Watoga Trail Report

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The Body Recovery
When doing the right thing is not always clear
Part One

Adalynn, or Addy as she was called by those who knew her well, was a self-proclaimed tomboy; she hunted rabbits and pheasants with her father and brothers on their farm. She was athletic and had claimed many victories in track and field, and was, by any standard, brilliant.

She graduated high school two years early and whiled away a year in community college while applying for a state university offering a degree in agricultural science. Addy was ambitious and capable.

She had been baling hay all day for a neighboring farmer, and with a couple hours of daylight left, she was anxious to join her friends at a nearby lake for a bit of swimming. According to her three friends already at the lake, Addy ran barefoot down the length of the dock, yelling “Geronimo” as she dove into the water.

That was reported to be the last they saw of Addy until her body was recovered some five hours later.

On this very same warm July night many decades ago, the phone rang. My wife and I had been in bed less than an hour, after returning home from a movie. She stumbled out to the kitchen to answer the phone, and as she slipped back into bed, said sleepily, “It’s for you.”

“Oh no,” I thought, “Another complaint of loud music in the campground.”

Park rangers are occasionally called out at night for issues such as nuisance complaints in the campground or reports of “night swimmers,” people swimming at the beach after hours when there is no lifeguard on duty. Rarely were these calls about anything serious – after all, it is a park and people go there for fun and relaxation.

The campground night attendant on the other end of the line started with, “I hate to bother you at this hour, but there has been a drowning just over the state line, and they are looking for a dive team.” The county “just over the state line” was sparsely populated, mostly farms and woodland, and the sheriff’s office had only a handful of officers and no divers. 

After making arrangements to meet one of their deputies at the ranger station, I set about gathering up my scuba equipment and loaded it into the Jeep. Before leaving to meet the deputy, I called my diving partner, a state police officer. His wife said that he was out on an emergency call, and she didn’t know when he would get back.

Diving was an elective part of my job as a ranger, but drownings were few and far between. Most of my time underwater was spent cleaning water intakes for the treatment plants, unjamming gates at the dam, and occasionally diving in quarries and rivers for weapons or contraband associated with crimes.

One lucky assignment involved conducting a fish count for a wildlife study. That was enjoyable, but a body recovery was something I dreaded as I supposed all divers did. And when an underwater recovery was necessary, it was considered unsafe and not very practical without at least one other diver.

Arriving at the ranger station 20 minutes later, I found the young deputy waiting on a bench. The first thing he said to me was, “Hey, how do you get a job like this?” Park rangers hear this a lot.

I quickly directed the conversation to the business at hand, and he briefed me on what he knew. He said that there was a suspected drowning in a private lake and that his orders were to lead me to the remote location where the Sheriff was waiting for the dive team, meaning “me.” I would discuss this unfortunate fact with the Sheriff when I got there.

Over the next half-hour, I followed the deputy on a two-lane road that changed to a single-lane paved road and then onto a gravel road, finally turning onto a bone-rattling rutted lane that brought us to the lake.

Even in the moonlight, this was not a lake that was very inviting for a swim, let alone diving into its murky waters. Cattails surrounded the edge of the lake except where an old wooden dock jutted out about 20 feet. Willow trees dominated the shoreline, their long wispy branches reaching down to the water’s surface.

A thick mat of algae floated on the water surface, and you just knew that a person entering that water would create a temporary hole in the green organisms, only to be filled in immediately after submerging as though nothing had happened.
The lake looked genuinely creepy at night, and I must admit to a certain degree of trepidation, which was about to get worse – much worse.
When I first arrived, I had quickly surveyed the scene. Two young women and a young man, all about Addy’s age, were sitting on the bank together. I noticed that one of the women and the fellow were visibly shaking and all had their heads down.

An ambulance parked up on the levee sported two men sitting on the rear bumper smoking cigarettes. A few yards away, I spotted a fiftyish man in uniform that I assumed was the Sheriff, so I walked in his direction.

The Sheriff started walking my way as if expecting me but glancing over my shoulder, searching for the rest of the dive team. I explained there were no other divers available and suggested we wait until morning when I could get my diving partner to help with the search.

His initial expression of relief suddenly turned serious. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I know this family well, I know all of these families. Right now, the father is on his way over here; his wife knows nothing about it yet. All I’m asking is that you search the dock area, so at least we are attempting to find his only daughter.”

I was young myself, only a few years older than these kids, but I could imagine the anxiety that father must be going through on his drive over to claim his daughter. In the similar experiences that lay before me in my career, I would learn that until the body is recovered, the loved ones always hold out some hope.

I agreed to do what I could with the air I had in one scuba tank. But I asked to talk to the witnesses first, and the Sheriff led me over to the others. Only one young lady spoke up, the others still had their heads down, perhaps too traumatized to talk.

Her voice quivering, she said that Addy just dove off the end of the dock and didn’t come up. I asked if they tried to find her, and she replied that she did, but the water was too deep and too dark to see anything.

From what the witness said, I assumed the water was fairly deep off the end of the dock, so I suited up, and with some help from the deputy putting on the tank, I started into the water along the side of the timber pilings.

I quickly realized that a thick growth of hydrillia, an aquatic weed, prevented me from moving forward because of my fins. I turned around, and moving backward was able to work my way out to the last piling on the dock. The water here was no more than four feet deep, and unless the lake bottom dropped off steeply beyond the dock, it didn’t match what the witness told me about it being too deep to find Addy.

I continued walking backward about 20 feet or so beyond the dock and my head was still above water, which means that the lake was very shallow or had a gradual slope. So I returned to the dock and held on to the pilings, checking every square foot of the area around and under the dock. Everything that is, except for a canoe, lodged up under the shore end of the pier.

Addy was described as being thin but muscular, so it is unlikely that if she drowned near the dock, her body would not move very far because there was no current, and she had very little buoyancy. I knew then that her body wasn’t anywhere close to the dock.

I surfaced and asked the deputy standing on the dock to bring the witness over for a couple more questions. When he returned with the young woman whom I had spoken with earlier, I asked her again where she had last seen Addy. She repeated what she had told me earlier, that Addy dove off the end of the dock, and didn’t come up.

I inquired, “Where exactly were you when Addy went into the lake?” She hesitated and, in a strained voice, said, “We were out in the middle of the lake in the canoe.” I glanced out to what looked to be the middle of the small lake and judged it to be a couple of hundred feet at most.

It didn’t make sense, but I thought that maybe Addy had tried to swim underwater out to the canoe, and something happened en route, perhaps cramps or she became entangled in something.

I turned back to the deputy and told him that I had used a good bit of the air in my single tank searching around the dock. I said that I would continue searching toward the middle of the lake as long as my air held out. That was the best I could offer until the next day.

Using my compass, I tried to make a tight switchback pattern following the contour of the lake bottom. As I got into deeper water, I kept running into intentionally submerged trees used for fish habitat.

I was getting caught up in the branches as I advanced because the visibility was less than 18 inches and two inches of that was in the diving mask. It crossed my mind that Addy could have become entangled in one of these structures, but it is unlikely that she would swim to such depths if she intended to reach the canoe where her friends were.

I was now down to 20 feet of depth, and proceeding slowly to avoid the impediments. Floating just above the waving strands of hydrillia, I put my left hand out to push what I thought was a tree branch out of the way.

For one long moment, I froze; my bare fingers grasped the slender wrist of an arm reaching up out of the thick, undulating weeds toward the sky and the life-sustaining air.

To be continued……

From the dark skies of Pocahontas County,
Ken Springer
Ken1949bongo@gmail.com

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