When a kayaker went missing after nightfall Saturday on the Neuse River in Johnston County, first responders from across the region descended on the stretch of river near Clayton in boats, cars and a helicopter. They searched from about 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. the next morning.
It turns out, based on interviews with people on the boat trip and officials, that Isaac Evans, 26, of Raleigh, had left his kayak in the river, walked into a neighborhood and called for a taxi, leaving the group he had been paddling with.
According to police and Evans’ own account, he called the Clayton Police Department that night, but gave them a fake name and didn’t pick up the phone when they tried to call him back.
In a phone interview this week, Evans said he gave a fake name, John Smith, because, “I didn’t want my name in the news.”
The incident started a little after dark Saturday when Evans, joined by another woman in the kayak, and a canoe carrying a man, a woman, a 7-year-old girl and two dogs, were almost to the end of a paddling trip of about 14 miles down the Neuse from Milburnie Road in Wake County to the covered bridge in Johnston County.
The canoe ran into a log, according to Becky Guin, 28, of Fuquay-Varina, who was in the kayak with Evans, and Nikki Calzaretta, 31, of Raleigh, who was in the canoe. The canoe, stuck against the log by the current, filled with water, and the 7-year-old girl, who was wearing a life vest, fell out.
Calzaretta grabbed the girl but wasn’t able to stand in the river. “We were caught by the current,” she said in an interview.
Guin, who is the girl’s mother, and Evans tried to paddle the two-person kayak back up the river to help the young girl and the others who were dumped from the partially submerged canoe, but they couldn’t make it.
Guin said in an interview this week that she got out on the bank and climbed up a steep embankment to try to help while Evans stayed in the kayak.
Meanwhile, some bystanders near the river heard the calls for help from the canoe and were able to pull everyone to safety and call 911.
Rescuers then came to the scene. Guin was unable to get to the people who had been in the canoe. “It was pitch black in the woods,” she said.
The first responders, Guin said, “put forth an amazing amount of effort” when the group said Evans was still on the water in the kayak. Numerous agencies responded to the call about the missing kayaker, including the Archer Lodge volunteer fire department, teams from the sheriff’s offices in Johnston and Wake counties and a Highway Patrol helicopter.
They found the kayak on the river, but not Evans, and the search continued.
Evans, speaking on Tuesday, said he got separated from the group and did not know where he was. He said he pulled up on the bank, left the kayak and walked through the woods close to where the rest of his group was already safe with first responders.
He took a cab back to his stepfather’s house, where he learned about the massive search. He called the Clayton police about 11:30 p.m. and said he was safe, but gave the name “John Smith.”
Stacy Beard, spokeswoman for the Town of Clayton, said that “when the dispatchers passed that info on to police and they tried to call the number back – he wouldn’t answer the phone.” She explained in an email that police were able to track down where the call came from, but no one answered the door to the home.
“They continued to try to call the number used to call the 911 center, but repeatedly no one would answer. We could not call off the search without confirmation that Isaac Evans was alive,” Beard said.
“When questioned yesterday by Clayton Police about why he gave a fake name and would not answer repeated calls from police or family, Evans stated he didn’t want his name in the news and he was afraid he was going to be in trouble for all the efforts made to look for him at the scene and he was afraid he going to be arrested,” Beard explained.
The initial reports from the scene Saturday night were that first responders suspected the boaters were intoxicated, but the people in the canoe and kayak dispute that. Both Guin and Calzaretta said they did not drink. Evans said he “had a couple beers” earlier in the day when the group stopped for lunch.
First responders, Beard said, did not test the group for alcohol. She said, “The main concern of those firefighters, EMS and police on scene was the health and safety of the people involved, looking for signs of hypothermia or injuries from the cold and capsizing.”
Police did eventually find Evans at his job in Youngsville Sunday morning, where he had started his shift at 3 a.m. that day.
Duncan: 919-829-4880, @duncanreporting