Everett Councilman Drew Nielsen dies on river

EVERETT — Drew Nielsen, a city councilman who got into politics because he wanted to make his hometown the best it could be, died Saturday in a whitewater rafting accident on the Green River in King County.

Nielsen, 61, perished after he was pinned beneath his boat in a particularly treacherous rapid on the Green River called the Nozzle.

Nielsen, an expert-level rafter, was known for safety and meticulous planning, said Irv Wiswall of McMinnville, Ore., a friend and fellow rafter who witnessed some of what happened.

He called it a “freak accident.” Nielsen was wearing his life jacket and had superb technical skills, even rafting this same stretch of river the previous weekend.

“We all miss him very much,” he said, choking back sobs Sunday. “He was many things and we all miss him so much.”

Everett native

Drew Nielsen was Everett through-and-through, born and raised in the town he would eventually come to serve.

His father was an attorney, and after Nielsen graduated from University of Washington School of Law, he returned to Everett to work in his father’s office.

After his father died, Nielsen continued to practice real estate law in Everett.

He wandered into politics in the early 1990s when he learned the hospital planned to turn some lots near his house on 13th street into a parking lot.

He lobbied hard for it to become a park. Then he put in the sweat equity to help build it.

That experience led him to run for the Council of Neighborhoods, where he eventually became president.

“He had such a gracious way of dealing with difficult people,” said Connie Eden, a long-time friend who served on the Council of Neighborhoods with Nielsen. “He never made people feel like their opinion wasn’t needed or wanted.”

Nielsen’s friends encouraged him to run for City Council. He was appointed to a vacant position in 2004. He’s won three elections since — two of them for full terms.

Nielsen wasn’t much for raising money or stump speeches, but he did enjoy going door-to-door to talk with people, Eden said.

As a councilman, he wasn’t afraid to ask pointed questions and to stand up for what he believed in, even if that meant sometimes being on the losing side of a vote.

He came prepared and rarely missed a meeting. Sitting on the dais, he looked like a college professor with his gray-streaked beard, sports coat and spectacles.

His friends describe a man who was as much an athlete as an intellectual. Before he took up rafting, he was an avid cyclist. He and his family also enjoyed hiking and skiing together.

He also was an admirer of architecture, a gadget hound, a storyteller and a gourmet who could whip up duck a l’orange on a rafting trip.

Often his two blue heelers, Kelsey and Tanner, would accompany him on rafting trips, tucking down behind him during the rapids.

Nielsen loved sharing the things he enjoyed with other people. After he got hooked on rafting in 1999, he talked everyone in his circle into trying it.

He was known for his safety talks, and his admonishments to cinch, cinch those life jackets tight before difficult rapids.

His wife, also an expert-level rafter, said he would scout every difficult route before trying it, applying his lawyerly love of research to his sport.

For instance, he memorized the name of every rapid on the Rogue River and how to best navigate each one — all 40 of them.

“He was so level-headed,” said Carol Thomas, a city employee and one of those people Nielsen introduced to the sport. “He had such great attention to safety. I didn’t feel like he took risks in a sport that was risky.”

He met his wife Kim in 1998 on the Yahoo personals, which they both chose because it was free. He liked to say they were early adopters of technology.

It wasn’t a first marriage for either of them. Drew and Kim Nielsen remained friends with his first wife, Kathy Kamel.

Kim and Drew Nielsen married last summer, at sunset on the Navajo Bridge of the Grand Canyon. The next day, they embarked on a 225-mile trip down the Colorado River.

Kim Nielsen described her husband as kind and gentle, a fabulous father to his two sons, Nate Nielsen and Alec Nielsen, and hers, Kraig Luttrell.

Sometimes, Nielsen toyed with the idea of seeking higher political office.

At the end of the day, he just wanted to make his hometown the best it could be, she said.

“He was Everett through-and-through,” she said. “I don’t think he wanted to be anything else.”

The accident

Nielsen and his wife Kim planned to put in at Kanaskat-Palmer State Park and float to Flaming Geyser State Park, about a five hour float.

They were part of a flotilla of four rafts with a total of six people — all friends, all experienced rafters.

Everything was fine until early afternoon, as the group came to the Nozzle a few hours into the trip.

The Nozzle is the most difficult rapid along the stretch the group was floating, rated a Class IV. The steep sides of the river bank narrow and the water is forced through a narrow chute flanked by two gigantic rocks.

Nielsen and his wife Kim shared a raft and they opted to go first. Part way through the rapids, the boat high-sided on a massive rock, one side stuck in the air, the other jammed down into the roiling water.

Kim Nielsen was briefly trapped under the raft. She felt her way out, surfaced and bobbed down the river.

Irv Wiswall wasn’t far behind in his raft. He saw Kim Nielsen in the water and started after her. And he saw Drew Nielsen, standing on top of the wedged raft.

“He seemed to be doing something,” Wiswall said. “He seemed to be gesturing to me. I had a strong impression he was OK.”

Wiswall eventually caught up to Kim Nielsen and pulled her into his raft.

Meanwhile, another fellow rafter, Bob Eden, had reached the end of the rapid in his raft, and noticed trouble. First, he spotted Nielsen on top of the sideways raft.

He paddled to the shore. It took him 20 minutes to get back to the raft. He scrambled up the steep bank, ran upstream, slid back down and swam through an eddy back to Nielsen’s raft.

When he arrived, Nielsen was nowhere in sight. Eden saw Nielsen’s lifejacket bobbing its way down the river. He prayed his friend wasn’t in the water. He tied a rope to a log so he could have something to hold onto while he tried to right the raft.

Eden hugged and shoved and pushed the raft with all his strength but couldn’t get it to budge.

“I couldn’t see him anywhere,” Eden said. “There was no response.”

Then, Eden saw Nielsen’s wetsuit top blow out from under the raft.

It had been more than 30 minutes by then. Too much time had passed. Eden decided to get back in his raft and see if Nielsen had been in the lifejacket.

He found it downstream, zipped up, buttoned, stuck in the rocks.

“No Drew was in it,” he said.

The rafters were able to flag down people on shore to call for help.

King County dispatchers received reports of a rafter in trouble around 2:30 p.m. Rescue crews reached Nielsen’s body and his raft downstream about 6 p.m.

“When the rescue team was able to extract him, they said he was badly pinned,” Wiswall said.

The river was moving so strong and fast, rescuers said later, it ripped the lifejacket off Nielsen’s body.

“He always took every precaution, he had the right gear, he had the experience,” Eden said. “In a split moment, everything can change on the river.”

A gathering

Friends gathered around Kim Nielsen at the couple’s home in north Everett on Sunday.

Two rafter’s dry suits hung on a clothesline in the bright spring sun.

A block away from their home is the park that inspired Nielsen to first enter politics.

Thanks to his lobbying, it’s not a parking lot, but an official city neighborhood oasis called Northwest Park.

In the years since, he and his wife would frequently visit, strolling through with their dogs.

On Sunday afternoon, children played in the grass, not far from the gazebo Nielsen built with his own hands, enjoying an early glimpse of summer.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197; dsmith@heraldnet.com.

Herald reporter Diana Hefley contributed to this story.

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