Tieton Eddy Repose

Tieton Eddy Repose
"So, this is the river." said the Rat.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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."