Monday, December 28, 2009

The Deminishing Desire to Help

I patiently braced myself, pinched between the rock and the current. An occasional surge washed water over my head. Distracted by the din of rushing water, I did not notice them until they had already passed. I prefer to catch their attention early, so as not to alarm them. It was too late for this crew, though, they had seen me first.

I can only imagine what they must have thought. Below me, my canoe was wrapped on a rock. The green end of the Coleman sticking up into the air, and me, face down and half submerged.

In 1996, a man had drowned in almost this exact location. He too had wrapped a canoe. And as he swam past it, his shoelaces became snagged on the boat. He was entrapped and unable to free himself.

I did not want to impose this on others. I know what it is like to be falsely elevated into emergency. I had set this scenario up for training. The participants were in the parking lot, still out of site, waiting for the whistle blast to come to the rescue.

I watched, though, as this crew, continued to float past me, nearly hitting the canoe with their oars.

They must have seen me. I was only a few feet away. Yet they had passed, as if my boat and I were nothing more than additional obstacles to avoid.

At least, I thought, I did not alarm them. But what if I had been in trouble? Would they have stopped?

Perhaps this group knew that this was a scenario. It is one of our frequent teaching sites. Maybe they saw me as I scrambled out into the current to set it up. Or maybe they saw the participants, not as out of site as I had thought. I do not know.

However, after teaching these classes for the past ten years, and being a boater for over twenty, this story is indicative of an observed trend. As the river community grows in numbers, the awareness of others diminishes.

When I first began teaching, nearly every boater that passed, stopped. They would ask if I was alright and if I needed a ride back to shore. But as time has passed, those encounters have become fewer. And now it seems like the only boats that stop are the well-used ones, with grizzled, squinty-eyed captains. Newer boats, with shiny frames and composite oars tend to pass by, determined to continue their float.

Perhaps this trend is due to the fact that people new to the river lack confidence and experience, and just don’t know what to do. It could be, too, that people choose to stay out of the way. Maybe they believe that someone else will take care of the problem. There are endless possibilities.

No matter what the cause is, though, this is a concerning trend.

In 2008, my brother-in-law sat wet, shoeless and without a boat on the shore of the Colorado. Numerous boats passed by, including his own group. Not one of them stopped. Somehow he ended up back in the water, but by the time help came, it was too late.

As community members we need to spot this trend, stop, and change it before it is too late.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Z-Drags and the Secret Knowledge of Swift Water

For better or for worse, Z-drag has become synonymous with the words “swift water rescue.” Nearly every student that signs up for a swift water rescue class, hopes the veil of mystery that keeps the mechanics of the z-drag hidden from view will be pulled away and that they will leave the course with the secret knowledge of the rescue world.

This is not completely unfounded. Z-drags, or mechanical advantage can be a very useful tool in a river rescue. They have undoubtedly saved many a kayaker or rafter from hiking out of the wilderness, and have probably directly saved a few lives along the way. However, mechanical advantage is merely one single practical skill out of dozens taught in swift water rescue courses. And out of all those skills, none of them add up to the most important part of any safety course, the lessons learned about one’s own judgment.

I have been involved in many different aspects of the paddling community and have made my share of bad judgments. I spent a decade as a slalom competitor, I have been a slalom coach, a class V boater, I have taught kayaking, guided rafts, run gear boats, and most recently taught swift water rescue. And through all this, one theme rises to the surface—safety on the river is not dependent upon the practical skills we each may have, but rather the self-awareness and decision-making skills we bring to the table.

We all know stories about technically adept paddlers getting into trouble. I have often heard this explained as a numbers game. They spend more time on the river; hence they have more exposure to the risk. This may be true, but there is more at play here.

A study conducted by Harvard Medicine looked at anesthesiologists and their rate of success; based on mortality and morbidity. What was found was that most mistakes occurred, not during the most difficult times of the operation—the beginning and the end—but rather during the “easier” moments in the middle of the process, when vigilance waned.

I can see this in myself countless times. One example happened just last year. After finishing the inner gorge of Big Sands Creek in Idaho, and coming out into the “boogie water,” I thought to myself, “alright, we made it!” And before I had time to finish that thought, we rounded the corner and found a river wide strainer. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But had we maintained vigilance and scouted this blind corner, this close call would have been nothing at all.

