Gnarly gorge is where things get particularly, well, gnarly. It’s a continuation of the Awesome gorge style of paddling but much narrower – becoming tunnel-like in places – and faster, due to the steeper gradient. With the gorge framed by native bush, fallen logs also pose a major hazard for kayakers.
Louise had written about these risks in a blog posted less than a month before her death.
“The biggest danger in this run is the risk of logs and wood,” she wrote. “This can be particularly an issue for the Gnarly section as it is very tight and continuous and there is not any easy option for scouting.”
Her words proved tragically prescient.
She had navigated this section of the river without incident numerous times that summer, including just four days earlier. There was nothing to suggest that Wednesday evening was going to be any different, until Ryan saw a paddle whisk past him in the rapids.
Sitting in the kitchen of the home he and Louise shared over her final months, he shifts in his seat to try to find a comfortable position to confront the memories of that day.
“I wish we never went paddling that day. It’s been [two years] but it’s still a struggle to think about, it just gives me nightmares.”
The group had only just entered into Gnarly gorge — Morley went through first, followed by Ryan, with Louise trailing the pack — a decision Ryan still beats himself up over.
He routinely looked back to check on Louise’s progress. He remembers getting a glimpse of her after completing the first difficult move. When he looked back for a second time, she wasn’t there. Her paddle came downstream straight away, followed closely by her upturned yellow and lime kayak.
Don’t go upside down.
He immediately yelled ahead to Morley “swimmer”, a word that carries weighty connotations to whitewater kayakers. With the raw power of the rapids carrying the pair further away from the spot where Louise had got into difficulty, it took a huge amount of effort for them to reach the side of the gorge where they could stop and assess the situation.
“We just kind of sat there helplessly, the water was moving so fast and it was impossible to get back to where we knew Lou was,” Ryan explains.
They decided to go further downstream. Morley would wait in a slow-moving eddy, where he would be able to rescue — they still were not considering the possibility of retrieving a body — Louise if she tried to swim her way out of it. Ryan would try to climb to higher ground and walk back to the spot he had last seen her.
Fuelled by a cocktail of desperation and adrenalin, Ryan clambered up the side of the steep rock wall and along the rim of the canyon, all the while using the whistle on his life jacket to let his girlfriend know he was coming for her.
“I expected to hear her whistle back straight away,” he says, gnashing his teeth as he clenches his jaw to prevent himself from breaking down.
Hope was being chipped away with every second that ticked by. He finally reached the point in the river where he thought Louise had been ejected. There was no trace of her. After 20 minutes of increasingly frantic searching, Ryan made his way back downstream to Morley, who, with a shake of his head, heaped terror upon the dread.
Moments later, he spotted his girlfriend’s lifejacket floating in the water.
That’s when he knew.
“I just started screaming at Joe, ‘that’s her lifejacket, that’s her f****** lifejacket’.”
The force of the rapids had pushed Louise’s lifejacket over her head.
By the time police and a rescue team reached the area and were properly briefed, it was too dark to launch a search. There were fears Louise’s friends in the kayaking and rafting fraternity, who had descended on the scene en masse when they heard one of their own was missing, would go back in by themselves to try to look for her.
Those fears were founded. Morley had already taken another pass through the gorge looking for her. They knew there was no hope of finding her alive, but the thought of leaving her behind in the rapids was too much to bear.
Ryan describes returning home that night without his girlfriend as the most gut-wrenching moment of his life.
“I got back in the car to get a ride home and her clothes were still in the car. Clothes I really liked. That’s all I had left of her,” he says, crying.
“She was right behind me and then I never saw her again.”
A GoPro camera fitted to the bow of Ryan’s kayak facing back towards him was the only witness to Louise’s final moments. About a week after the accident, one of Ryan’s friends with knowledge of the river looked through the footage for him, searching for clues as to what happened.
What they know is Louise got her line slightly wrong and was sucked towards a partially submerged log, flipping awkwardly on to the debris. The positioning of the log in the middle of the flow would have made it impossible for her to right herself, forcing her to exit her kayak. As she exited, her spray skirt - what paddlers wear to clip them into their kayak - got caught on a branch protruding from the log. Unable to free herself, she was pushed under, the rapids exerting forces on her body she could not possibly extract herself from.
Her body was still ensnared on the log when a rescue team was deployed the next morning, after the river level had lowered.
Adrian Jull finds himself obsessing over the smaller details — the seemingly inconsequential elements that conspired against his daughter.
“Accidents happen because of a series of small factors, and one of those becomes important. Did a wasp go past and she flicked it and that put her off course? You know? The sequence of events we will never fully know.”
The coronial inquest, held before Dr Wallace Bain, didn’t just focus on the hows, but the whys.
Many who testified grappled with the issue of the risks associated with the sport, and at what point those risks become unacceptable.
Thomas Lynch, who owns an eco-tourism business in the area, felt the culture in the extreme sports fraternity “glamorises risk-taking”.
He wouldn’t be the first to question the psychology. The explosion of extreme sports like big wave surfing, snowboarding, rock climbing and base jumping has led to a growing body of international research that sets out to examine the motivations of the participants. A common thread of the research is athletes seem to hold the romantic view that doing something inherently dangerous puts you on a higher spiritual plane. This has fostered a need to take bigger risks, make bolder decisions, and ride narrower margins of safety.
Bain could find no easy answer. He acknowledged risk-taking in sport was “a big societal question”, but was difficult to legislate against without taking away the free will of the athletes.
One potential legislative measure considered was closing the lower gorges of the Kaituna to kayakers.
The Julls' response is unequivocal.
“I was very strong when I spoke at the coroner’s court to say that we didn’t want that section of river closed off. It would have been the last thing that Louise wanted,” says Adrian.
Liz: “We don’t want what happened to Louise to discourage young people from chasing their dreams. Kayaking gave her so much confidence, it made her the person she was.”