Swiftwater Rescue: From Scenario to Real Life

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Over Memorial Day I was rafting with some college friends on the South Fork of the American river at high water. As we entered the class ll rapid above Old Scary, I looked downstream and saw a man holding a throw bag fully played out in the water. I first assumed he was in the middle of a swift water class, but then noticed some raft guides standing on shore with two of their rafts tied-up nearby. At the same moment, one of the guides yelled, “Help! Her foot is stuck!” I saw a woman almost completely underwater. She was about 15 feet from shore with water surging over her head.

I was born and raised on the river. My parents met working as raft guides back in the 80s and I’ve been a raft guide and kayaker for the last eight years. I’ve seen a lot of things happen on the river, but I had never experienced anything like this.

This past winter and spring in California, I put my years of river experience to use and began teaching swiftwater rescue classes all over the state. Over the months I was teaching, I practiced my basic rescue skills every day—swimming, throw bagging, wading, ropes skills, and entrapment scenarios. As an instructor, we’re typically the ones who play the victim in the scenarios during class. Playing the victim helps us understand what it feels like to be the one entrapped and how we would want our rescuers to save us. After months of instruction I felt more comfortable and confident in my own rescue skills and decision-making on the river than ever before. But when you’re practicing these scenarios, you never hope the day will come that you’ll have to use your skills.

South Fork of the American River

When I first saw her, I immediately thought this looks exactly like an entrapment scenario I would run in a swiftwater class. I had worked through a situation like this hundreds of times and I knew I could handle this one.

In our classes, we teach the acronym L.A.S.T. to apply to every rescue. This stands for Locate, Access, Stabilize, and Transport. At the same time, rescuers have to be cognizant of their surroundings because swiftwater environments are ever changing. I had already located the victim, a middle-aged lady, as we floated by, and saw I could access her by swimming and wading across the current from the shore. The only difference between a stable and unstable victim in a swiftwater environment is whether their head is above or below water. The woman had a small air pocket around her head between the surges of water, but she was mostly under. I could see her moving, meaning that she was conscious and breathing, but I didn’t know how long she had been there. If I could get the woman free, I knew if I couldn’t walk her to the shore or a raft, I could safely transport her downstream to my raft by swimming. Knowing I had to act quickly, I pulled over to river right and told my friends to stay in the raft downstream in case the woman came free without me and I ran upstream toward her.

As I ran past the raft guides who were still on shore, I went through the mental checklist we teach in all our classes: I saw upstream spotters holding throw bags, knew my friends in the raft would be downstream safety, knew the guides were on shore for extra support, and I felt confident in my abilities to swim and wade the 15 or so feet out to her using the eddies behind bushes and small rocks. In hindsight, I wish I would have quickly told the guides my plan to get her head above water and get her to shore, but I was too worried about the woman.

I ran up the shore parallel to the woman and jumped into the river, swimming to an eddy behind some bushes. I waded the rest of the way using small eddies behind some rocks. Luckily, she was stuck next to a rock with a decent eddy behind it where I could stand about waist deep. I immediately lifted her head out of the water and yelled to the people on shore to call 911. Her face was blue and she could hardly speak. I reached down and felt both of her legs floating free. I asked what was stuck, hoping she could respond. The only thing she could say was, “Spray skirt.” I reached around and found the back of her skirt hooked on a small branch pointing back upstream. At this point, I pulled out my knife to cut the skirt but realized I couldn’t hold her head out of the water and cut the skirt at the same time. I looked over to the shore and called for one of the guides to come help.

Had the victim not been conscious or responsive, I was preparing myself to give the woman rescue breaths. It’s imperative as river and rescue professionals that we’re prepared to give air to victims in the river who are unconscious even if we cannot do CPR. Often, the hot oxygenated air from our body to theirs is all it takes to restart their respiratory system and get them breathing again.

Once the guide arrived, she held the woman’s head out of the water while I pulled the skirt off the branch. The woman came free and I turned to face downstream holding her in the eddy my body created. She was exhausted and fell limp in my arms, but was luckily still conscious and breathing. As I was holding her, the guides lowered a raft down through the bushes to us. I waded over to the raft with the woman and lifted her up into the boat. One of the guides in the boat was a doctor and she took over providing care. The ambulance met us downstream at Old Scary. I don’t know how long the woman was entrapped before I saw her, but it took about 30 minutes from when I arrived to get her to the ambulance.

It was incredibly fortunate that the woman had a big enough air pocket with the water flowing over her head, and that we were able to act fast enough to save her. You never know when or if you, a friend or a stranger will depend on another boater to rescue them, which is why people who play in our rivers should not only be comfortable in the water, but know how to handle a basic to intermediate rescue situation. Having the confidence to know how and when to implement tools, like wading versus a throw bag, is also critically important. Using a throw bag to access and free the woman would have been hopeless and ttime-consuming where simply swimming and wading out to her was simple and fast.

Taking a swiftwater class gives you different tools for your toolbox and teaches you how and when to use them. But one of the first lessons you’re taught in a swiftwater course is don’t attempt a rescue if you aren’t confident you can do it. After assessing the victim, her position, the water conditions, and mentally going through the motions of the rescue, I knew without a doubt I could safely access the victim to stabilize her and transport her to shore.

A few weeks later, I heard from a friend and co-worker that the woman had enrolled and taken a swiftwater class with the company I work for. I haven’t spoken to her but she left a note at the local store in Coloma that read, “Thank you so very much for your rescue Saturday! My spray skirt was caught on a branch and I was stuck there quite awhile. It was like a miracle when suddenly a rescuer appeared and was able to free me. Then you guys got me into your boat and took care of me as a team. Thank you so much! You’re my miracle.”

To practice swift water rescue skills, I suggest throwing your throw bag once a day when you’re on the river. Pick a target, and if you miss, keep throwing until you hit it. Find safe places to swim in the river. See how well you can swim in and out of eddies, and get to know your own personal limits. Lastly, get comfortable walking around in the river. Most entrapments happen less than 20 feet from shore and in less than three feet of water. This means most of the time, walking out to the victim is a totally viable and fast option to gain access and help them. We have a responsibility as river people to keep each other safe, so let’s make good decisions, train hard, stay safe, and have fun.

Editor’s note: Rescue photos aren’t from the actual rescue situation described in this story but from one of Carson’s previous swiftwater training courses.