The Herald - Everett, Wash. - www.HeraldNet.com
Published: November 8, 2006
Kayaker scolded for diverting search teams
By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
GOLD BAR - A Seattle man is lucky to be alive after daring Tuesday to run his kayak down the raging Skykomish River. Jon Prentice, 36, put into the river near milepost 34 on U.S. 2 just before 1:30 p.m. "It was just raging, and I had to get out," he said. A few minutes later, a friend called 911 to report that Prentice had fallen from his boat. Snohomish County Search and Rescue, local fire crews and sheriff's deputies scoured the river for any sign of the man or his kayak. Just before 2 p.m., the man's red kayak was spotted downriver swirling and bobbing in an eddy under High Bridge and across the river from the Big Eddy river access park. Still, there was no sign of Prentice.
As crews began to search farther down river, police radios began to crackle with the news the man had been found safe, dry and sitting upstream in his pickup truck. "I didn't want this to happen, man," Prentice said. Just below Boulder Drop, he lost his paddle and was thrown from his boat, he said. "I made a mistake, got out and went to shore," he said. From there, he scrambled back to the road and his pickup, he said. Sheriff's deputies who raced to the scene didn't try to hide their contempt while questioning Prentice about his river adventure. "Kayaking in any flooded region is an unsafe activity and a highly un-recommended act," Snohomish County Lt. Rodney Rochon said. Rochon said the man's "wanton" act diverted resources from the numerous other search-and-rescue activities taking place throughout the flooded areas in the county. Prentice apologized. "I strongly regret the fact that everyone was out there looking for me," he said. He said he thought his 26 years of paddling experience would have kept him safe. "I love the Sky, I love the Skykomish," he said. "It's got a powerful side, and it saw fit to show me that today." Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The freedom to take calculated risks, in business, love, or sport is one of the most cherished prerogatives of a free people. But risk-takers sometimes die, and this makes some people very uncomfortable. The decision to put on the water is a very personal decision based on matching your skill and gear to the demands of the river. What's safe for an expert could be deadly for a novice and each paddler must take full responsibility for his or her safety. Judging water levels is confusing for non-paddlers since small streams may be at excellent levels when larger streams are flooding. And today's paddler can manage whitewater which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. There's always been tension between sportsmen and public safety officials. Paddling is not so different in this regard from rock climbing but it's venue is much more public. In the past police and emergency responders have prevented paddlers from running rivers or rapids "for their own safety" when the whitewater in question was really quite manageable. In a few cases they have obstructed ongoing rescue efforts. These events are rare, but not unheard of, even today. This having been said, there have been many instances when emergency responders have saved the lives of paddlers who got into trouble. Most were inexperienced, but not all.
Skilled swiftwater responders often have little contact with the mainstream paddling community and don't appreciate the differences in skills or the capabilities of modern boats and gear. To them its just another call. Swiftwater rescues are not common and that makes it hard for agencies to justify investing time and money needed to get really good at it. Since the average professional "swiftwater rescuer" has less time on the water than an intermediate kayaker it's not surprising that misunderstandings occur. Most swiftwater rescue techniques have their origins in whitewater sport and there is no substitute for a skilled paddler who can handle a boat precisely in rough water. This skill takes thousands of hours to develop and is out of reach for all but the most committed whitewater sportsman.
I personally believe that people should be able to try anything that they feel capable of managing whether the authorities think it's safe or not. But in our less-than-ideal world whitewater paddlers have to get along with the wider community. This means dealing with authorities respectfully and staying off the water during emergencies when their presence is, at best, a distraction. I would not have run the river that day and would have tried to talk others out of it. The conditions were, to say the least, extreme. But in the end the man rescued himself, which is as it should be.
Respectfully, Charlie Walbridge American Whitewater Safety Editor Route 1, Box A43B; Bruceton Mills, WV 26525 304-379-9002; email@example.com