FRYEBURG – A Massachusetts man drowned in the Saco River Wednesday afternoon trying to rescue his girlfriend from the strong current at Walker’s Rips.

Ronald Sheldon, 41, of Amesbury was swimming with his girlfriend and her brother, all from Massachusetts, when she became tired trying to fight the current to get back to shore, Maine Warden Service officer Chris Cloutier said. The two men tried to help her and a fourth man in their canoeing party also jumped in.

“They underestimated the strength of the river,” the investigator said.

“A fourth person went in and the four of them tried to get to shore. Three out of the four of them were able to get out. They looked back and (Sheldon) was gone,” he said. “She saw him just as he went under.”

The names of the woman, her brother and the fourth man were not immediately available.

Divers will return to the site Thursday near Walker’s Falls Campground near the Denmark town line to try to recover Sheldon’s body.

Cloutier said the man turned 41 years old Tuesday.

Sheldon and the others arrived at the campground Wednesday and canoed to a little beach a ways away to swim. He said the water level has risen in the past few days and the swimming area is about 12 to 15 feet deep with a swift current.

“The current is pretty deceiving. The water has come up the last couple of days. There’s quite a lot of force coming down through,” he said.

“It’s darn lucky there weren’t three other people in there tonight,” Cloutier said.

A murky bottom, low visibility, strong current and “a lot of logs and rocks on the bottom” all contributed to the difficulty in locating the body Wednesday afternoon and evening, he said.

Members of the recently formed volunteer Oxford County dive team responded, followed by the Warden Service divers. They are expected to return early Thursday morning to resume the search.

Cloutier said a chaplain from Bridgton came to the scene, “which really helped us out.”

Fryeburg police and rescue personnel also assisted, along with Warden Service personnel.

Henry Neddenriep, a member of the Saco River Recreational Council, said Walker’s Falls is an area where the river narrows and a few rocks protrude above the water line. The rips there are considered Class 1 rapids.

Fred Westerberg, supervisor of the Saco River Recreational Council, said the weather has lessen the usual high volume of boaters on the river recently.

“The traffic’s been pretty slim this week, with all this raining and drizzling,” he said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.