FORT KENT, Maine — Kellie Jandreau, 30, nearly lost her life Sunday afternoon when she and a couple of companions struck a fallen tree while floating on inner tubes on the Fish River and were pinned beneath it by rapid water currents.
As a result, Fort Kent Town Manager Suzie Paradis is working with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife to have the tree removed from the river.
The Fish River is highly traveled by water enthusiasts on non-motorized watercraft, including Jandreau, who said she has done so every summer since she was a teenager. Although she was not wearing a life jacket, she said her near miss is a reminder to wear personal flotation devices, even during what may seem to be the safest of outdoor water adventures.
Jandreau was one of 10 Fort Kent residents, including three children, who set out for a relaxing day on the river on five inner tubes and a paddleboard. The group entered the water at the end of Bradbury Road and planned to float several miles to Riverside Park.
Jandreau and her group had nearly completed their journey at around 3 p.m. Sunday when they came upon the dead tree, located just under the Fish River Bridge, which runs along Main Street in downtown Fort Kent.
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Until then, the adventure had been uneventful, and the tubers had no cause for alarm as they navigated shallow portions of the river.
“We saw the rocks on the bottom the whole time. Our buns hit bottom most of the time,” Jandreau said.
Jandreau was not wearing a life jacket because she considers herself a strong swimmer. Her friend, Jill Pelletier, 37, who shared a tube with Jandreau, was wearing one because she cannot swim.
The tubes, all tied together, struck the tree and flipped as Jandreau, Pelletier and a 13-year-old girl, who was also wearing a life jacket, were sucked under the tree by a powerful current.
The youngster was able to free herself from the tree, but Jandreau and Pelletier remained pinned beneath the water.
“I was completely trapped with the current against my back and the tree holding me in place,” Jandreau said. “I don’t know how long I was under there. Both Jill and I were accepting that we were about to die.”
Several members of the party could see Pelletier under the tree and rescued her, likely because she was pinned nearer to the top of the water because of her life jacket, Jandreau said.
Jandreau was not visible to the group.
“Finally, somehow I got loose and the current pulled me through all the brush downstream,” Jandreau said.
Jandreau said her body was beaten and bruised, and Pelletier had breathed in water.
“It’s intense. We’re not okay,” Jandreau said.
The trauma they experienced was clear when she and Pelletier finally came out from under the water.
“All we could hear were all of the children screaming. They saw us flip, and when we didn’t come out they thought we were dead,” Jandreau said. “It’s going to take a long time for the trauma to go away.”
Paradis said the town has offered to remove the tree but does not have authority to do it because the river is under the purview of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which oversees 32,000 miles of rivers and streams.
Paradis said Thursday state officials notified her they had found a piece of machinery to remove the tree, but it is unclear when that will occur.
“It will be removed,” Paradis said. “They realize it’s an issue.”
Paradis said the town will support the effort in any way possible, such as directing traffic or offering equipment during the tree removal process.
“Being outdoors has inherent risks. We ask that people be prepared when they get outdoors,” IF&W communications director Mark Latti said, stressing the need to wear personal flotation devices.
Maine has had three water fatalities this year where those who died were not wearing life jackets.
“If they were wearing [life jackets] they likely would have saved them. There would have been a different outcome,” Latti said. “We’ve also had some instances of people wearing life jackets and even after spending extended time in the water survived.”
Jandreau will wear a life jacket from now on, she said.
“A day on the river sounds great, but you really have to be cautious and really have to wear your flotation devices,” she said.