Unsung Heroes: Kayaking Scouters rescue family from drowning on fast-moving river

Paul Frye (left) and Ande Demetriou.

As co-founders of the Memphis-based kayaking tour company Blues City Kayaks, Ande Demetriou and Paul Frye know how to guide beginners down the Wolf River.

Just as importantly, they also know when not to even try.

On June 6, 2020, Demetriou and Frye decided to cancel the day’s tours because heavy rains that week had increased the river’s flow.

“The conditions were too intense for beginners,” Demetriou says. “We didn’t know the skill level of the people coming on our tour.”

Faster water, Frye adds, can worsen the danger of strainers — obstructions like fallen trees that allow water to pass through but not people or boats.

“The Wolf River has a lot of strainers and can appear deceptively calm at high water,” Frye says. “But the risk of underwater entrapment within a strainer increases at high water. Basically, it’s easier to be pulled into one and harder to get out once you’re in.”

As experienced paddlers, Demetriou and Frye decided to go ahead with the trip by themselves. It was a nice day, and they’ve been down that stretch of the Middle Wolf River hundreds of times.

The friends had been paddling for about 20 miles when they heard a noise downriver.

“Is that someone calling for help?” Demetriou asked Frye.

“I think so,” Frye responded.

Once they got close enough to find the source of the cries, Demetriou and Frye saw four heads bobbing in the water — two girls and two boys.

For the skillful, brave actions that followed, these two men — one a current Scouter and the other a former Scouter — received civilian awards from the Memphis Fire Department. On Dec. 14, they’ll receive their council’s Distinguished Service Award.

Demetriou is the Scoutmaster of Troop 255 of Bartlett, Tenn., part of the Chickasaw Council. Frye was active in Scouting for 10 years as assistant Scoutmaster, quartermaster, troop committee member and other roles.

“I don’t feel like I did anything heroic,” Frye says. “There was no decision to help or not. I’m just a guy who ran across a bad situation, did everything he could to help, and is grateful that everyone was OK at the end of it.”

Paul and Ande get interviewed by local media about their heroic rescue.

How it happened

Demetriou says he and Frye, who were in separate single-person kayaks and both wearing life jackets, “paddled as hard and as fast as we could toward the voices.” They found four children — the youngest a 4-year-old boy and the oldest an 11-year-old girl. None of the children were Scouts.

The 11-year-old was wearing a life jacket, but the other three were not. The three not wearing life jackets were clinging to the 11-year-old but beginning to push her underwater because of their combined weight.

“They were on the edge of an eddy and were just getting pushed into the main current that would take them into the strainer when we got to them,” Frye says.

Frye wedged his kayak against the strainer long enough to help the youngest child onto his boat. He then helped another child work his way to a more stable position. Frye paddled hard to the shore and told the child to climb off before returning to the scene to get the other child.

Meanwhile, Demetriou had gotten the two remaining children onto his kayak and was paddling them to the bank when he saw an adult male wading into the river, apparently to try to help.

“I yelled out to him that he needed to get back on the bank and that Paul and I had it under control,” Demetriou says.

After Demetriou dropped the two children at the shore, he turned around and saw that the adult from the shore had ignored his command.

“I now saw the adult’s head floating down the river,” Demetriou says. “He couldn’t stand up.”

Following the order of water rescue (reach, throw, row, go), Demetriou’s first move was to extend his paddle toward the man. But he was just out of reach. So Demetriou moved to the second option.

“I carry a throw bag with me every time I get in my kayak,” Demetriou says. “I told him I was going to throw it to him, I threw it to him, then told him the current would carry him to the bank. He got out, said a brief thank you, then walked back to his family.”

Ande and Paul stand with Memphis Fire Department Chief Gina Sweat.

The power of Scouting

In this blog space, we often write about heroic Scouts. Without the skills they learned in Scouting, these young people might not have had the bravery or the knowledge they needed to save the day.

But something else happens when young people learn how to respond in an emergency. The adults teaching them learn, too.

“By teaching, you are also learning,” Frye says. “When adult leaders prepare Scouts, they are also preparing themselves. Every mock situation prepares everyone involved for jumping into action when it’s real. It helps to negate the bystander effect, and in the moment, you are calmer and have more mental options.”

With kayaking, Frye says Scouting taught him to Be Prepared for emergencies on the river.

“We were prepared by having rescue throw ropes on both kayaks and the training to use them,” he says. “I learned and reinforced skills preparing for Northern Tier and Sea Base trips that I took with my own kids as part of our Scouting experience. Scouting takes water safety very seriously.”

Demetriou can still remember taking a Kayaking BSA course at Kia Kima Scout Reservation in Arkansas.

“The instructor said he believed everyone who kayaks should carry a throw bag on or in their kayak,” Demetriou says. “And not just carry it — know how to use it.”

A lesson for Scouts

Demetriou and Frye agreed to share their story not because they crave the spotlight but because they want to remind people that Scouting prepares young people for life — and to save lives.

“Our country needs Scouting, quite frankly, because our youth aren’t learning things like first aid anywhere else,” Demetriou says. “Non-Scouts are either going to be bystanders or try to help and not know what to do.”

For Frye, Scouting is all about teaching young people to be self-reliant and confident in whatever life throws at them.

“I firmly believe the job of a Scout leader and a parent is ultimately the same: to teach our children not to need us anymore,” he says. “Through the Scouting program, youth have the opportunity to not just be able to handle themselves in first aid situations but to handle themselves in life.”

Thanks to Holly Cooper of the Chickasaw Council for connecting me with Ande Demetriou and Paul Frye.

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.