually high number of permits was requested for the April 24-26 weekend. A backcountry permit is required to kayak the North Fork of the Virgin River, which is only high enough to float during spring runoff.
"The basic fact is kayaking is a sport not without consequences for the ill prepared or the inexperienced," said Gordon Stam, president of the Utah Whitewater Club. "You have to really assess the conditions and your experience and if you decide not to err on the side of caution you have got to be willing to accept the consequences."
According to Zion officials, the Narrows are rated Class V on the American version of the International Scale of River Difficulty. Class V water is classified as "expert" with "large unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes."
Stam said varying flows of spring runoff can change the danger level of any river in a short period of time.
"Conditions change and things get more dangerous or sometimes easier," he said. "There is also the added issue that it is cold this time of year and the sun rarely reaches the Narrows. That is not a good combination of things when you get in trouble."