Near-death experience in bitter cold Skykomish By:
Chris Hendrickson June 6, 2016
Monroe, WA Monitor & Valley News
Snohomish County Fire District No. 5 is working to get the word out about this dangerous Skykomish River side-channel, roughly two miles downstream from Sultan’s boat launch at Sportsman Park. When Sultan resident Nichole Gaertner and her three girlfriends set out on their kayaks for a fun excursion down the Skykomish River, the water looked smooth and calm. But just a short ways downriver, their adventure turned into a nightmare.
Gaertner and her friends entered the water at River Park near downtown Sultan shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 10. They had planned an all-day journey, intending to let the river carry them from Sultan to Everett. One of Gaertner’s friends had made the trek several times before, and all had previous kayaking experience. They took several days to coordinate logistics, including arranging time off work, getting babysitters for their children and organizing the necessary equipment. Temperatures were mild and it was pleasantly sunny when they left. They each rode in an individual kayak, wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) and helmets. Online research was performed to ensure they were taking appropriate precautions.
Initially, the four had a great time. They were laughing and joking around, Gaertner said, visiting with each other and enjoying the day. Then they came upon a fork in the river, and everything changed. Collectively, they decided to head right of what appeared to be an island, but were sucked into a side-channel by a powerful undertow. Gaertner could see two of her friends start to get into trouble in the erratic current, and watched as her third friend was pulled under a tree. The next thing she knew her friends were all in the water and she was headed straight for a ripple on the river’s surface that seemed to pull her in like a magnet. “There’s this wave — so there’s either a rock or a branch under there — and I’m trying to get around it, and it flips me. And it was so cold,” Gaertner said.
Located roughly two miles downstream from the confluence of the Sultan and Skykomish rivers, the side-channel that pulled Gaertner and her friends in is filled with downed trees known as strainers, which can instantly trap a kayaker, causing them to become pinned. The area is rife with massive trees that likely came down during last winter’s heavy flooding; root balls and twisting branches protrude above and below the water, creating a deadly obstacle course. The north river bank is a sheer drop off, eaten away over the years by the force of the water. Because of the numerous obstructions, the current is unpredictable and irregular.
Gaertner was flipped out of her kayak and slammed up against a tree, where she was pounded by the current. The water, fed by recent snowmelt, was a chilly 36 degrees. She lost sight of her friends, and as she got colder and colder, she could feel the panic setting in. “I thought everybody had drowned,” Gaertner said. “At this point, thought everybody was gone, and that feeling is the most horrible feeling.” She began to scream for help, she said, realizing her rising panic was another enemy. She was trapped in an unforgiving, hostile environment, and as the frigid waters pummeled her lower body, she began to lose feeling in her legs. She thought about her family, understanding that if the water didn’t kill her, the panic would. “I was just losing my mind a little bit,” Gaertner said. “I’m like, I need to calm down. If I don’t calm down, I’m not going to get out of this. I will drown.” If a branch sticking out above the water, trying to get herself in a more secure position. “I twisted my body and I kind of did a pull-up and I got myself to sit on this log. So I’m still submerged, and I got my wrist stuck in it on purpose — I lodged it in there,” Gaertner said. “And then I saw my friends.”
All had made it out of the water but lost their kayaks, which were tangled up in the strainers. One friend lost everything she had been carrying, but one still had her backpack and phone, which somehow still worked. They called 911, and kept their eyes locked on Gaertner, who was becoming hypothermic. She had been in the water for at least 30 minutes at this point; she was hurt and freezing. She struggled to remain conscious as her friends screamed at her to stay awake. “I had to slap myself in the face,” Gaertner said. “This was traumatic for them. I’m falling asleep — I’m losing consciousness in front of them.”
Firefighters trained in swift-water rescue were dispatched from Monroe, Sultan and Gold Bar. Monroe District 3 firefighters Capt. Jeff Zornes, Pete Parrish and Ryan Rozelle sped to the Ben Howard Road boat launch, hopped on the District 3 rescue boat and motored up river. Swift-water technicians are highly trained, and Monroe’s rescue boat is outfitted with smooth black plastic along the bottom in order to plane over rocks and branches during a dynamic rescue event. District 26 has a twin boat, which was deployed as a backup.
