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2011 Through a White Water Lens

The snow pack in February of last winter did not portend the season that was to come. In fact, for Washington, the quantity of snow in the Cascades and the water it contained, at that point of the winter, looked grim for a sustained runoff and an exciting white water season. I would not have placed any bets we were to have rafting out of Leavenworth extending much beyond the end of June. And then the snow started falling. And falling. And falling. Snow fell right on through March and part of April. The water content within the snow increased. Spring broke chillier than normal. The runoff happened slower than normal. And what had started out as grim began to look incredibly promising.

As it turned out, the snow melt happened in moderation and, though we never rafted on exceptionally high water, we had a sustained, strong water level on rivers around the Cascades all the way through August. I receive e-mail alerts via Google which keep me apprised of everything going on rafting related around the planet. These alerts arrive in my inbox three or four times a day. Because of these alerts I was made keenly aware of the extraordinary high water levels that were happening around the country, not just in Washington. Cold, fast mountain rivers ran colder and faster for longer in just about every part of the nation, so far as I could tell. And many of the e-mail alerts painted a grim picture of the higher-than-average number of river-related accidents that were occurring.

It seemed no state was unaffected by misfortune. The unusually prolonged runoffs - and in some areas of the country, they WERE experiencing higher water and even flood status - collided with less ambitious and casual boaters, and families, using all or parts of their vacations to go white water rafting. The three fatalities that occurred on the Wenatchee River did not happen during particularly high water levels. In fact, the last two were in August when the river had slowed down considerably. It should also be noted that the last two fatalities were not rafting related.

The first was an employee of a tubing company chasing down an errant tubing guest using an inflatable kayak without a lifejacket being worn and the second was a young man attempting to ford the river also without a lifejacket. The first incident involved a commercial raft broadsiding a tree part way through Boulder Bend.  The victim was the only passenger to be swept under the tree.  The other crew members climbed onto the high side of the raft and onto to the downed log.

This incident was unusual due to the fact that the log hazard was a recent addition to the anatomy of that particular rapid and it was far enough out of the normal route taken that - initially - it did not seem as much of a safety threat as it turned out to be.  For me, it underlines, once again, how much situations change when you are out of the boat.  Swimmers tossed overboard upstream of this obstruction had a good chance of winding up entangled by the branches or hung up on the log which was lodged on rocks on the outside of the bend.

The 2011 White Water Rafting season was special in the state of Washington because prime water conditions endured throughout the summer.  However,  what novice boaters, outfitters, guides and the river running public need to remember is adjustments need to be made to take into account the exceptional water conditions (colder, higher, faster) when the runoff from snowpacks linger into July.  Family white water vacations may need to be rerouted to easier stretches of particular rivers or later into the season.  Those typical exceptions for smaller kids on Class III sections may need to be reassessed.  Parents need to be forthcoming about the size and maturity of their kids when booking a river trip.

Common sense runs both ways.  The pros need to be more aware and the general public needs to do their due diligence.  The internet is a wonderful tool, but it has to be utilized.  The USGS maintains a website that tracks all of the major white water rivers in every state.  American Whitewater is an exceptional resource for novices and veteran river rats alike.

The 2011 white water rafting season was a bit of an anomaly.  But - gauging from what I read throughout the season in regards to river related incidents - many of them could have been avoided by adding a little common sense to the exuberance to get out on the water no matter what, or when.  As always, the proper use of life jackets (and - yes - we are referring to them a 'life' jackets once more) saves lives.

And, as always, refraining from alcohol while on the river goes a long, long way to limiting river related incidents.  Studies have shown that a vast majority (greater than 95%) of water-based fatalities are associated with these two factors.

The coming season in Washington may very well be just as exciting as 2011.  Especially if the prognosticators are correct about the impending snow fall for the remainder of the winter and the strength of this year's La NiƱa.  River rafting guests need to remember to check the weather and water levels, call ahead if you have any concerns or doubts about whether any member of your party should participate (due to age, physical condition, weight) and bring appropriate clothing for the conditions.  Even with wetsuits and splash jackets, additional, non-cotton clothing is required to have an enjoyable day on the river.

Here's looking forward to an exciting and safe 2012.  In the meantime, think positive about winter weather patterns.

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