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Duck hunters speak about last week's rescue on French Creek

Jan. 8—Three young but seasoned area waterfowl hunters didn't expect anything out of the ordinary paddling their kayaks down French Creek last week.

"It's something we've done a million times," said Hunter Frazier, who was hunting geese and ducks with friends Chase Eaglen and Garrett Young. "It just felt really comfortable doing it.

"But that's what happens in those situations. You feel so comfortable you don't think it's going to happen, but it does — and it all happened like that," Frazier said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.

Frazier, 20, needed to be rescued by his two hunting companions after his kayak overturned in the creek just after 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Frazier had split away from his companions, going around the left side of a large island in the middle of the creek. He went left of the island to flush any potential birds toward Eaglen and Young, who had paddled right of the island.

Frazier attempted to paddle through a small gap between a tree that had fallen across the creek and another tree that was along the bank of the island.

That's when things went wrong — really wrong.

Normally, the creek level on that side of the island is shallow, but Tuesday the water level was up — and fast moving.

"I should have got out," Frazier said. "I tried to shoot through gap instead of going over the log."

Frazier's kayak instead hit the tree on the bank of the island.

"I hit the tree, went sideways and flipped over," he said. "It was very very rough moving water."

Frazier surfaced and was able to hold onto the overturned kayak, but it was pushed up against the tree and caught about 6 feet off the island. He also had been entangled in with the strapping that was holding his paddle with the kayak.

"Soon as I fell in the water, I knew I had to get ahold of them," he said of his two companions. "I knew the urgency of hypothermia."

Hypothermia, a dangerous lowering of body temperature, can be caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in cold water.

French Creek's water temperature was about 39 degrees Tuesday, according to the French Creek Valley Conservancy.

Normal body temperature is around 98.6 Fahrenheit and hypothermia happens when body temperature falls below 95, according to the Mayo Clinic.

As body temperature drops, the heart, nervous system and other organs can't work normally and left untreated, hypothermia may lead to complete failure of the heart and respiratory system and death, according to the clinic's website.

"This stretch of the creek is shallow, but the spot had fallen in was at a deep hole," Frazier said. "The water was definitely over my head. I couldn't reach bottom. I knew that I was not in a good situation."

Frazier didn't want to let go of the kayak due to the possibility of getting sucked under.

"I really was no more than 6 feet away from the bank, but I realized the gravity of the situation," he said. "I thought, 'This is serious,' and I tried to stay calm."

Luckily, Frazier was able reach into his vest, pull out his now-wet cellphone and use voice-activated calling to reach Eaglen. Frazier credits Eaglen and Young with saving him.

Eaglen and Young were able to beach their kayaks on the right side of the island and listen for Frazier's periodic shouts to guide them to his location.

The right side of the island was free and clear of obstacles, making it quick and easy to beach kayaks, according to Eaglen.

But it was a 70-yard hike across the island to get to Frazier and a water channel in the middle of the island needed to be crossed, Eaglen said. The channel had a 4-foot bank on each side, he noted.

Eaglen, who also is age 20, is a volunteer fireman with West Mead 2 Volunteer Fire Department as well as Cambridge Springs. Active with West Mead 2 since he was a junior fireman at age 14, Eaglen also served as a lifeguard at the Meadville Area Recreation Complex for four years.

"I'm familiar with the water, familiar with trying to make rescues," he said. "I've had a lot of good training."

"He'd been in water about five minutes," Eaglen said of Frazier. "Trying to keep him, myself and Garrett safe, the first thing we did was take the gun (Frazier's) out while Garrett went and got the rope."

Fortunately, the trio had a rope with them, Frazier and Eaglen said. They had found the rope on the ground at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's French Creek access point south of Saegertown, where they had launched.

Frazier was able to catch the end of the rope on Eaglen's second attempt to toss it to him with Frazier then pulled to shore.

"The kayak and paddle didn't give us too much of a problem," Eaglen said. "It was his waders as they were full of water — I bet they weighed 150 pounds. He was out of the water in 10 minutes with dry clothes on."

As experienced waterfowl hunters, they had extra clothing with them which aided Frazier in keeping warm.

"Chase, he had thermals (thermal leggings) on underneath, so he gave me his pants and hoodie," Frazier said. "I saved my dry bag (a waterproof bag) with a coat, extra hat and a pair of gloves.

"Within 15 minutes, I was relatively back to warm — I had socks, but didn't have shoes cause I was wearing waders," Frazier said.

Saegertown and Blooming Valley volunteer fire departments, Crawford County Scuba Team, and Meadville Area Ambulance Service were called to the scene to aid the trio.

Keith Gushard can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.