High and dry

Kayaker says rescue was unnecessary



Along the banks of San Luis Obispo Creek, where flood-damaged plants are still obvious, a 24-year-old Cal Poly student, Ethan Donahue talked about his rescue weeks before from a dank perch underneath the Broad Street bridge.

KNOWING THE ROPES:  Ethan Donahue, who was rescued Jan. 9 while attempting to kayak SLO Creek, is an experienced outdoor enthusiast and certified Wilderness First Responder. - JOHN PEABODY
  • KNOWING THE ROPES: Ethan Donahue, who was rescued Jan. 9 while attempting to kayak SLO Creek, is an experienced outdoor enthusiast and certified Wilderness First Responder.

#After spending a day scouting various sections of the creek during a recent storm, Donahue and his friend, Jacob Stoesz, set out to paddle from the Mission all the way to the ocean. They had gone the equivalent of a few city blocks when Donahue had to exit his kayak. He climbed out of the water and was eventually rescued. The news of Donahue’s rescue made it into numerous newspapers and web sites, partly because of a startling photo of Donahue perched underneath the bridge and partly because Donahue could be the first person, under a new state law, to be billed for his rescue.

The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, states: “Any person who intentionally, knowingly, and willfully enters into any area that is closed or has been closed to the public by competent authority for any reason, or an area that a reasonable person under the circumstances should have known was closed to the public, is liable for the expenses.�

Donahue said there were no creek closure postings. He also contends that he didn’t need to be rescued but couldn’t stop the attempt.

“The service was appreciated, but unnecessary,� he said.

Donahue’s attitude may appear somewhat arrogant, and if it does, here’s why: He has more than a sufficient level of wilderness experience. And, as he points out, it may look dangerous and stupid for someone to be paddling in a swollen SLO creek, but kayakers do it all the time. Surfers take similar risks when they venture into the ocean.

Donahue is certified as a Wilderness First Responder and has been climbing for seven years. He has also worked as a raft guide for the same amount of time and has experience caving. Donahue said he was well prepared for his creek adventure.

The trip was going smoothly until Donahue got caught in a hole, or an area of recirculating water. He rolled up but realized he couldn’t surf his boat out of the hole, so he intentionally exited the boat.

Donahue quickly grabbed onto the craggy wall underneath the Broad Street bridge and began formulating a plan with another friend, Mandy Hudson, who was onshore. I asked him how deep the water was and he motioned with a flat hand below his knee.

While standing in the creek and holding the wall for safety, Donahue told Hudson to leave a message for Stoesz on his voice mail and let him know he was all right. Stoesz had retrieved Donahue’s boat and finished the paddle to the ocean.

Donahue scurried up the rock wall to a perch above the creek, underneath the Broad Street bridge. From his position he was unable to simply climb over the bridge, so he and Hudson talked about getting gear for a rescue. It was then that an off-duty fireman noticed the two and called in rescue staff.

Before firefighters showed up, someone attempted to rescue Donahue by lowering him an inner tube attached to an electrical cord.

“I thought that was so funny,� he said.

It was about 10 minutes before rescue crews arrived. Donahue said they immediately removed Hudson from the scene. Hudson attempted to tell the rescue personnel that the situation was already under control. Donahue said he attempted twice to deny the rescue.

“They removed Mandy, that was one of the first things they did,� said Donahue. “She was a resource for me and they took that away.� Donahue said that had he been in state of shock or hypothermia it would have been beneficial to have a familiar face nearby.

With no option but to accept the rescue, Donahue went along with the plan. But not without his own critique.

“They were using a 3-1 progress capture,� he said. “I tailored their plan.� Rescue personnel gave Donahue a harness and passed him two lines, which he used to create a rappel system that prevented him from swinging wildly. Donahue said he quickly rigged up his improved plan and said it’s likely the rescue personnel were unaware of it.

“They had a plan and I improved it,� he said. Once above the bridge Donahue denied an ambulance trip to the hospital. He told personnel that he had checked his vital signs and his spine. When they realized he was lucid and not hypothermic, they released him.

Donahue, whose father is a volunteer firefighter, said that with the help of his friend he could have enacted a rescue more quickly, and more cheaply. Now he may be billed for the rescue.

Under the new law, victims who defy warnings or common sense can be billed up to $12,000. Donahue said he doesn’t fit under either category. Rob Bryn, SLO Police Department spokesman, said Donahue didn’t break any laws. The fire department said the rescue cost the city $4,500, and they recommended billing Donahue $1,000 to send a message. City Attorney Jonathan Lowell will decide if Donahue can and will be billed under the new law.

Donahue said he probably won’t paddle SLO Creek again; not because of the danger of the rapids, but because “people are unpredictable.�

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at




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