I always try to balance risks so that they are risks worth taking–by acquiring skills, experience, and maybe gear, too. After all, things do occasionally go wrong in the outdoors, and that’s especially true on moving water.
My wake-up call around risk came early in my paddling career, during a high water day on the Savage River in Western Maryland. On that trip, a member of my group flipped and took a long swim into a submerged tree. That led to a nasty entrapment, a dislocated elbow, some intense first aid, and an ambulance ride. He fully recovered, but it was a very close call.
Roald Amundson once said “show me an adventure, and I’ll show you a lack of preparation.” On that trip, I was generally competent as a paddler–but I had no rescue skills, didn’t have the right rescue gear, didn’t know wilderness first aid, and perhaps worst of all, I didn’t even know how to swim. I addressed those gaping holes in the next few months, through swim classes with a local school, wilderness first aid with SOLO, and river rescue at Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). All of those skills were long overdue.
One of the lessons of those courses is that repetition and practice are important. So last week I was back at it, down at NOC in Western North Carolina to take a refresher in river rescue, my first in several years. Over the span of a couple of days, we covered everything from fancy tethers to unpinning boats to foot entrapments. It was great to tighten up my skills and learn new techniques, and to spend some time thinking about things that are often overlooked.
Here are a few of the key takeaways:
- First and foremost, don’t become a second victim: Your top priority is your own safety, followed by your group, then the public at large, and then the rescuee. That sequence is easily lost in the moment–but it’s really important.
- Don’t just do something, sit there: Sometimes the best idea is to stop and make a plan, instead of running on adrenaline and maybe making things worse. Sure, there are times when immediate action is required–but don’t rush if you don’t have to.
- No surprises: Rescuees like reassurance and information. Make sure you introduce yourself (“Hi, I’m Court and I’m here to help”) and tell them what to expect. And bring the calm, so they can mirror it. As a mountain rescue friend of mine often says, try to be the best part of someone’s worst day.
- Cover up, down, and out: Is there someone stationed upriver to stop others from drifting into your rescue? How about a person downstream to collect loose gear (and swimmers)? Can someone else go for help? If your group is big enough, make sure you cover all of your bases.
- Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement: There’s an obvious causal link here, although it’s best to observe the bad judgement second hand. A great way to do that is through Charlie Walbridge’s excellent work cataloging accidents for American Whitewater. There’s also an excellent resource specific to packrafting fatalities maintained by Alaskan adventurer Luc Mehl.
- The best rescue is the one that didn’t happen. This is the mantra of Les Bechdel, one of the gurus of river safety. Get the right skills and make good decisions. As with many things, prevention is the name of the game.
As I drift along in my adventures, I try to keep in mind that techniques change, experience changes, skills change, rivers change, and I change–so it’s important to keep at it and stay centered. If you are smart, you are never done learning.
I’ve needed these skills a few times over the years, and I’m reassured that they were there for me. And I’m glad that my fellow adventurers have always been there for me, too. In particular, I remember Hans pulling me out of a keeper hole on the Cranberry, and Bruce’s amazing rope toss at Whiplash on the Salmon (thanks, guys!).
In the end, my rescue training was definitely time well spent. I always feel a little better when I make an investment in being a good partner on the river, just like my friends are for me. Thankfully, my paddling buddies are all highly practiced in river rescue…and I bet you can guess why.