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.