MISSOULA — An 18-year-old college student on what authorities said was a school-sponsored whitewater rafting trip drowned in the Clark Fork River's Alberton Gorge west of here after she became pinned under a log in the river.
The victim, Sara Varnum, was a freshman at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., school officials said.
Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin said she was among a group of students in several rafts that set out Saturday through the gorge.
"They were doing everything right," McMeekin said Sunday. "They were wearing helmets, had good PFDs (personal flotation devices) and good wet suits."
But a log had lodged in the Clark Fork River overnight Friday at right angles to the shore, creating a dangerous underwater trap rafters refer to as a "strainer."
"The log lodged one end up against the bank and the other against a rock," the sheriff said. "It was at right angles to the current, submerged just a little bit — a very dangerous deal."
"It was a sad weekend," the sheriff said, "very tough."
Commercial rafters spotted the hazard early Saturday and canceled some trips through the Alberton Gorge that day. But the group from EWU did not know of the hazard when it set out, McMeekin said.
"Whether she got flipped out or fell out, we don't know," McMeekin said. "But she was immediately pulled under the log and pinned."