Behold a Pale Horse, An Analysis: Safety concerns can result in lost access

Posted: 07/09/2002
by Jason Robertson

By Jason Robertson

The instinct not to breath underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn't inhale until he's on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point there's so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he's underwater or not. That is called the "break point"; laboratory experiments have shown the break point to come after eighty-seven seconds. It's a sort of neurological optimism, as if the body were saying, Holding our breath is killing us, and breathing in might not kill us, so we might as well breath in. - Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm

Behold a pale horse, and his name who sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. - Revelation 6:8

But little by little man adapts himself, as he must. Seeing a world transformed, he gradually moulds it to become his own. Confronted by the joint forces of mountains and elements he feels born in himself a power, a balance and reserve that normally lie dormant, withdrawn, but which reveal themselves in time of need. He calmly faces the problems. And so it was here. - Gaston Rebuffat, Starlight and Storm

Drowning is fundamentally more disturbing at a primeval level than other accidental deaths. Most people, including whitewater boaters, have a primitive fear of water that is evidenced by their hesitation to learn to roll and exacerbated by visions of floods and whitewater.

Perhaps it is a fear of chaos, or a fear of that which lurks beneath the surface. At some level, it must be a fear of the unknown. How else can we justify overcoming our fears and pursuing greater adventures and challenges than in our quest to know and learn what lies beyond the next horizon?

Unfortunately, our passion for the unknowable is not shared by many in society, and some individuals in positions of authority translate their personal fears for our well being into well-intentioned attempts at preventing us from approaching or enjoying these flooded or falling waters. For these people, our safety is best secured by denying access to the very areas we enjoy the most. For these people, every drowning they see on Fox News or hear about from other sources is a testimony to the wisdom of their decision to bar or limit access on the river they manage.

There are two fundamental aspects behind river closures throughout America. The first, which I will not discuss here, as it is the normal subject of these Access pages, is a strong 'property rights' concept in which landowners wrongly believe that they are the king of all they survey. The second, which is the subject of this article, is a desire to reduce the role of personal responsibility in society, and legislate what risks are, and are not, acceptable. Unfortunately, whitewater kayaking and canoeing are often associated with unacceptable risks.

Thus, we have observed the ripple effects arising from drownings affecting access outright, in the FERC relicensing process, recreational whitewater releases from dams, proliferation of permits, and a subsequent loss of access on many rivers. This article relates examples through which access has been limited by fears for safety.

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots - Luke 23:34

Access closures at Pennsylvania's Ohiopyle Falls on the Lower Youghiogheny River and Celestial Falls in Oregon's White River State Park fall under the heading of denying access for well meaning but misplaced concerns for safety. Park Managers at both sites have said that the waterfall closures in their parks are necessary due to safety concerns. However, after further probing, managers at both sites have admitted that the closures are as much about their personally negative reactions to working on body recoveries at drownings and with victims' families, as they are about protecting the paddlers.

The fact that these managers don't want to work a drowning scene is understandable, but this fear robs us of our freedom of personal choice. It also drives dozens of people to boat the falls illegally at times when they believe Security will not catch them: this has the effect of reducing boater's personal safety due to the onset of cold and dark. Thus, their concern is not without significance, but it goes too far.

Yet, these managers will at least consider the issue, whereas park managers below Niagara Falls in New York have denied all boating within the Gorge. Though New York park managers have agreed to a system allowing access at increasingly higher waters in Letchworth Gorge State Park, which might provide an access model for Niagara.

In another approach, rather than denying access outright, the river manager on Virginia's James River, has told me that the high water permits, which were imposed in the 80's following several high profile drownings, reduced use by inexperienced novices at high flows and resulted in a significant reduction in the number of drownings on the river. Though the permits are not overly popular within the boating community, the manager attributes the reduction in the drowning rate to them and argues that it justifies their long-term application.

It's no fish ye're buying, it's men's lives. - Sir Walter Scott

These approaches to closures are in some ways understandable. Drownings are intensely personal experiences for the victim's family and friends. They're also very difficult for rescue workers who may require specialized skills to rescue victims and initiate body recoveries. Tragic incidents, such as the 2001 double drowning of rescue workers on Pennsylvania's Slippery Rock River in a body recovery of a drowned kayaker, reveal the need for specialized swiftwater training by rescuers. It also demonstrates the need for increased communication between rescuers and the paddling community, given the fact that the paddling community is typically more experienced with swiftwater environments.

