A CLOSE CALL, AND A COUPLE OF SAFETY PRINCIPLES
By: John S. Brtis, Safety Chairman, Cascaders Whitewater Club
There was a close call involving one of our club members on the Peshtigo over the Labor Day weekend. As is the case with most close calls, it resulted from judgemental errors which, combined with the natural danger of the river, led to a dangerous situation.
Saturday of Labor Day weekend was sunny but cool, and found the Peshtigo at 3 inches. Our group had pushed the river for all that it was worth on their way down and arrived at Horse Race well warmed-up and quite confident. At the 3 inch level Horse Race had lost most of its normal “pushiness” but still had decent eddies on both sides, so the approach taken by everyone was to eddy-hop, surf and play their way down. A birch deadfall extended about 20 feet (on a 45 degree diagonal) out from the river right shore at the bottom of one of the eddies half way down the rapid (it did not block the entry or exit from the eddy). Since it was just below the eddy, there was only a slight flow of water under it. It consisted of two 4 inch trunks; one about 12 inches and the other about 30 inches above the water. Neither of the trunks appeared to have any limbs to speak of and it looked like a swimmer could easily float under the bottom trunk without getting his head wet. All-in-all it looked like a very benign situation.
Things went well, as the members of our group eddy-hopped their way down the rapid, until one of our people tried to eddy out into the eddy above the deadfall and found it already filled with two boaters. Entering at the very bottom of the eddy, the boater’s momentum carried her down to a point where the deadfall interfered with her paddle strokes and made a proper recover into or out of the eddy impossible. The boater soon found herself with the lower tree trunk under her left armpit and her boat out from under her (downstream under the trunk). There were two people in the eddy above her, one in the eddy just below the deadfall and two in an eddy across the river. The situation still didn’t look bad. It seemed obvious to all onlookers that the proper thing to do was for the boater to release the tree trunk, fall over upstream and recover with an Eskimo rescue on the boat below her (or at worst, wet exit and swim to the eddy below). This was so obvious to all observers (including your author) that this advice was yelled to the victim.
Unfortunately, the obvious path of action didn’t work. When the deadfall was released, the boat rotated to an upside-down position and lodged with its bow on a rock and its stern seemingly held by an unseen underwater limb of the deadfall. The boat did not rotate far enough for an Eskimo rescue, and to top off this quick succession of bad karma the victim was unable to wet exit. (She had been pushed back against the back deck of her boat, and was unable to reach her grab loop because of a branch which was in the way).
This very unfortunate situation was relieved by a quick action of the people around the victim. The boater across the river ferried across to the bottom of the eddy and reached the victim first. Still being in his boat, he did not have the leverage needed to rotate the boat upstream or lift the victim’s head out of the water. Fortunately, the victim was able to grasp the rescuer’s boat and their combined efforts brought the victim’s head above water. A few seconds later and one of the occupants of the eddy above the deadfall (who had left her boat) waded to the victim (the water was about 3 feet deep in the eddy) and with the effort of the victim and two rescuers the boat was rotated to face upstream, and the victim was able to wet exit. By this time a second wading rescuer was steadying the boat and victim from the downstream side of the deadfall.
I would estimate that the victim spent about 20 seconds under water before her head was first brought back to the surface and another 10 to 15 seconds before she was out of the boat. A boater was at all times positioned in the eddy below the deadfall to assist if the victim was swept downstream.
There are two things which were unexpected by the people involved in this incident, both of which are still open to speculation:
Why did the boat lodge? Nothing seemed to be holding the stern.
Why did the boat stop rotating, preventing the victim from coming up on the downstream side?
While the answers to these questions are open, one thing is clear. The victim should have held onto the deadfall, to maintain a stable semi-upright position, until assistance arrived. As was pointed out by Jim Tibensky there is a major principle of safety to be learned from this incident:
If a victim is stable and able to breathe, no action should ever be taken which will put the victim’s head under water.