“This was not good. This was not where I wanted to be.” The voice in my head was telling me. Rather insistently.
I had just back stroked into a Class II rapid on the Merced River. I was taking a Swiftwater Rescue course and we were practicing our first lesson – the basic or defensive swim position (also called the survival or whitewater swim position). You know, on your back, feet down river, knees slightly flexed, butt up, head up at the neck so you can see (bending up at the waste to get your head out of the water tends to send your butt down and uncomfortably greet rocks). Rising up and down with the waves, taking water in the face, the sound of roaring water … I kept flashing back to swimming Blossom Bar on the Rogue River. This was definitely not where I wanted to be.
Yes, I am a member of the Blossom Bar Swim Team (two time member, actually, but that’s a story for another time). In 2008, the Rogue was running unusually high. My rafting buddy Kevin put together a float for the opening weekend of the permit season. The streamflow gages were almost 5,300 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Grants Pass and 7,300 cfs at Agness in mid-May, which are the two US Geological Survey gages that are above and below the wild section of the Rogue. In addition to unusually sunny and hot weather for that time of year, highlights included running the middle chute of Rainey Falls and the right side of Blossom Bar.
In early July, I was on the Rogue again. We were having a great float: family and friends, good food, clear skies, hot days, starry nights, cool river water. The gages were nearly 3,000 cfs at Grants Pass and 3,400 cfs at Agness. Still running high.
Blossom Bar claimed the lives of two boaters that summer. One in late July and the other a few days before we launched. As we scouted this Class IV rapid, we were uncomfortably aware that the victim’s body might still be in the notorious section of the rapid known as the Picket Fence (the body had not been recovered as of our launch – we found out later that the body had floated free the day before we ran Blossom Bar).
We made Purgatory Eddy just fine. The water looked and felt quite pushy. My turn came to enter the rapid and as we dropped in I skipped an oar on the left side of the boat. Big oops. I rowed for all I was worth and we were just about to clear the Picket. The bow touched the last boulder of the Picket and we swung around backwards. My thoughts, “Fine, we can go down the chute backwards and I’ll just turn us around.” Instead, the river turned us 180 degrees and pushed us back into the Picket. In a blink I went from looking river left to river right.
The current then pushed us up onto the biggest boulder in the Picket. I yelled “high side” but the maneuver didn’t help. The raft continued to ride up vertically and was nearing the flipping point. It’s never a good idea to flip in the Picket. The boulders make for some nasty sieves. I yelled to the kids (older teens, my youngest daughter Natalie was one of them) in the bow to jump out. We had talked before hand about getting into the main current if things went bad and the main current was in front of them. I did the tube spring board and went out the stern. I spent a very long few seconds with my leg entrapped between two boulders. Thanks to river rock slime and cheap sunscreen I had lathered on minutes before, I was able to pull my leg free, rested in the eddy on the other side of the Picket for a bit, then went out to finish the couple hundred yard swim down Blossom. (For Christmas, Natalie made us Blossom Bar Swim Team t-shirts. Such a thoughtful daughter).
After the swim and hiking up to take a look at the raft, which we discovered wrapped on the rock in the middle of the rapid, I had no idea what to do next. Neither did anyone else in our party. We still had one raft and two inflatable kayaks in the group. We ended up cobbling together a camp on a gravel bar that night, making do with food from the dry box, and crowding on to the remaining boats to finish the trip. The wrapped raft was abandoned for a couple days (quite the photo op for others on the river) until some guides got the boat off. We treated that crew to a steak dinner as way of thanks.
This experience was quite the incentive for taking a whitewater rescue course. My other incentive, of course, was to get the skills and certifications to get a job as a river ranger.
I signed up with Sierra Rescue/Rescue 3 West for a swiftwater rescue course in Yosemite National Park, April 2010. Rafting on the Merced River within the Park isn’t allowed (or kayaking, but they do allow some inner tubing and play floating at low water in the main visitor use area). This was a cool way to get on the Merced, so I drove the ten hours the day before to get there.
Julie Munger and Abigail Polsby were our instructors. They both have piles of river running experience and I found them to be highly competent instructors. I knew it was going to be a great course when Abi announced we’d abbreviate the classroom portion and get out on the river if that was okay with everyone. Of course it was.
And that’s what we did for three days. Our class was made up of firefighters, lifeguards, Coast Guard rescue swimmers, Air Force PJs (pararescuemen), and just two that I would call river people – myself starting soon as a river ranger and another starting soon as a river guide. In and out of the cold river we went. Swimming rapids, crossing rapids, throwing ropes to victims in rapids, getting ropes across rivers, entrapment rescues, flipping rafts, righting rafts, setting up rope traverses across rivers, and so on.
Swiftwater rescue courses can emphasize the equipment you might have on a fire truck or other rescue vehicles for situations like floods, irrigation canals, or various urban water diversions. Course emphasis is certainly something to check when looking at different course providers and different levels of swiftwater rescue certification. Sierra Rescue emphasized what you would have on a raft on a recreational run down a whitewater river.
Back on the Merced, I told the insistent voice in my head, “Woah.” I took a deep breath between waves and calmed things down. Nothing like a little perspective. I did want to be here. I wanted to know what to do if there ever were another Blossom Bar type run ahead of me. Might be a few other Swim Teams to join. Lava Falls … ?