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.

6 comments:

What the Chuck said...

You really need to sit down and get your head straight and change your paradigms.

There is nothing wrong with passing on tribal knowledge. There is little about river-running that has to do with individualism, especially at the put-in. There's plenty of that in the whitewater itself. We all paddle together, and the Gallatin running alongside a road is hardly the same as a wilderness float.

Joshua said...

you're not alone. I constantly ask myself these same questions

Dane said...

It is one thing to force your ideas on an experienced paddler (infringement on freedom) and quite another to help inform someone of a potential risk they may be unaware of.
And of course as a bystander, you may very well turn into a rescuer if you do not help prevent the accident. Which places you you in a potentially high risk situation that could may have been avoided. So with a little tact I believe it is best to step in and politely voice your concerns.

Doug Davis said...

I have to agree with Chuck.
However I think I can find a way to give you constructive feedback in a more diplomatic fashion. If you had no idea you were about to seriously put your life in jeopardy due to lack of experience or instruction, wouldn't you want someone to warn you?
Informing someone of the risk their actions put themselves and others (ie rescuers) in, in no way infringes on their freedom. It only serves to insure that they understand the consequences of their actions.
When you choose to accept the title of instructor, there is more to it than simply collecting a fee for running classes....you are very much an ambassador of the sport.

Ryan said...

As a fellow whitewater instructor I must say I agree with Doug Davis.

In fact, during my final interview with my ACA instrtuctor trainers, I disagreed with one of the Instructors ( a 30 year vet and Great Falls Potomac First D holder)for his actions during the course. I stated that we are ambassadors for the sport and should act as such, ESPECIALLY when teaching a course on National Park land.

That being said, recognizing the situation as potentially life threatening, one in which the participants are unmistakably rookies, it should behoove ANYONE who has more experience, not just instructors to politely and tactfully share some knowledge and give the party in question the FREEDOM to take or leave the wisdom being passed their way.

One final extrapolation; say the party goes out and has a horrible day and never goes paddling again. That's 4 people who may never speak out against dam building, never get involved in river cleanups, etc. Hell, one could speculate that they end up giving up all outdoor pursuits and forsake the environment altogether. I know that's the a long shot, the worst case, but as all good instructors know, you have to constantly play the "what if" game.

Jokingly serious:
Put that in your paradigm and smoke it.

pamartzen said...

I think we should all be ambassadors and teachers whenever needed. In this story, it seems like you have created a mental dilemma, by focusing on two extreme choices; 1) do nothing when you want to do something, or 2) reprimand them for being crazy and tell them to not go on the river.

Really though, you were just concerned that they would be too cold and that their horseshoe collars could come off, or wouldn't float them very high in whitewater. That is a totally reasonable concern.

I would greet them in a friendly way, express concern that they are dressed so lightly for such cold water and ask whether they have felt the water yet. Your coworker was smart to offer a solution to the situation.

When an experienced person takes a helpful and friendly interest in novices, they will almost always appreciate it.

Oh, I don't think it is freedom when they are not aware of the choices and consequences. They were probably wearing shorts and t shirts because they did not realize they had other choices.