Nevertheless, many rescue workers have a certain brashness or bravado born of experience, training, and their badge. When I worked with a first responder and HazMat unit in college, we thought we were invulnerable. While we would race to fires, car accidents, and chemical spills, the race to a drowning scene was left to other emergency units. At some level our commander expressed to us that the visceral thrill of responding to an accident scene was missing at drownings. Drownings were grim and silent affairs with none of the heady romance we felt helping others at accident sites. Perhaps this was due to the fact that most drownings calls were simply body recovery operations rather than rescues?

Our society's discomfort with drownings is further documented in anecdotal stories of higher payouts by insurance companies and rafting corporations for drowning victim's families.

Recently, in a rare publicly disclosed settlement, Six Flags Inc. agreed to pay $4 million to the daughter of a woman who drowned on their Roaring Rapids amusement park ride. The payment was in part due to the fact that the surviving daughter was so young, and in part I believe to assuage fears of their wild whitewater.

The fear of lawsuits is raised at all levels of communication with landowners and park managers. This is understandable because the size of payouts from drownings are high, but also because juries tend to view drownings as avoidable accidents that are attributable to poor decisions, faulty equipment, or inadequate responses rather than simple bad luck.

Society's discomfort with drowning is also evidenced in our over-the-top responses to incidents. After a kayaker drowned in 2001 on Chief Rapid on North Carolina's Green River Narrows, rescue workers sought to build a road down to the river. Though the body of this victim had been recovered, the rescuers wanted to be able to bring heavy rescue equipment to the riverside in the event of a future rescue and avoid hiking down the heavily vegetated walls of the canyon through the poison ivy jungle. Thankfully boaters, including American Whitewater's Safety Chair at the time, Lee Belknap, successfully talked them out of this costly and dubious idea.

In another case, after a summer with three freakish drownings on Dimple Rock on Pennsylvania's Lower Youghiogheny, the Fayette County Coroner sought to have the rapid's namesake rock destroyed. Following a hearing on this, American Whitewater board member and safety guru Charlie Walbridge reported that the Coroner's jury recommended that warning signs be placed at Dimple Rapid indicating people had drowned there, that safety education be improved, that the state begin a study as to the feasibility of filling the undercut on the upstream side of Dimple Rock, and commended Park Manager Doug Hoehn and his safety focus group for their efforts in planning improved safety measures for the 2001 season. Afterwards a lawyer from Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources told Walbridge that the state was wary of modifying the river because of liability concerns. She explained that people could not sue the state for what happens on a natural river, but a rapid, once modified, could expose the state to lawsuits. Again, the original recommendation was of dubious merit and would have been costly.

In yet another case, the family of a boater who drowned on Section IV of Georgia's Chattooga River in the mid-90's asked the Forest Service to fill Crack In The Rock to "make it safe". American Whitewater successfully argued against this idea, saying the modification might not have the desired affect, would not necessarily solve the problem, was unjustifiable on an unmodified streambed, and could set a dangerous precedent requiring the agency to modify other 'dangerous' rapids throughout the basin.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, is a proven life-saving technique that every whitewater paddler should know. For a drowning victim, the most important thing is to start it as soon as possible, even if this means doing ventilations in the water when you first make contact… Start CPR if the victim has been underwater for less than one hour. After that most experts agree that CPR has little, if any chance, of reviving a drowning vicitim. - Les Bechdel & Slim Ray, River Rescue

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times. There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end. - Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps

It's not just rescuers who find this topic of drownings difficult to embrace; boaters are equally reluctant to face the subject.

Big water pioneer Walt Blackadar was famously quoted in the 1976 movie, The Edge, saying, "Most kayakers will tell you they are not going to drown. I will tell you I will never drown. I know I could paddle Niagara Falls and not drown. I just can't drown." Regardless of his abilities, Blackadar drowned two years later when he got snagged on a strainer on the Payette. With this momentary lapse of judgment, Blackadar became just another mute martyr for safety.

