Four 16 year-old boys and a woman (mother to one of the boys and only a guardian to the other boys on the weekend trip hours from their home) flipped a raft after the first drop in Staircase rapid. For those unfamiliar with Staircase rapid, it is very long. I’m not a great judge of distance, but it is perhaps 400 yards with 2 significant drops. She was riding in the back of the raft and fell out, which distracted her son, who was rowing. The raft flipped on a rock in midriver and became pinned. Three of the rafters swam the rest of the rapid, while the rower and one of his friends were perched on the small rock (barely a pace long and wide) with the raft pinned against it. One boy sustained a concussion and two small abrasions on the swim and had to be pulled from the river by his friend. The woman stated she’d swum other big rapids, but this was the first time she thought she would die. All were wearing PFDs, no one was wearing a helmet. There was one other boat in their party with a woman and her daughter. The women, son, and daughter were the only ones with whitewater experience (unclear how much). No one in the group seemed aware of swiftwater safety. They were not rigged to flip and lost a lot of gear and personal items to the river (including car keys).
Below is an account of the rescue my group performed. I offer this report of the rescue – its successes and failures - in the hopes that our community can learn from it.
On a Sunday afternoon, my two partners (I’ll call them Partner D & V) and I were driving back to camp after paddling the Upper Main. We had never paddled together before and had met at the American Packrafting Association Packraft Roundup that weekend. As we drove along the S. Fork of the Payette, we saw a raft pinned on a rock in the middle of the river with two people perched on the same rock. I suggested we stop to see if we could help and we pulled over.
We assessed the situation and started to discuss what we could do to get the raft off the rock. Partner D quipped that perhaps we should consider carefully before trying to play hero – could we actually help without causing more harm? He mentioned he didn’t have any training or know where to start. I appreciated his great group communication and humility. I shared that I had swiftwater rescue training and had an idea of what we should do. However, it had been approximately 7 years since I’d had the training.
The daughter from the other boat showed up on scene – she and her mom had eddied out below the rapid and walked back up. I inquired if all parties were accounted for from the raft and she said, “I think so.” I asked her if the answer was “Yes” or “I don’t know,” and she thought about it and said they were all accounted for. The mother showed up with an unpacked throw bag that looked to be in tangles.
We focused our attention on the two boys stuck on the rock – one was the rower, and the other was an inexperienced passenger. As we assessed the situation, we saw one of them almost slip off the rock which was when I realized we needed to set up safety for a possible swimmer immediately. This was my first mistake: thinking about the boat when the #1 priority should have been thinking about the rafters stuck on the rock. If a swim occurred, it would involve going over the second significant drop, which had shallow, swift water running over many large boulders. We didn’t yet know about the swimmer with the concussion, but could see it would be a dangerous, unpleasant swim.
I quickly shared with the group we needed to protect the possible swimmers. We had already donned our PFDs and helmets. I was still in flip flops and a sarong. I instructed Partner D to set up to throw a rope in case of a swimmer 15-20 yards downstream of where I was stationed to throw. I recruited the daughter to come down to the river with me to keep a hold of me in case I needed to throw the rope. Another mistake I made was not recruiting someone from the crowd to protect Partner D in case he threw the rope. While keeping a sharp eye on the boys, I realized I was wearing flip flops and yelled to Partner V to bring me my river shoes. I got them on and less than 60 seconds later, the rower slipped and fell off the rock while trying to dislodge the wrapped boat.
I threw the rope to him and hit him, he latched on it strongly, not losing a bit of rope through his hands. Therefore, the slack went out of the line immediately and the full force of the swimmer in the extremely swift water hit almost instantaneously. The line ripped from my hands a moment later. Learnings: in the years since my training, I had forgotten about protecting the line by doing a hip belay. In this instance, it may not have helped anyway because of how quickly the line went taut – I wouldn’t have had time to execute that movement. In the future, I might consider putting the rope in place around my hip before throwing, if it doesn’t interfere with my throw.