This idea of maintaining vigilance when on the river is at the core of swift water rescue, and for that matter, boating in general. A good swift water course should not only allow you to learn important and practical skills, such as the z-drag, but also give you the opportunity to exercise your most valuable skill as a boater—your judgment.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Former WRI Student Featured in National Publication

Brandon Stevens, a Firefighter, EMT, and a past student of WRI, responded to a vehicle in the frozen Tongue River last March. His amazing rescue of the entrapped and hypothemic victim is featured in this month's Advanced Rescue Technology magazine. Congratulations Brandon on a job well done!! Read the article at

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

River Safety: Where do we draw the line?

Spring is full of paradoxes. After interminable gray skies and snowy hillsides, the days get longer and the nights warmer. Rivers begin to rise. Driveways and car racks fill up with dusty boats as anxious boaters prepare for the season. However, despite the cumulative human desire to have the cold days behind us, and to launch our boats on swollen rivers, spring is not summer.

As was the case last May on the Gallatin River in Montana. The river had risen after a few warm days. Overnight, once vacant put-ins were populated with eager kayakers, rafters, and canoers. However, as any veteran of western Montana knows, a warm day in May can include snow flurries and freezing temperatures.

While teaching a Swift Water Rescue course, a cold front moved in and the snow began to fly. Participants in the course would swim the river, and quickly huddle beneath a tarp to keep out of the wind as we discussed rescue techniques. Fortunately, most participants had drysuits on, and their discomfort was just that, discomfort, and did not pose a significant risk to life or limb.

As we clamored in and out of the icy river, I noticed a group preparing their raft for a float down the Gallatin. I began to assess their preparedness. I watched as they inflated their raft. It was an older bucket boat, but appeared to be in good repair, and seemed adequate for the class III-IV float they were about to embark upon. I watched inquisitively as they placed three raft paddles and one kayak paddle into the boat--I had not seen a kayak. I was amazed that during this process the group remained in their shorts and flip-flops. Perhaps I was jealous of their thick Montana skin as I shivered from the cold. The group leader then changed into a wetsuit and donned his PFD.

I lost track of them for a time as we continued our class. When next I noticed them, they were preparing to launch. The leader, a middle aged man who I assumed was the father of the three teenagers carrying the boat, was carrying the kayak paddle and wore the wetsuit. The teenagers, however, were in cotton T-shirts and shorts with horseshoe PFD’s on!

It was now clear to me that these people had no idea what they were getting into. Boat flips and unexpected swims are common on the Gallatin at that level. Even if they had great lines--which seemed unlikely judging from their gear (kayak paddle, older boat, horse-shoe PFD’s)--they would still be getting splashed by 35 degree water in a snow storm. No matter how warm blooded they were, hypothermia was going to be a companion on their rafting trip.

Here was my problem. The river ethic I had been taught, included freedom. Freedom for every boater to make choices on how they want to pursue their adventure, and freedom from others telling them how to do it. The river is a frontier, a wilderness, a place to escape the rules of society and immerse yourself in the laws of nature.
The other side of this is that I am a river safety educator. My job/passion is sharing the knowledge I have gained from my years on the river with others to assist them in their future decisions, and hopefully, to make their experiences safer.

In my mind I wrestled with these two contradictory thoughts. Should I tell these people that they are crazy and ill prepared for the trip? Or should I stand aside and let them choose their own adventure?

If I chose to talk to them, would I be overstepping my responsibility? Would that be the same as someone telling me that I shouldn’t run class V? Or the same as a government agency shutting down the river for safety purposes?

I believe in safety, but I realize that safety is relative, and what seems an acceptable risk to some, is off the charts for others.

Fortunately, my co-instructor decided much quicker than myself, and approached the group. He discussed with them the issues he saw in the clothing and gear and asked them to at least rent wetsuits from the local outfitter. They agreed.

For a few weeks afterwards, I continued to question myself. Would I have stopped them? It seemed almost certain that they would have encountered trouble, if not an emergency, had they not been confronted. Would I want someone or some agency to impose their idea of a safety on my next trip? How would I have felt reading the paper the next day, seeing that an accident had happened, an accident I could have prevented?

