What Goes Around…
By Tamia Nelson
October 12, 2010
Note to the Reader: The photos in this article are from stock. They're for illustrative purposes only.
I came for the waters. Not to run them. I don't run anything I wouldn't swim, and I don't fancy swimming Class V drops punctuated by undercut ledges and festooned with submerged snags. I came to photograph impetuous creek boaters making the most of a scheduled release. To do so, I stationed myself high on the riverbank, at a spot overlooking the lip of a 25‑foot falls. I figured this would be a good place to catch some of the action with my camera, and I was right. In fact, I caught a bit more action than I'd bargained for, not all of it through the viewfinder.
How a Spectator Became a Participant
I had a good line of sight downstream all the way to the lip of the falls. So I settled in to wait for the first wave of kayakers to paddle past. That's when I heard a shrill blast from a whistle, loud enough to be clearly audible over the roar of rushing water. I thought nothing of it at first, assuming it was just a signal between paddling partners. But when the first blast was followed by a second, and the second by a third, and when the blasts then continued with increasing urgency, I realized I was hearing a distress call. A paddler was in trouble. Then I saw him. He was in the water, struggling to swim his swamped boat to shore. And the 25‑foot drop was only a short distance downriver.
The next few seconds seemed to stretch out into minutes. The paddler was having no luck at all in reaching the shore eddy, but — and just in in time, too — he fetched up on a midstream rock. Once there, he made repeated attempts to pull his boat free of the river's grip. To no avail, however. The rock was awash, its surface covered with a slippery film of algae. It didn't offer much in the way of holds, and the stranded boater had all he could do simply to keep from being swept away. The river was winning the tug of war.
Things looked bad. But when I glanced upstream, I could see the unfortunate kayaker's buddies. They seemed like a competent bunch, and I couldn't imagine that they hadn't heard the frantic whistle blasts. So I waited for them to rescue their companion. Imagine my surprise, then, when they paddled right by him without offering any assistance. In less than a minute, they'd plunged over the falls and were lost to sight. From that point on, I started to think of the stranded boater as Philoctetes. (Let's call him "Phil" for short, shall we?) And if his position weren't bad enough already, it suddenly got worse. He was (understandably) still clinging to his swamped boat when his already precarious hold on the half‑submerged rock suddenly failed. Now he was headed right for the lip of the falls, on a course that all but guaranteed he'd end up in a keeper at the bottom. It was time for me to act.
Luckily, I had a 50‑foot line in my rucksack. (Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. It's part of my everyday kit.) I fished it out, tied it off to a nearby hemlock, and coiled it in preparation for throwing. I then stepped out of the shadows and positioned myself on the riverbank where Phil couldn't help but see me. He did. And not a moment too soon, either. He was only 15 yards from the falls.
I heaved the line. He caught it. And almost immediately afterward, he dropped it. The force of the river was too great. Meanwhile, another contingent of boaters paddled by, studiously ignoring the swimming man. So it was still up to me. I freed my line from the hemlock and scrambled along the rocky riverbank, hoping that I'd get close enough for one more try. I did. Phil's boat had grounded on another half‑submerged rock. He threw his paddle shoreward. I caught it. Then I tied off my line and tossed it again, and once again, Phil caught it. But this time he kept hold of it. He was now just three yards from the lip of the falls.
Yelling to make myself heard over the roar of falling water, I told Phil to thread the line through his boat's reinforced grab loop and tie it off. At first he did nothing — the cold water was taking its toll — but after I yelled a second time he bestirred himself and tied the line off. Next, he grabbed hold of his boat's cockpit and began hauling it higher onto the rock, while I heaved on the line. Working together, we freed the swamped boat from the current's grasp, inch by painful inch. Now, perched precariously on a rock just above a 25‑foot drop, Phil opened a drain plug on the kayak's stern deck and begun emptying it of the unwanted liquid ballast. Once that was done, I was able to pull the boat to shore with Phil in tow. Only then did I get a close look at the knot that he had tied around the grab loop. It had nearly come undone.
Still, it was a happy ending. But…
Phil Wasn't Out of the Woods Yet
He had a river to run — or a long walk back to the put‑in. To make matters worse, he was exhausted and cold. (Though he had a PFD, a helmet, and elbow pads, along with neoprene socks and river shoes, he wasn't dressed for a swim. He was wearing only shorts and a light synthetic T‑shirt — and the water temperature can't have been much higher than 55 degrees Fahrenheit.) Furthermore, his companions were long gone. While I hoped they were waiting somewhere downstream, I couldn't be sure. But at least he hadn't been injured during his swim. And he knew which line to take to get safely over the falls. (I questioned him on this point, just to be sure.)
We chatted briefly as he drained the last of the water from his boat. I drew his attention to the unravelling knot, and suggested a better alternative. I also recommended that he clip a 'biner to his PFD in case of need. Before long, he was ready to get back in the water. More paddlers were coming down the river now, so I took some comfort in the fact the Phil wouldn't be alone if he got into trouble again.
