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 an incident.
This was a “near miss” 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 had class II-III whitewater experience.
We were having a smooth run. There had been no dumps except when surfing a hole called, “Jaws.” We pulled up at the top of Quartermile Rapid for lunch, and several of us swam and sat at a spot where we soon discovered a copperhead. The third boat down the first drop tipped over, dumping the bow person. The girl in the stern managed to brace up and park the partially-full boat on a rock. I peeled out to pick up the second girl as she washed over the second drop. In the drop I flipped and struck my shoulder and head. The blow was hard enough to produce temporary disorientation and large bumps on both shoulder and head. After the swimmer and I were safe on shore. I checked my symptoms for concussion or other serious injury. All I got was a headache and a loss of respect for the Ace Lexan helmet I was wearing.
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 Outdoor Center 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.
Dixie Division, ACA