Skip to main content

River Rafting Rescue 101

Rivers are cold in the state of Washington. Gushing down the slopes of the North Cascade mountain range, westbound toward the Salish Sea and eastbound toward the Columbia, Washington rivers are the result of melting snowfields, diminishing glaciers, brisk Pacific Northwest rainfall and subterranean cold water springs. Meanwhile the Skagit River has all of those factors plus it is water spilled through turbines released from the depths of a very deep and very cold Ross Lake.

For those specific reasons, it is not unusual to be wearing neoprene throughout the white water season in the grey and mossy Pacific Northwest. Even on the Skagit in August.

And when the river is running high in the spring from snow melt, not only is the temperature of the water frigid (prolonged exposure to 70 degree water induces hypothermia - as I can attest to on a pleasant afternoon without a splash jacket on the Pucon River in Chile) it is moving rather fast. 'Swimmers', as we call persons overboard in rafting, are reliant on their neoprene, their lifejacket, their will to survive and the dedication and skill of their rescuers.

On a commercial rafting trip in Washington state, you are going to get fitted for a lifejacket and, on most river trips, you will be required to suit up in neoprene. I am going to presume the vast majority of 'swimmers' come equipped with a staunch will to survive. But it is the rescue effort of everyone else in the party and the person directly responsible for those 'swimmers' that I aim my comments.

Due to the aforementioned water and weather conditions, no 'swimmer' should be taken lightly. To compound the issue, you can never be certain how someone will react when they are dumped into churning white water. They might find it as amusing as the water slides at an amusement park, or they might have set up, in the brief amount of time they were in the water, a direct pipeline to their 'Maker'.

The trouble is, you can never know beforehand.

This is why you should treat each and every 'swimmer' as if it were your mother.

If your mother was in the river, you would work desperately to do everything within the realm of possibility to reach her as soon as possible. You would not blithely pass by any safe harbor that would place you that much higher upstream in order to collect those overboard sooner. You would row white knuckled until you could no longer hold the oar. You would paddle relentlessly upstream scanning the water for those who may be at the mercy of the river. You would not, under any circumstances, allow your mother to get downstream of you.

I happen to know what it feels like to dump my mother unceremoniously into a rapid. Fortunately it was the Rogue River in the middle of summer when the water and air temperatures were agreeable. And, fortunately, it was not major white water. Even so, putting her into the river was mentally traumatizing and I vowed to never do that again. (It wasn't purposeful, by any means, it was just a mix of inattentiveness and complacency.)

I know there are places in the world where people raft that the idea of throwing guests to the mercy of the 'river gods' is not considered unprofessional, or even gauche. Warmer water temperatures do tend to lessen the threat of fast moving water, but I would argue that, even so, you will still be rolling the dice.

In Washington, where our rivers are always the temperature of a ice cream sundae, you had best think of each and every 'swimmer' as your mom. It might be just enough to elevate your dedication and determination during a rescue attempt to make that effort a successful one.

In the immortal words of David Byrne in an early sex education video, "Do do a do, don't do a don't."

Popular posts from this blog

Spring River Guide Training

Time to sign up if you want to be a guide, or if you just want to feel comfortable on the river on your own.
Only a few weeks away from our annual seven day guide training odyssey on the Deschutes River in north central Oregon and - as the senior instructor - I am beginning to feel the undertow of another river season.

Orion's guide training course kicks off every whitewater season and is comprised of seasoned and salty veterans, women and men, wide-eyed whitewater neophytes, those who revel in the adversity and those who are challenging their ordinary state of being, whatever that may be.

It is a time for ditching cellphones and the comfort of our creature habits.  Sharing and laughing and looking one another in the eye.  Being physically present have to be to deal with the circumstances of being out amidst the elements.  Setting up tarps in windstorms and cooking over fires.

It will be a memorable trip.  Even for those of us participating in it for the 40th time.

River Rafting is Good for You

I have been rafting for a long time.

My first rafting experience was in the fall of my first year in college.  As a matter of fact, after matriculation, it was the very next thing I did.  The river rafting trip, regarded as my wilderness orientation to Prescott College, was a month long affair.

One month in the wilderness after having spent the majority of my life in well-ordered suburbs where my primary contact with the outdoors involved sports.

You can imagine it was an eye-opener in a number of ways.

My wilderness orientation, which took place over four decades ago, brought me serendipitously to this place.

Overnight raft trips are the single easiest method to 'leave it all behind.'  The 'behind' we referred to leaving used to just mean the traffic and the stressors of modern day life, ringing phones, the hustle and bustle of humanity and bills coming due, responsibilities to uphold.

Now, we are saddled with the ubiquity of always being connected to what is going o…

The Phenomena of People

I do not have a river story for you this week, but I had a visit from a good friend from Bellingham and our reunion reminded me of one of the other reasons I have persevered with this little cottage industry.

I wrote a story a few years back titled "Why I (Continue to) Raft" and the gist of that column was that I realized how much I enjoyed getting people out on the water and watching the transformation.  It ended with the brief tale of my very young nephew from Dallas who floated the Skagit and - at first - was terrified of the moving, darn-cold-if-you're-from-Texas water.  And, despite being on a trip surrounded by a large Y group of boisterous Northwesterners who could not get enough of swimming, it appeared he would endure the trip and be ecstatic to see the takeout and a warm, dry car.

When we were halfway down the river, his entire attitude did an about face.  And by the time we hit the takeout he WAS ecstatic, but not about being finished and back to dry land.  …