Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rescue Me

Yet another post from the Verde River, one that even includes some of the same cast of characters. Just before I left the Mid-Atlantic, I took advantage of the strong whitewater paddling community thereabouts to earn my certification from the American Canoe Association as a Swiftwater Rescue Instructor. Not a whole lot of things one can teach have the potential for direct, cosmic payback quite like first aid or rescue skills -- if I'm lucky, someone I've taught will be close at hand the next time I stumble once again into the gap that yawns wide between questionable judgment and mediocre skills. And if it comes to that, I sure hope I was a good teacher.

Scheduling a two day class around here turned out to be a bit trickier than I'd expected. While we can get glorious warm weather here any month of the year, it'd be nice to have a little bit firmer guarantee of that than January or February tends to offer. A substantial portion of both days is spent in the water -- being rescued, learning to swim in moving water, or even pretending to be a luckless/clueless/drunk boater pinned under a stuck boat -- and I wanted the class' discussions of hypothermia to stay theoretical. But as the warmer weather moves in, the flow in the Verde shrinks inexorably with each passing day, and at some point the swiftwater part of the equation just sorta peters out.

The end of March was on the low end for springtime river flow -- about 160 cubic feet per second, WAY down from the 3,000 plus a few weeks before -- but that was the weekend that all the troops could rally, so we'd do what we could with what we had at hand.

It turned out to be a great weekend -- a small but talented crew that included four full-time or seasonal pro river guides and more than enough enthusiasm to go around. We threw rescue ropes to our chums washing past, used some extraction Aikido moves to pull out boats pinned under tons of moving water, and unlearned collective decades of wisdom about what to do when the river sweeps you into a midwater tree. See, every Boy Scout who's ever plopped his khaki-clad butt into a canoe knows that you swim feet-first & belly up in whitewater, bobbing along with your toes pointed downstream and your hands sculling you toward safety. Mostly, that's good advice. But when our soggy tenderfoot encounters a submerged log strainer or boulder sieve, that approach can prove fatal. That's me above, demonstrating the wrong way to do it on a nice, benign piece of PVC pipe just before getting flushed forcibly underneath, down where tree branches and other nasty, grabby things can lurk in real life. Instead, we practiced flipping onto our bellies and swimming aggressively, ATTACKING the "log" and getting up and over it, no matter what.

As a teacher, it's rewarding to see your students incorporating new knowledge into their approaches to complex and sometimes dangerous situations. It also is humbling when you realize that something you've taught is sending them off on a bad, even life-threatening tangent. That's how it played out in one of the surprise rescue scenarios they encountered -- that would be me, bobbing face-down in slow current when they rounded the corner. My ears were above water and could hear these experienced, river-saavy paddlers make a methodical exit from their carefully-beached boats and then proceed to circle around me for a discussion the finer points of the incident command system and spinal stabilization. All the while, their "victim" lay face-down in front of them and unable to breathe, his life ebbing fast away. I'm glad they learned something about urgency from that botched exercise; I know their teacher certainly did.


  1. I never heard how that swiftwater class went - so glad to hear you were able to hold it and that some people actually showed up :-) You did a good thing, I wish I could have been there with you. I have taken a swiftwater rescue class twice, BOTH times ended up missing the second day (the actual in-situ practice day) because I was sick. VERY frustrating. I'll try again...

  2. Great to meet you this weekend, and I look forward to following your blog. A truly interesting class to be sure. What stretch of the Verde were you guys on for this class?