The GPS Project: Taking the “Search” out of “Search and Rescue”
posted September 1, 2006
Here’s the scenario: You and your buddy have just blitzed out the last eight miles of the
upper Gnarly Fork, leaving Sketchy Fred at Liquidator, the big drop on the run. True to form,
Sketchy Fred has managed to break both his ankle and his arm on the portage, and is now sitting at
the bottom of the drop with two wet PowerBars, an expired Percocet, and a lighter that
doesn’t seem to have any butane in it. None of you have a clue about the hike out from
Liquidator, other than it is terrible, and that somebody said you definitely don’t want to
hike out the wrong side. In other words, Sketchy Fred is, once again, screwed.
At the takeout, you find, to your surprise, that your cell phone has two bars. Reluctantly you call
911 and give them the lowdown. Their half of the conversation goes like this: “The Gnarly
Fork? You mean Silver Creek, or Oak Creek? Is that on County 28? Liquidator, you say? Is that by
the Crystal Hole? China Bar? Jumper’s Glory? Big Bend? Wobbly Rock? The Wiggles? Is there a
big stump that looks like Elvis?....” As the conversation deteriorates, you realize that Fred
will have a long, lonely night, sucking on a Percocet and flicking his Bic.
What is needed here is a way to translate what we know about rivers—the rapid and camp names,
road and trail crossings, side creeks, etc.—into something that emergency and rescue
professionals can use. And no doubt about it, what they like best is a nice set of GPS
For those of you unfamiliar with GPS, it stands for Global Positioning System. This system consists
of a few dozen expensive satellites (thank you, President Reagan) and widely available, hand-held
gizmos that interpret signals from those satellites and calculate their position on the ground with
an impressive accuracy. The usual $99 K-Mart units can be accurate to a few meters, and high-dollar
models are now capable of locating within the centimeter range.
Over the next decade, AW hopes to serve as the collecting point for GPS data on whitewater rivers
for the purpose of aiding rescue professionals. We hope to create a set of GPS data for river runs
listed on AW’s website, starting with the coordinates of the put-in, continuing with info on
the major rapids and landmarks, and finishing with the numbers for the take-out. This data would be
freely available to anyone visiting AW’s website, and would have any number of potential
uses. Foremost, though, it would allow search and rescue folks to translate the kind of info
boaters give them (“Liquidator, Gnarly Fork”) into a known point on the map, with just
a few mouse clicks.
How will this happen? To be honest, we will need your help. AW is calling for you, the boating
community at large, to start packing your GPS units on the river and collecting waypoints. Collect
what you think is useful—put-in, take-out, rapids, camps, side creeks, places that a
helicopter can land—and maybe take a few photos of each waypoint as well. In the months to
come, AW will provide a place on its website to enter this data for all to see and use.
In a perfect world, the GPS project would grow into the comprehensive and definitive go-to database
for rescue folks, so that the person answering your 911 call will know about and use it. Until that
day, it will be our responsibility to grow the site, make it work, and then get the word out to EMS
services. This can even happen in real-time: “Hello, 911? My buddy’s stuck at
Liquidator on the Gnarly Fork. Where’s that? Well, go to ‘www dot americanwhitewater
dot org’ … not ‘dot com’—sorry, that’s a rafting
Right now, though, this project is just a dream. So start collecting those waypoints, and keep your
eye on the AW website in the months to come. We’ll have a place to put your data, and
we’ll even try to give some swag (or at least some credit) to the folks who contribute. And
thanks in advance. Together we can make sure that Sketchy Fred doesn’t have to find out the
useful life of a PowerBar or the nutritional value of Percocet.