The conclusion I have drawn from this experience, aided by the actions of my co-instructor, is that of personal judgement. Freedom is a key element to the river, and should not be abandoned to interference and regulations for the sake of safety alone. However, each situation presents itself with a different set of facts. It is our job, as responsible community members and river users, to judge the situation for what it is, and educate when necessary.

Doug Ammons Interview: Part One

Doug Ammons, amoung other things, is a Father, a Ph.D., an Author, and an Expedition Kayaker. He has run some of the world's hardest whitewater, and has multiple first descents. Below he discusses what it is about the river and kayaking that has kept him energized and intrigued for well over twenty years.

Visit his website ( to read a few of his essays and purchase his books.

Watch Part 1 of the WRI video interview on Youtube (

Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3, where Doug describes a near miss he experienced on Golden Canyon of the South Fork of the Clearwater.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

First Aid for the River Runner

Dave McEvoy, Director of Aerie Backcountry Medicine, sat down with WRI to discuss what first aid skills river runners should focus on and prepare for. The video interview can be seen on Youtube (

Click here to read the full interview with Dave.

If you need to get your wilderness medicine certification, we recommend Aerie wholeheartedly. Their courses are fantastic!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Call for Nominations

The Higgins & Langley Memorial and Education Fund, working in conjunction with the Swiftwater Rescue Committee of the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), is seeking nominations for the 2010 Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Swiftwater Rescue, the highest international honors presented for flood and swiftwater rescue.

In addition to individual achievements and swiftwater-flood rescue team efforts, those who have dedicated years of service to developing and implement­ing swiftwater-flood rescue training programs, as well as public safety media-education efforts, will be considered for nomination. Nominations for the 2010 flood and swiftwater incident awards may include those between January 1, 2009 and February 1, 2010.

The awards honor civilian rescuer, Earl Higgins, who lost his life in February of 1980 while attempting to save a child being swept away in the flood-swollen Los Angeles River, and firefighter/paramedic Jeffrey Langley of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who lost his life in a helicopter accident in March of 1993.

Earl Higgins

Writer/Film Maker


Jeffrey Langley



The awards will be presented during the annual conference of the National Association for Search and Rescue at the end of May 2010.

The DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS is February 19, 2010.

All nominations must be postmarked no later than February 19, 2010. Read instructions with care to avoid having nominations disqualified for lack of completion.

There are several award categories, not all of which specifically recognize noteworthy technical swiftwater/flood rescues. Some recognize significant achievement in the development of swiftwater/flood rescue training programs, flood disaster preparedness and response, flood and swiftwater safety education programs, etc.

The Higgins & Langley Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Swiftwater Rescue

The Higgins & Langley Memorial Award is the premier internationally recognized Award for excellence in Swiftwater Rescue. It recognizes an intense dedication to the field and a genuine desire to benefit the larger community. Only one Higgins & Langley Memorial award is awarded in any calendar year.

Lifetime Achievement Award
The Lifetime Achievement Award is reserved for those few individuals who make a significant and lasting impact in the field of swiftwater rescue. Consequently, lifetime achievement awards are awarded only occasionally.

Program Development Award
The Program Development Award recognizes agencies that make a significant commitment to swiftwater rescue programs in their area. This award profiles the education, training and resources to develop a successful swiftwater rescue program.

Incident Award
Occasionally, a specific Incident is recognized that clearly demonstrates outstanding skill and preparedness, as well as outstanding teamwork in swiftwater rescue.

Special Commendation Award
The Special Commendation Award recognizes the breadth of possible contribution in the field of swiftwater rescue. Awards of this type can be for media contribution, strategic planning, individual heroism or esprit de corps.

For more information, please contact:

Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards
c/o Fred “Slim” Ray, Treasurer
8 Pelham Rd
Asheville NC 28803
Tel: 828-505-2917

Download Nomination Forms:

Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue

Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards newsletter:

If you have any questions, please contact us:

* * *

Friday, November 6, 2009

Missoula Paddling Community Meeting

On November 11th, 6:30 pm, at the Break Espresso on Higgins, members of the local river community will be gathering to discuss the Blackfoot River Management Plan. For those of you who have yet to heard about this plan, we recommend that you visit the FWP website and read through it.

