A kayaking trip turned deadly for a group of friends Saturday when a veteran outdoorsman drowned in a remote stretch of the East Verde River below Doll Baby Ranch.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office on Monday identified the drowned man as James McComb, 64, a Valley resident and avid kayaker. A Department of Public Safety rescue helicopter managed to remove McComb’s body at 11:30 a.m. Monday, almost two days after he drowned when his kayak overturned and was trapped in the eddy after he went over an eight-foot waterfall in a remote area in the Mazatzal Wilderness. Despite the frantic efforts of his friends to paddle up to him or throw him a rescue rope, he was pulled under and drowned.
The four people were kayaking from Payson to Fountain Hills Saturday when McComb flipped and could not right himself, said Lt. Tim Scott with the Gila
Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
After finally retrieving his body, McComb’s friends then made the agonizing decision to leave his body and continue, since they couldn’t get a cell phone signal.
The sheriff’s office didn’t learn of the events until late Sunday night when the group was able to get cell service.
GCSO Search and Rescue Coordinator Sgt. Terry Hudgens learned that due to the remoteness and lack of cell service, the group decided to remove the body and leave it on shore, marking the location with a “highly visible object for easy locating by air.”
Payson Fire Battalion Chief Dan Bramble said he had paddled with Jim McComb before. He said McComb had extensive paddling experience.
“It is a huge loss,” Bramble said. “He was a pillar in the paddling community for decades now.”
McComb was a retired Mesa physician. An avid outdoorsman, he fished, hunted and had kayaked for some 40 years.
“He knew every square inch of the state,” said friend Bill Langhofer, who was on the kayaking trip Saturday.
This was the second time McComb had taken the route from the end of Doll Baby down to Horseshoe Lake. The first time was some 15 years ago, Langhofer said.
It was the first time for the four other members of the group.
The group took off Saturday during the snowstorm and had gone down eight miles when they encountered an 8-foot waterfall, and class IV rapids (rapids are rated between a class I and VI based on difficulty).
Three kayakers went over the fall successfully before McComb.
McComb, who was in a longer kayak, followed, but got pinned at the base of the fall behind two rocks, Langhofer said.
Within seconds, McComb’s boat was covered in water and the other kayakers could only see a small red patch of his boat.
McComb was pinned so severely there was no way he could right himself, Langhofer said.
The men quickly threw rescue ropes, but the ropes were immediately swept away by the current.
Langhofer tried to paddle up to McComb but the current pushed him back.
Another kayaker was finally able to attach a rope to McComb’s life jacket. The men then used pulleys to get his body out. The boat could not be retrieved from under the fall and the men left it.
With 1,000-foot cliffs surrounding them and no cell service, the men decide to leave McComb’s body on the shore and head down the river as quick as possible.
They paddled another 28 miles downstream before reaching the lake and cell service.
Langhofer had kayaked with McComb for eight years. He said McComb was an amazing guy, well liked by everyone.
Just a day before this trip, the friends had kayaked West Clear Creek together.
The storm had dramatically increased flows in the East Verde River. For instance, the Verde River normally carries about 700 cubic feet per second, but on Saturday, it jumped to 3,450 cubic feet per second.