Like many experienced paddlers, I find myself leading trips on rivers of varying levels of difficulty with participants having novice and intermediate skills. I find myself in the position of trip leader because I have been down the river before or because I am the most experienced boater. Sometimes I have organized the trip as part of my professional work with summer camps, guide services, and a college outing program, and sometimes, it is just a matter of organizing a trip with a group of friends. With this preamble in mind, let me recount two incidents.
Both were “near misses” in the sense that no harm was done, though there was a potential for loss. In both incidents I was the leader of trips with intermediate paddlers from a girls’ camp. All of the paddlers in both groups had class II-III whitewater experience.
The first incident occurred during an afternoon trip from Fall Creek to Woodall Shoals on the ChattoogaRiver . The group consisted of ten girls, some in canoes and some in kayaks. I was sharing a decked C-2. The grip had gone without incident until Rock Jumble. We had carried the big drop at Bull Sluice, but he had run all of the other rapids. At this water level (1.1 feet) Rock Jumble is runnable, if bumpy. The c-2 was the first over the drop, and we flipped. I struck the side of my head on a rock. Even though I was wearing a Seda fiberglass helmet, the blow was sufficient to daze me and to burse my eardrum. Realizing the potential danger of the situation, I passed the responsibility for the trip to the senior and most experienced woman and instructed the group to carry the drop and hurry for the Woodall Shoals takeout. By the time we had loaded, I was in enough pain to produce nausea. The woman in charge took me to a doctor in the faster shuttle car while the rest of the trip returned to camp in a truck.
In this incident, experience and training had prepared me for almost any situation. I am an EMT Instructor with 11 years of professional guiding experience, including six with the Nantahala OutdoorCenter where I had qualified as trip leader. The real problem is in the level of training and experience of the rest of the group if the river or a snake or some other peril befalls the highly trained and qualified leader. The unexpected can happen to any of us, and, as Murphy’s Laws remind us, the accident will occur in the easy water at the furthest spot from rescue when we are least prepared.
How do we prevent these problems from becoming disasters? First, I would suggest the model followed by responsible guide services who have at least two trained persons on each trip. Further, I would suggest that certain first aid and rescue skills should be a part of the regular learning process for whitewater paddlers. Just as clubs, outfitters, and camps teach rolling, eddy turns, and ferrys, they should teach CPR, basic first aid, and river rescue. All should consider a basic level of safety training as a responsibility to those with whom we paddle. When we begin a trip, we should asses the safety skills within the group and assign an assistant leader. Finally, we should practice these skills from time to time just as we practice rolling and rapid swimming (all with a sense of play!) against the time when we have to use the skill in a real situation.