In essence, the proposed plan sets in place trigger points (40 launches a day) for the stretch between Harry Morgan and Russell Gates. If the proposed trigger points are surpassed, then a permit system could be set into place. After that, trigger points would be set for the next stretch from Russell Gates to Round-up. And again, if surpassed, a permit system could be set in place. This would continue to the next stretch and so on.

This is obviously an over-simplification of the plan, that is why you should read it yourself and decide how you feel. The comment period ends on November 16th.

Join us at the Break to discuss our options and what the paddling community should do to help better manage this great resource.

See you there!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Blackfoot River Recreation Plan Meeting: 6 pm Nov. 5th Holiday Inn Parkside

There will be a meeting on November 5th concerning the purposed Blackfoot River permit system. The Blackfoot, which is near and dear to many of our hearts, has seen recreational use grow exponentially in the past few years. Please read the purposed plan ( and come to the meeting at the Holiday Inn Parkside in Missoula at 6 pm on November 5th. Now is the time for public comment. Don't miss your opportunity to provide input for the future management of this tremendous resource!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Higgins and Langley Award

WRI is pleased to announce that Cody has been elected to the Higgins and Langley Memorial Award Board of Directors. Cody said, "It is an honor and a privilege to be involved with this organization. I look forward to contributing what I can to further their mission."

The Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards in Swiftwater Rescue honor outstanding achievement in the technical rescue discipline of swiftwater and flood rescue. They are not heroism awards, but rather recognize preparedness, teamwork, and a job well done, sometimes under extreme conditions, where training is vital to the success of rescue missions, as well as the safety of rescue personnel.

The 2009 award was given to the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department, who responded to a water main break on River Road in Bethesda, Maryland. To view video of this amazing rescue, click here. To read more about the river road rescue, click here.

The 2010 call for nominations will be coming out soon. Read more about the nomination process here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hands-on Education: An Interview with Dave McEvoy

Dave McEvoy, Director of Aerie Backcountry Medicine was kind enough to sit down and chat with us last spring. Below is a portion of this interview. Aerie provides high-quality wilderness medicine courses nationally and internationally. We, at WRI, are honored to be partners with Aerie and are looking forward to the Wilderness and Travel Medicine semester. It is always a learning experience working with such a great organization. For more info on the semester program, visit To view the full text of Dave's interview, click here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wilderness Medicine Semester in Costa Rica: Sign-up Today!

WRI and Aerie Backcountry Medicine are teaming up once again to offer the most comprehensive wilderness education program available. Join us for a semester in Wilderness and Travel Medicine! You will receive 15 University of Montana credits and travel to Costa Rica and the Swan Valley in Montana. This course will begin February 1st and continue until April 4th, 2010. While living at an organic farm in Costa Rica and a stunning homestead in Montana, students will earn certifications in:

· Wilderness EMT
· Swiftwater Rescue Technician
· Level 1 Avalanche
· Leave No Trace Trainer

Among other learning opportunities, the students will organize and run a free rural health clinic in Costa Rica and float the Pacuare River. Aerie alumni receive a $250 discount.

Friday, October 9, 2009

BNSF Swiftwater Rescue Course: Guernsey, Wyoming

On Wednesday, October 7th, WRI traveled to Guernsey, WY to work with Burlington Northern and its sub-contractors. This team, responsible for containment and recovery of derailed trains, is setting the standard for swiftwater awareness. With warm temperatures and enthusiastic participants, we were able to operate their 14' Jet Boat, deploy boom and practice rescue skills. Thanks to BNSF and Kennedy-Jenks Consultants for a great course!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mass. This Weekend!!