I yelled to Partner D that I’d lost him and to throw his bag. He nailed the throw and was able to hold onto the line, getting dragged down the shore. I yelled I was coming and carefully ran/clambered as quickly over the boulder strewn shoreline to him as I could to grab his PFD. By the time I reached him moments later, he was in a solid position. Meanwhile, the swimmer had pendulated behind a large boulder and into the eddy. Partner D said he was fine and instructed me to go help the swimmer get the rest of the way to shore. I tested the current beside the boulder and stepped into it, reaching across the small channel to the swimmer and instructing him to jump to me and grab my hand. I got him to shore and asked if he was ok, to which he responded yes.
Partner D and I turned our attention to retrieving the throw bag. It seemed to be stuck on the rock the swimmer had eddied out behind. Partner D was able to get to the rock to retrieve it. What I didn’t realize and he didn’t mention was that it was stuck on a strainer beneath the water and not visible to me. In retrospect, this posed a significant hazard to the next swimmer since our ropes created a chance he would pendulum into it. At this point, I do not know where Partner V was.
Meanwhile, many onlookers were pulling over and gathering, two of which were experienced boaters. One of them offered me another throw bag and I took it. In the heat of the moment, I forgot to dunk it so it had more heft, but that didn’t hinder in this situation. Approximately 30 minutes had passed since we’d arrived on scene. Since our arrival, the boat had noticeably shifted and it appeared it would come free of the rock soon. One of the tubes had lost inflation which was helping. We knew that once the boat was free, the other boy’s only option was to jump off the rock and swim. He was inexperienced, but had watched us rescue the rower so knew what to expect. It was nearly impossible to communicate with the roar of the whitewater.
Learning from the first rescue, we changed our setup. I instructed Partner D to get in position for the first throw since it was farther and he had a stronger arm, and also assigned someone to protect him from getting pulled into the water. I set up slightly downstream in case the first throw failed, also with protection. We saw the boy getting ready to jump in before we were ready and were able to stop him with some sign language, letting him know to wait for our signal. Once we were ready, we signaled him to jump.
He leapt off the rock, cannon balling into the river. Not ideal – a shallow belly flop would have helped him stay on the surface and away from submerged rocks. As it was, he went deep enough that he didn’t resurface for 10 yards. When he did, he appeared disoriented and as a result, missed the first rope. It didn’t land in his lap, so to speak, but if he’d been less disoriented, he could have reached it with a swim stroke or two. I swung my bag back to throw and immediately hit something – the person protecting me and told him to move. In the future, I’ll elaborate my instructions to stay out of the way until the bag is thrown. With the two second delay, the swimmer was almost out of range and I barely got the bag to him. He latched on and another bystander or two had heard my instructions to the person protecting me and jumped in to help, three people grabbing onto the rope and hauling him in. I tried to explain they didn’t need to pull, but in retrospect, their pulling may have helped him get into the eddy behind the rock. We got him safely to shore. It was slightly organized chaos, and I will pay more attention to scene management in the future. Honestly, with everything happening so quickly, in the heat of the moment, I hadn't thought of a way to rectify my first error of losing the rope from my hands. It was good they jumped in and grabbed the rope. But it makes me think, how often do bystanders make things worse, jumping in unexpectedly, and with no training? But also, how many times have random bystanders without training saved the day, simply by being willing to help? Grace and luck were our friends this day.
We congratulated ourselves on a successful rescue, and went about the task of freeing the second bag, which is when I became aware of the strainer and thanked our lucky stars that it worked out the way it did. We took on moderate risk trying to free the second throw bag in the rapid from the strainer. We were able to retrieve it, though, without incident.
We debriefed the incident with some other Packraft Roundup friends who had arrived late on scene. Once everyone had left, we noticed the three inexperienced rafters still hanging out and went to see if they needed food and water, or anything else.
