Paddling Since: 1996
Join Date: Aug 2008
Part I: When is it OK to Swim? & Pine Creek Incident
As we are all waiting impatiently for our bountiful snow to start melting, the rivers to rise & hopefully flow all summer here in Colorado, I just wanted to touch on some safety issues that I was witnessing over the past weekend on the Ark. This is more intended for the newer paddlers out there, & of course are my own opinions, with the intent of keeping all safe on the river, please if some of the more veteran of you could not blast this, but rather offer constructive critique that would be appreciated as none of us benefit from injury or worse amongst our community of paddlers. Also, I’m going to use a few examples I saw this weekend, please if it was you don’t take it personally, but allow others to learn what you have obviously learned the hard way. As this part is pretty long, I’ll address other safety topics in separate threads.
First off, this isn’t a “don’t do as I’ve done” but rather learn from the wisdom of my past mistakes & be safe on the river. My first season in Colorado 10 years ago, I found myself going from a 4- paddler with a bomber roll, to luckily surviving a low skill, high bravado trip down the North Fork Payette less than 3 months later, thanks in entirety to an amazing group of safety conscious paddlers that prepared me & specifically Will Blount, who I ran it with. I checked off the NFP from the "Most Do" list before I ever knew there was a list, aka I had no idea what I was getting myself into, & I’m lucky to still be here. Way better prepared & skilled kayakers than I ever was, are no longer with us due to freak circumstances & one, a friend I lost last fall, sits with me daily & drives my internal thinking, “why her & not my idiot ass?” (posted in October 2010)
Alright, now to some goods…
When is it OK to swim?
Personally, I say never & it should only be as a last, absolute last resort. All you class 5 veterans understand this & know it is much more dangerous to be in the water than in your boat, and it’s only once all other options are exhausted that you will bail out of your kayak. The risk for entrapment, drowning, pins, etc., is infinitely higher when 90-95% of your body is in the water, versus 40-50% while you are in your boat.
As newer paddlers are coming up in skills, I think they mistakenly perceive going for a swim as a light undertaking, as they see the videos of the Beer Booties & the laughing it off afterwards as no big deal. What they don’t grasp however, is the fact that there generally is a well organized safety system in place with multiple fellow paddlers all skilled & practiced at hitting the swimmer on first throw of the bag, multiple Z-drag kits at the ready & able to be working in a minute or less, 1 or 2 safety kayakers on the water at the ready, & a well organized communication system.
Pickup groups organized at put-ins, take-outs or via the Buzz, don’t have this necessity for the most part, which instantly elevates the danger to a swimmer, as each kayaker unfamiliar with the others’ skills may take valuable minutes to “organize” a response, and although well intentioned, tends to be very poor in execution, with several either standing around not knowing what to do, or inadvertently getting in the way of those that do &/or putting them or the rescuers in further danger.
Not that I did this, but it is how I feel now before hoping on a section of water, the paddler should have a bombproof roll for whatever class of water he/she is paddling, & in a sense it should be a basis for determining what level of water he/she has the basic competence for running. He/she owes it to him/herself, their family & friends & as a courtesy to those they are paddling with. Swimming not only endangers the swimmer, but puts everyone else at an elevated risk as well. Hang tight, ride it out as long as possible, attempts as many rolls as you can, attempt & position yourself for a T-Rescue if need be, & only as a last resort exit your boat.
Incident at Pine Creek Hole (to be referenced in other Parts also).
On Saturday there were 7 of us running laps on the Numbers from just below Pine Creek Hole down, several of us were running Pine Creek as well, however when there was anyone running it, usually a pair or 3, there were two of us ready with bags just below the hole & 1 or 2 people in boats just downstream. We were a pickup crew from the a MB posting, & most of us had very little ideas of the others skill levels.
Our first go round resulted in a swimmer after the hole. Personally, I think he came out of his boat too early as I was manning a rope just above & he was in the slackwater & had flushed from the hole, see above.
Fortunately, with little incident we was out of the water after “triple falls”, again much too long in the water IMHO, boat secured & paddle later found thanks to the raft company photographer that tossed it up on shore. The kayak breached & filled on a rock about 20 feet from river right’s shore. The execution of the retrieval was not pretty, however we managed to get it free, but it did put some of us in unneeded danger. Of course, boat & kayaker ended up on opposite sides, again not pretty but we managed with trial & error, & most importantly due to all of us unfamiliar with our partners & their skill set, to unite kayak & paddler.
On lap #3, we arrived at the put-in parking lot to a group of 5 guys who looked well prepared to tackle Pine Creek. Later, we found out from the 2 who were without incident (see below), that it was a group of 3 & a group of 2 without connection to each other, not a group of 5 which all of us in our group had assumed. Minor chit-chat, and all “5” were heading up to the put-in, in addition 2 from our group were heading up as well.
Our group set up safety for our two paddlers, and as a courtesy, but without communication with the other “5” we were in position for when they came down. From our later discussion with the “2” we found out, the “3” had never run Pine Creek before, and tagged along with the “2”, i.e., peeled out right after them in tight formation with little pre-run conversation. Our two followed, however they were not “tagging a ride” & one had run it twice earlier with no incident, so they were slightly behind the “5”. Said “5” were in tight formation (another topic on this later). For a true group of 5, they were slightly closer than I would prefer, however as it was two different, unrelated groups, they were way too close to one another, less than 5 seconds apart.
Paddlers 1 & 2, of the group of 2, styled the left side sneak around the hole, paddler #3 (first of the group of 3) got botched up just above & fell into the meat of the hole with no speed & stuck. 5 seconds later, #4 dropped in on top of #3, then 5 seconds or less later #5 was on top of #3 & #4. #4 & #5 flushed out first, one of the two swam while in the slack water, & never looked for a rope on river right. I was first rope safety, I never threw as no one ever looked my way, & why would they if they never asked for anyone to run safety. Our number two rope safety, threw & was with 3 feet of the swimmer, but again the swimmer never looked for the rope & a quicker rescue was missed.
Our two paddlers (#6 & #7) came through without incident, avoiding the carnage in the hole, as they probably were 10-15 seconds behind #5. #3 (the first into the hole) flushed last, was in the slack water, & held tight in his boat, delayed in his roll attempts (see reason why below), attempted several while entering the rapids below & finally came out of his boat. I later saw him down at the river right bend, do the math on how long he was in the water after being beat up by his fellow boaters in the hole.
I initially thought our groups’ first timer was #3 (the guy starting the pileup in the hole) due to me thinking his travel partners blue boat was his, however I became aware this was not the case shortly after hearing the first reports of “a guy with all his teeth knocked out”. I’m pretty certain, #3, the first of the group of “3” was who in fact lost 3 of his teeth in the incident.
Let’s just say, it all turned into a clustereff afterwards. The group of two were heading downstream, they didn’t see the mess at the hole, nor were they “bound” to the tag-alongs, although I do believe they helped out at some point once they realized what was going on. Group of “3” only had one person still in a boat, two in the water, & probably the one in the boat needed some regroup time himself after the pileup. Leaving our group to help out in some fashion, I didn’t see much of what happened downstream, but nothing was pretty, although luckily all are still alive to tell the tale.
So many issues, failures, lapses of judgment, etc., that could be discussed, maybe another thread. Of all the conceivable causes, I think the most critical one was lack of communication, especially by the group of 3. Again like I said above, not assessing blame, as enough damage was done to the guy who lost all the teeth, but trying to use as an example, that will come up in some of my subsequent “Parts” on this safety discussion.
Safe boating all!