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
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withdrawn, but which reveal themselves in time of need.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
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
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
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,
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
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,
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