The Skykomish River is dangerous during the spring, Zornes and Parrish said. The river is high and cold, and last year’s flooding has filled it with snags and strainers. To a less experienced recreationalist, strainers might appear innocuous, Zornes said, but they can be deadly; the force of the river near an obstacle like a strainer rises exponentially. In order to maneuver through the channel, Zornes relied on his training. He had to navigate the downed trees by coming in on a plane, meaning he had to be traveling quickly enough to get the boat to glide along the surface of the river over the log jams.
Gaertner remembers how quickly the boat came in, a tactic that was necessary, but risky, Zornes said. “You’ll risk a lot to save a lot,” he said. Rozelle and Parrish each grabbed a rescue rope device known as a “throw bag,” tossing them to Gaertner. The first one got tangled in the branches, but she was able to grab onto the second one and get the rope around her waist. Zornes climbed out onto the root ball in order to readjust the rope under her armpits, for a safer, more effective rescue.
Looking at Gaertner, Parrish said it was obvious she had no strength left. They began to pull her in, and she was immediately sucked under by the current. Zornes stayed in the river as Rozelle and Parrish manned the rope, at one point reaching down and grabbing Gaertner’s PFD to get her head above the water. Rozelle and Parrish used a technique called “vectoring the line” to get her safely onto a rocky shoreline. “She was under the water for 30 seconds probably,” Parrish said. “Most of us could hold our breath for that long, but she was exhausted, so she took on a lot of water.” They immediately covered her with blankets and placed her inside the rescue boat. A medic unit was waiting nearby, and she was transported to EvergreenHealth Monroe for treatment.
Gaertner suffered extensive internal bruising from being pinned to the log and was hypothermic. Even after arriving at the hospital and receiving treatment of warm intravenous fluids and heat packs, her body temperature was measured at a mere 94 degrees. Gaertner doesn’t know how low her temperature dropped; she just knows it hurt. “You don’t know how bad it hurts to go into hypothermia. It’s really easy to fall asleep,” she said. “In your mind, you are wide awake.”
Gaertner, a Sultan resident, is married with three young children. She is an outdoor enthusiast, and enjoys mountain biking. She loves her job as a paradeducator at Gold Bar Elementary School, she has a bachelor’s degree in communications and is a professional photographer. She is grateful to the first responders — who even stopped by the hospital to see how she was doing — for saving her life. It’s difficult to quantify that gratitude but she wanted to try, so she brought cookies and a thank you card to Monroe’s District 3 and penned another thank you card for District 5 in Sultan. She is worried somebody will die there, as there has already been another rescue in the same vicinity. The water is deceptive, she said, and unimaginably powerful. “It’s calm on top — it’s hell underneath,” Gaertner said. “And you don’t get it until you’re in it.”
It is important to never underestimate the river, Zornes and Parrish agreed. Zornes recommends before taking any side-channel, a boater get out and walk the channel looking for obstructions first. Anyone venturing onto the river on a kayak or an inner tube should invest in a secure, vest-style PFD. Loaner life jackets are available in Sultan and Monroe, and can be returned to either fire station.
Swift-water rescues are the riskiest venture for first responders, Zornes said, even more dangerous than fires. Every single aspect of a strainer is an unknown variable. No two debris piles are the same, and coupled with the force of the constantly moving river, swift water activities are always hazardous. “It is the most dangerous thing that we do,” Parrish said. “The water has all the power. We don’t have any power; we just have a little knowledge.” Anything in the river can kill you, Parrish said, which is why swift-water rescue training is so extensive. “We train a lot,” he said. “When this comes around, we’re ready for it and it’s a career rescue.”
Gold Bar District 26 Chief Eric Andrews said that in addition to the training, multi-agency cooperation is crucial in these types of rescues. The Gaertner call occurred in Sultan’s District 5, so District 5 established a command system to direct incoming resources. Water rescue protocol was followed, and boats from District 3 and District 26 were dispatched along with information to help responders locate Gaertner and her friends. In this case, Monroe technicians were able to successfully perform the rescue before the back-up boat arrived on scene, Andrews said. “These rescues are very complex, and without the contribution of all agencies, they would not be as efficient and safe for our personnel and the victims,” Andrews said. “We have a very good system in place that has evolved over the past several years, and one that is as good as it is because all agencies cooperate together.”