Drownings are the seldom-discussed dark side of our sport, though some suggest American Whitewater discusses them all too often in our effort to educate and caution our readers in the Journal's annual safety reports.

While there's something ghoulish reading about these deaths, I know that the reports have a real value. They have made me respect my decisions and the decisions of my paddling partners at a deeper level. These reports have also made me a better paddler by teaching me the importance of first aid and CPR training, and picking an alternate or back up escape route before initiating any move. They have also made me ask myself how I would respond in an emergency and what equipment to carry.

Thus, while whitewater drownings are relatively rare, anybody who's ever put a spray skirt on their kayak or strapped their thighs in a canoe, knows that drowning is a worst case outcome or consequence of our personal decisions to participate in this sport; the potential exists.

We can't entirely eliminate risk from the sport of running whitewater rivers and streams. But we can intelligently manage the risks we take, and the focus of that risk management means a sharpening of perceptions that brings greater awareness, pleasure, and - yes - safety to our experiences out there. - Gordon Grant, River Rescue

Yet, the potential can be mitigated through training, experience, and good judgment. That is the message to convey to safety and rescue officials.

Not long ago, in 1996, I witnessed Olympic canoer Davey Hearn getting tackled in the water by police and arrested for boating on the Potomac below Maryland's Great Falls. The water on that day was very high and an epic surf wave had formed over Brookmont Dam. Davey was surfing the wave when the police flagged him over to shore. On approaching the shore he was assaulted by police in front of TV cameras and the incident was broadcast on the evening news. The Park Police and other rescue officials argued that he had no business being on the water that day; Davey argued he was qualified to make that choice for himself, and the question went to court. The judge sided with Davey and threw out the case. While this was a victory for boaters, the event revealed many of the safety prejudices we encounter on a regular basis at American Whitewater.

The men could only look at each other through the falling snow, from land to sea, from sea to land, and realize how unimportant they all were. - Sidney Perley

Man marks the earth with ruin - his control stops with shore. - Lord Byron

This prejudiced perception of risk is generally amplified in the eyes of non-boaters. However, it's not just a perception shared by rescue workers and river managers; recall how many times you've heard your parents caution you to be safe, come back safely, or even warn you against going out on a flooded or whitewater river. The perception even carries over into the dry world of seeking recreational whitewater flows from dams.

On the Savage River, American Whitewater has been stymied in our efforts to convince the Upper Potomac River Commission (UPRC), which operates the dam, to provide whitewater releases. The UPRC's reluctance follows from the drowning of a kayaker on the river in the early-90's on a strainer. Though the family of the drowned victim did not sue the UPRC, the UPRC has indicated an outright unwillingness to provide water unless all of their safety and liability concerns are explicitly addressed and resolved. This includes insurance protection, removal of all snags and strainers prior to the releases, and other safety measures that are virtually unattainable.

Likewise, the power company that owns Waterloo Power Plant on the Pigeon River Dries is very concerned about facilitating recreation or providing releases on this Class V section. Their concerns were amplified following the death of a kayaker at Chinese Arithmetic in 2001 when water was released at a steady rate for several months to facilitate repairs to the plant's surge tank.

In contrast, dam operators on the Nisqually in Washington State worked with American Whitewater to ensure continued scheduled releases on the Class V+ river even after a boater drowned there on a FERC ordered release in 2000.

Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet earth, as it was made forever and ever, - to be the dwelling of man, we say - so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. - Henry David Thoreau, Ktaadn

While most dam operators raise the specter of safety and liability during FERC relicensings, FERC consistently shoots these concerns down. For FERC, the dams present an unnatural modification to an existing navigable streambed, and lost opportunities for recreation should be mitigated through required releases or other actions. However, on non-FERC dams, which are used for municipal water supplies, irrigation, and other purposes, the boating community doesn't have such an ally in their corner. In fact, we have seen a number of cases recently regarding lost opportunities for access in order to protect public safety and water quality.

Hundreds of rivers around the country provide most of the public's drinking water. These rivers are subject to a myriad of uses ranging from drinking water, to recreational playgrounds, to transportation. Occasionally these rivers are closed to boating for the stated reason of protecting municipal drinking water supplies. In recent months we have seen new restrictions the Little Sandy River in Oregon and old restrictions waived on the Mokelumne in California. We have also heard distant rumors from Colorado and North Carolina on the subject.