Cody is off to the Whitewater Symposium this weekend. If you are attending or in the area come and visit him. On Saturday he is presenting "Fostering Humility: A Look at Decision Making Traps." On Sunday join him in the river to practice your Strainer swims and aggressive swimming techniques. We would love to see you! Check out other Whitewater Symposium topics at

Monday, May 11, 2009

FWP Swiftwater Rescue Training

On May 5-7th, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks hosted a course in Kalispell. Game wardens and fish biologists from across the state attended. WRI instructor emeritus, Mike Johnston, traveled north to facilitate the training and to help make 2009 a safe season for Montana state employees. Thanks to everyone who made this course a success!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

NASAR Conference

WRI is looking forward to the May 28-30 NASAR conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. We will have a booth set up and will be presenting. If you are making the trip to this great conference, stop by and say hi. Click here for more info and the NASAR website.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Missoula City Fire Department: Spring Refresher

On Wednesday the 29th of April, Missoula City Fire Department conducted their spring swiftwater refresher. Montana River Guides owner and WRI Instructor Mike Johnston coordinated the course. MRG guide Tommy Snyder, and Search and Rescue volunteers Elise Lowe and Becca Wallace came out to help make this a great day of training. Thanks guys! The firefighters got a chance to dust off their swiftwater skills and practice scenarios at Jacobs Island, Van Buren St Bridge and the diversion dam upstream of California Street. A special thank you to Missoula City Fire for your service to our community. Watch the video below to see how the training went!

April 17-19, Powell QRU: Swiftwater Rescue

Many thanks to the Powell QRU and Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures for hosting a great course on the Lochsa River. We had a bit of snow, a little rain, and perfect Idaho whitewater--could not have asked for a better weekend. Participants got the chance to riverboard and swim the waters of the Lochsa. Thanks again, and keep it safe out there.

April 24-26, Blackfoot SRT

On April 17-19, Montana River Guides hosted a Swiftwater Rescue Technician course on the Blackfoot River. Much of the time was spent at Round-up Rapid, where students learned the basics of swiftwater rescue. The course was a great success with the help of volunteers Alan Bergmuller of Hamilton, Montana and Jim Biesel of Malmstrom Airforce Base. Thanks you guys for all your help! And a big thanks to the students for your enthusiastic participation. Here is a short video...enjoy.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Swiftwater Rescue Course: Rexburg, Idaho

On April 9-11, the Whitewater Rescue Institute taught a course on the Falls River of Idaho. Brigham Young University Outdoor Program and guides from Jackson, Wyoming's Solitude Raft Company attended. Below students describe their experience. Thanks to the everyone for making it such a great class!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Costa Rican Swiftwater

On February 25-27, the Whitewater Rescue Institute held a course on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica. Partnered with Aerie Backcountry Medicine and Coast to Coast Adventures, this course provided students with an exotic, exciting and warm environment to learn the fundamentals of river rescue. Below is a brief video of the course.

Former Swiftwater Student Saves Life

Branden Stevens, a former swiftwater student, was involved in a dramatic rescue on the Tounge River this winter. His efforts in the ice covered river saved the life of the occupant of this car.

Branden said "I JUST WANT TO SAY THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE TRAINING THAT YOU PROVIDED! Without it, the patient would have died for sure, we had no water rescue training prior to me attending your course in may of 2007."

Friday, February 6, 2009

Kent Ford Interview

This December the Whitewater Rescue Institute had the opportunity to speak with filmmaker and river legend, Kent Ford. Kent talked about the making of his video "Whitewater Self Defense," and gave us some tips on how to stay safe on the river. You can purchase Kent's video at the WRI store at or visit Performance Video at

Enjoy the interview below.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pacuare River Class Site

We are looking forward to our February course in Costa Rica. Aerie Backcountry Medicine and the Whitewater Rescue Institute are teaming up to offer a unique course combining wilderness first aid and swiftwater rescue. Nestled deep in the Pacuare River gorge is "El Nido del Tigre," the site of our Feb. 25-27 course. This beautiful location offers our students the opportunity to wake to the sound of howler monkeys, rest under the shade of palms, and swim in the waters of Costa Rica's most famous river. It is an unmatched experience! "El Nido del Tigre" is a hide-a-way only accessable by river or trail. Below is our class room.

And here is the river!

Should be fun! Stay tuned for course updates!

Video of Whitewater Rescue in Maryland

ABC news profiled this Swiftwater Rescue that took place just outside of Washington D.C.

Cabin John Swiftwater Rescue