And then he was gone. I watched his boat slide over the drop before I returned to my pack and stowed my 50‑foot line. Later on, as I worked my way downriver to another vantage point, I caught sight of Phil again. He was back with his buddies. All seemed to be well, but I hoped he'd find the time at day's end to reflect on…
There was quite a long list of candidates for inclusion, after all, and I'm going to put myself in Phil's shoes for a minute and take a look at some of the most important, beginning with the places where Phil went wrong:
He Wasn't Dressed for the Water Temperature Cold water can kill, and dam‑controlled rivers are often cold year‑round. Even a paddling jacket would have been an improvement on a thin T‑shirt.
He Didn't Keep Essential Gear Handy A 'biner or two could have made rescue and salvage operations easier, but if Phil had any 'biners, they were buried in a pack somewhere in his kayak. That wasn't much help once he was in the water.
His Boat Had No Supplementary Flotation Even on Golden Pond, it's a good idea to have float bags in your boat. On a Class V run, they're a necessity. Water is heavy, and each extra gallon makes salvaging a swamped boat a little harder.
OK. That's where Phil blew it. But he did some things right, too:
He Wore a PFD and Protective Gear A good, properly fitted PFD is the sine qua non of safe boating. Don't leave home without one. Elbow pads and a whitewater helmet are a must on steep rivers, too.
He Had a Whistle The human voice is quickly lost in the tumult of rushing water, but a whistle can usually be heard above the roar.
He Wasn't Alone on the River Though he might just as well have been. Solo paddling is risky on any water, but it's near‑suicidal on a steep, technical river. It's not enough that your buddies are competent paddlers, either. They also need to have practiced the techniques of river rescue and salvage, and they have to be willing to act promptly when the time comes. That's the real test — the final exam, if you will. And it's where Phil's buddies failed him. They all appeared to be skilled paddlers. But they let him down hard when he needed them most, forcing him to depend on the kindness of strangers. Luckily, the stranger who stepped into the breach had a 50‑foot line in her pack. What about it? Are you feeling lucky? (Memo to Phil: Find some new buddies.)
He Kept His Head He hung onto his paddle, and stayed upstream of his (swamped) boat. Neither of these is easy to do when you're being tumbled around in a rapids. But Phil did both, and that says a lot for his presence of mind.
Of course, Phil isn't the only one who learned a few things on the day in question. I was shooting photos, not paddling — a bystander, not a participant. But I found myself thrust into an active role, nonetheless. Which served to drive home the importance of…you guessed it…being prepared. Happily, my getaway pack holds the Essentials, and a bit more, besides, including a long line and a couple of readymade prusik loops, as well as more conventional items like first‑aid supplies, spare clothes, and a poncho. This was the first time in many years that I'd needed to throw a line in earnest. It was very good to know that I had a line to throw.
Which doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement. Now that I've had an impromptu refresher course in elementary river rescue, I'm going to upgrade my getaway kit a bit, adding all the makings of a Z‑drag and replacing the old quarter‑inch laid nylon line that I've been carrying with something more suitable, like braided polypro. (It floats, and it doesn't stretch as much under load as nylon does.)
Final thoughts? Yes, I've got a few. Two things of note:
It's a Buddy's Job to be a Buddy Buddies don't leave their buddies to sink or swim as fortune dictates. Even if you fall out on the river, you stay together — and work together — till you reach the take‑out. If you're part of a paddling group, there's only one answer to the age‑old question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And that answer is, "Yes." No ifs, ands, or buts. Just a simple, unequivocal affirmative. 'Nuff said?
Beware the Madness of Crowds The release that lured boaters to the river on this day was well publicized. Maybe it was too well publicized, in fact. Paddlers weren't the only ones drawn to the water. Crowds of spectators came to see the fun, with the active encouragement of many local boosters, each one hoping for a bumper crop of tourist dollars. In some places the gawkers elbowed their way right up to the edges of sheer cliffs, or blocked narrow portage trails. On an earlier whitewater trip — I was paddling that day, not snapping pictures — I saw a spectator, camera still held to his eye, plunge off a cliff straight into fast‑moving, freezing‑cold water. This happened when the crowd around him suddenly surged forward. (He survived, but it's a good bet his camera didn't.) I thought I'd see that incident replayed at least once on this occasion, too. I didn't, but I saw many near misses.
Despite the crowd of onlookers on the day when Phil went for his unscripted swim, however, no one was prepared to give him any assistance. No one but me, that is. In fact, the gawkers would have been a downright hindrance if they'd been on the side of the river where I had stationed myself. The moral of my story? If you're a paddler, and you're taking a breather to watch the action, watch your back, too. Don't allow yourself to be jostled by the impatient crowd, and always be ready to help a fellow boater if and when your help is needed. You never know when your turn will come.
I've been hanging out on the water for five decades now, but that doesn't mean I've got nothing to learn, or that that I can't still repay a favor I received many years ago. And when the opportunity presented itself, that's exactly what I did. What goes around, comes around, right? It's a good thing for all us paddlers to remember.
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