One of the boys was obviously distraught and bleeding, and accepted my offer of first aid. I applied a few band-aids and administered psychological first aid as well. I know that psych first aid is just starting to gain attention in the adventuring world. As a trauma resolution specialist for adventurers, I see the results of when psych first aid ISN'T applied. Unfortunately, it's so common that I've been able to make a profession out of it. It is easy to apply and you don't need to be a professional to do so. Familiarize yourself with the steps here: https://blog.nols.edu/2017/05/22/5-components-psychological-first-aid
When I asked if there was anything else wrong, he mentioned an off-duty “ambulance guy” had told him he had a concussion but would be fine and left. He was experiencing dizziness, nausea, pain, and didn’t know the day of the week. He was having trouble staying awake. The mother had left with her son to chase down her raft, leaving the boys without transportation, no way to communicate (no cell service there), and without anything like food, water, or layers. We sat with him for the next 1.5 hours, monitoring his condition and waiting for her to return. None of us are experts on concussions, and were unsure exactly when and if to call in medical aid. In fact, I had just retaken first aid/CPR and remembered very little being mentioned about concussions. She returned and took the boys back towards home, 4+ hours away. Overall, we were on scene for about 3 hours.
A few other random thoughts:
We discussed trying to free the raft by getting a line to the boys to tie to the boat. I wasn’t sold on the idea as this could create serious risk on such a popular river stretch with a rope going across the main channel. It quickly became obvious this was a Bright & Shiny Object – a distraction from the real task at hand, making us feel like we were doing something, but posing significant and unnecessary risk. The boat was very slowly shifting, and would come free without anyone’s actions if a little patience was applied. Having never been involved with a raft pin, I wasn’t expecting that. If we had done it, we would have had to have sent a party significantly upriver to warn any boaters traveling downstream about the obstruction.
I considered trying to get in touch with SAR to let them know not to launch a full scale SAR operation for the empty boat someone was sure to report. However, the river banks were full of SAR volunteers who were searching for a body from a recent vehicle/river accident and I justified not leaving the boys alone thinking the mother would quickly run into SAR and be able to talk with them. I’m unsure this was the best decision; we probably should have had one of our team drive the few miles to cell service to make the call, just in case. I had a Garmin inReach, but the battery was dead. I also could have instructed one of the bystanders to make the call when they got to service, but kept thinking we were about to leave as we were as yet unaware of the unmonitored concussion injury.
At some point between rescues, after the first rescue almost failed, I realized it would be a good idea to send another party to the bottom of the rapid in case both throwers failed to get a rope to the swimmer. Ideally, three people and a throw bag to retrieve someone who may be hurt or unconscious from the river. I tried to get attention from folks on the bank by blowing my whistle, which I did repeatedly, and not a single head turned in my direction. Our third partner was nowhere to be seen. Not wanting to leave the river in case the second boy slipped and fell as well, I gave up. I was in disbelief that there could be so many lookie-loos idly chatting and completely unaware of the situation unfolding. In the future, with so many bystanders to recruit for needs as they arise, I would have asked one person to be a runner - simply on hand and paying attention in case we needed anything.
There was no way to get a boat out to the rock for that sort of rescue. Perhaps a boat coming from upstream could have been warned and asked to try to rescue the boy on the rock as they floated past and once the raft was dislodged, but that may have simply complicated matters and added to the risk.
One person who showed up on scene came over and tried to take the throw bag from my hands. I think he was trying to be helpful. As a woman, I can’t help but think there is no way he ever would have done that to another man. Don’t be that guy.
Two of the people on scene were partners where one led the other, who is legally blind, down the river through whitewater. They had an awesome helmet microphone set up that is waterproof and allows them to speak to each other as they boat through rapids. I have day dreamed that perhaps we could have gotten a rope to the boy on the rock with the helmet attached to it so we could communicate. This wouldn’t be feasible in all situations, but in some, being able to communicate might be crucial for a safe rescue.
I’ve never been involved in a significant swiftwater rescue scenario. I was very pleased that we were able to successfully rescue them without any injuries, and enjoyed working with my partner to make it happen. Very gratifying to have been able to put my training to use – it is SO WORTH IT. Without that training, I don’t think we could have pulled it off, and no one with training arrived on scene in time to have saved the first swimmer from a gnarly swim. If you haven’t taken a swiftwater rescue training course yet, I hope you’ll do so at your first opportunity. The one I took was 2 days, a few hundred dollars, and loads of fun.