Rescue on the East Fork Carson River by Greg Schmidt
Scott and I were asked to guide a two-raft trip on the East Fork Carson Rivers. With eighteen miles to paddle, it’s a long trip and the second half is much slower than the first. The plan was to get an early start, stop at the hot springs for lunch, and then relax through most of the afternoon.
We got our early start just fine. All of our paddlers were experienced, so we enjoyed running the more difficult lines and laughing about it. But at about mile four things changed. We came upon a fork in the river, thanks to the high flow. I yelled to Scott that I’d take the right channel; he chose the main on the left. While my route was clear, there was a bright yellow rope stretched above the water. However, there was no indication as to why it was there. As we came to the end of the island, Scott yelled at me to pull over. There were four people trapped in the bushes in the main flow. Their raft was shredded and the only way out was for them to swim.
Scott quickly told us his plan. He was going to use his throw bag to save the swimmers as they came down the riffle. I was to set safety. If he missed anybody, my crew and I were to paddle after them and secure a mid-river rescue. I informed my crew of our job. They were ready for the task.
Seconds after we set up our rescue plan, the first swimmer appeared. He wore a bicycle helmet (wrong!) and was swimming on his stomach (again, wrong). His head was so high above the water we thought that he was on his back (proper position). What we couldn’t see was that he was being beaten by the river rocks in the washboard-style rapid.
At the perfect moment, Scott threw his rope and connected! Our swimmer grabbed the rope as everyone on shore (crews from both groups) yelled “Don’t let go of the rope!” repeatedly. While he did keep his grip on the rope, he did not keep grip of his consciousness. He blacked out and turned face down as Scott hauled him into shore. Somehow he was able to maintain his grip on the rope, as instructed, and was hauled nearly to the shore.
As his friends ran into the river to help him out, the second swimmer appeared upstream. Scott quickly coiled the rope and made another perfect throw. He repeated this with the third and fourth swimmers. My crew and I almost got bored, thanks to Scott’s perfect rescue technique.
After a quick assessment, we determined that their trip was poorly outfitted. They were not at all ready for the conditions (high and cold water) and didn’t have the proper equipment (boats, wetsuits, helmets, safety gear, etc.). As we split the four paddlers between our rafts, I realized that most of them were hypothermic. I had brought a dry bag full of extra wetsuits and related gear, so I loaned my gear to everyone who wanted to be warm again. And we were on our way again; just two people heavy per raft.
When we stopped for lunch, we advised the rescued group to soak in the hot springs. They were still cold and needed to warm up without burning calories. There was no argument. The second half of the trip proceeded without incident. After the hot springs, the river mellowed out. We floated through easy rapids and took the safer routes due to our overloaded rafts.
At the takeout, our crews took care of our equipment and I retrieved my loaned gear. I clearly remember seeing our first swimmer sitting on the back of a pickup in the parking lot. He did not look well. His breathing was labored and he had a pale look to him. I thought he was just exhausted from the swim and the long day. If the post-trip stories are correct, his condition was far worse than we could see. Far, far worse.
While we were loading our equipment, the leader of the rescued trip approached Scott. “Here’s everything we could scrape together for you for rescuing our people” he said, and he shoved at least $40 into Scott’s hand. Scott handed the money back to him and said “I can’t take money from you for doing the right thing. Take that money and put it towards some proper gear.” I know that Scott was angry about the situation and was probably a bit gruff, but he did the right thing by returning the money.
The next day, we heard the rest of the story. One of our paddlers was a local nurse who was hoping to become a river guide. She was in touch with the local rescue crews who told her that they were deployed to our incident on the river. Before they could even arrive, we had performed the rescue and transported the victims to safety. She forwarded their thanks to us for rescuing those people.
Later, we heard a report about our first swimmer. Because he didn’t float on his back, he had been pounded by the river rocks during his swim. He suffered bruises from his neck to his feet, which landed him in a local hospital. He did not survive. He bled to death due to internal bleeding from the bruises. While Scott and I did the right thing that day, there was no way for us to know the true condition of our first swimmer. But we did our best and saved the other three people. Scott and I focused on the fact that we saved four people from drowning.
There are some days where, despite your best efforts, you are forced to take a loss.