In August 2001, Senator Wyden (D-OR), a politician who otherwise supports our recreation interests, ushered legislation through Congress that expanded the previous boundary of the Bull Run Watershed to include the Class V segment of the Little Sandy River. The expressed purpose of this closure was to protect Portland's drinking water. The result was the closure of the river to boating and the authorization of a $5000 fine and/or six months in jail for boaters caught on this gem.

In contrast, East Bay MUD serves 1.2 million San Francisco Bay Area residents with water diverted from the Mokelumne River and owns 28,000 acres along the river. Beginning in the 1950s, the utility's rangers have banned the public from its land along the 2 ½-mile stretch of river west of Highway 49 and east of the Pardee Reservoir. The property is surrounded with barbed wire and East Bay MUD warning signs: "Protected Watershed -- No Trespassing." East Bay MUD maintained that it restricted access to the river to protect water quality and drinking water safety, though boating is allowed downstream at MUD's Pardee Reservoir. In January 2002, East Bay MUD agreed to provide river access and hiking trails following a suit brought by the State against them for charging kayakers with trespassing.

I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices. - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Now, in the wake of 9/11, we're seeing a whole new range of threats to access in the 'spirit' of national security. Homeland security is being used to threaten boating closures on rivers around the country. Most notably, Wayne Smith, President of the ConnYak club reported that Connecticut State Representative Peter Panaroni introduced legislation in February 2002 to require boater registration.

Mr. Panaroni told boaters at the bill's hearing that boater registration was a "Homeland Security" issue, and explained that residents of the Thimble Islands were concerned that terrorists would land on their property in kayaks, and blow up their multi-million dollar homes. The premise of the bill was that forced watercraft registration would somehow prevent that from happening. Boaters testified and reminded the representative that the truck that exploded in the WTC in 1993 was legally registered, the truck that Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City was registered, and all 3 planes that were used on September 11th were too. Representative Panaroni then reportedly changed his stated reason to "We need to be able to find out who did it, and registration will allow that". Regardless, the bill was killed by the quick action of the local boating community, though Mr. Panaroni is still reportedly advocating for a modified registration requirement.

The temptation to go on was very great. We hesitated, then decided to turn back. We were in the state of mind of a child who sees his favorite toy snatched from him; and yet as we descended we felt a great peace within, the recognition of a virtue other than the mere climbing of a high mountain. - Gaston Rebuffat, Starlight and Storm

Between the five of us there was the strong bond of the sea, and also the fellowship of the craft, which no amount of enthusiasm for yachting, cruising and so on can give, since one is only the amusement of life and the other is life itself. - Joseph Conrad, Youth

In the spirit of protecting the rivers we value, American Whitewater's is battling to protect your access to your favorite rivers. Sometimes, we ask for your help outright and emphasize the need for personal safety. Sometimes, you surprise even us, and demonstrate actions that are more eloquent than any words we could write.

In a testimony to your preparedness, we were as wonderfully astonished as the dam operators and park managers at Georgia's Tallulah when we reviewed the results of a safety survey of boaters from the first weekend of permitted releases. This survey revealed that nearly every boater had current first aid and CPR training and more than a third of all boaters had EMT training. Everyone was further impressed by the quick action boaters took to stabilize and help a couple of individuals who were injured on the run at different times and locations throughout the day.

In conclusion, we want you to have a good time on the river. American Whitewater will work to secure every opportunity for you to access America's rivers. But we also urge you to practice safe boating and review the American Whitewater Safety Code. Also discuss with your family what you want them to do if the worst happens and you don't return from a boating trip. Express to them how you want to be remembered, and what actions they should take, or avoid taking, in your memory.

Take this to heart: Your actions and decisions have consequences, and your actions and decisions reflect on the rest of the boating community. Have fun, be careful; and if you're feeling a little uncertain, step back and consider praying to Jonah and Saint David, the patron saints and guardians of sailors, as you choose your portage route.

If you had just a minute to breathe
And they granted you one final wish
Would you ask for something like another chance?
Or something similar as this? Don't worry too much
It'll happen to you as sure as your sorrows are joys

- Steve Winwood, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys

Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters. - Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Jason Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349