It would seem like the answer to this question is quite obvious, but apparently there are a lot of people who fail to understand the gravity of what it means to wear them or not. As prima facie evidence for such, two recent drownings on the Salmon River near Riggins, on separate days (June 8 and June 10) bare this point out. In both cases, neither victim was wearing a life jacket. The flows and water temps for those respective dates were – June 8 – 9am: 43400 noon: 43100 4pm: 42500 (11.5c=53f) and June 10– 9am: 41200 noon: 41100 4pm: 40400 (12.3c=54f).
While I suspect alcohol may have contributed to the poor decision not to wear a life jacket, I don’t know that for sure. In either case, it was a costly decision for each person involved. When this kind of news gets out, it sometimes scares people away from the river or running it when flows are high. In reality, it high lights the fact that wearing life jackets is a crucial decision, that too many people ignore.
I don’t know all the details to each accident, but heard that the first one occurred at Black Rock rapid, when one person fell into the water without a jacket on and lost contact with the raft. But, what I do know for sure is that the hydraulics on the wall at the foot of the rapid are tremendously turbulent and powerful. It reminds me of a huge coffee pot with boils and giant whirlpools, and even in a lifejacket would be a nervy swim. But, without one, a fatal consequence.
The day before, I was in my dory boat and a violent eddy line grabbed my boat and pulled us into a whirlpool. The stern was sucked down with-in two inches of the gunnels (hand-rails) on both sides (on a boat with 28inch sides at the stern end) before spitting us out back into the main current. Often the chaos water is as challenging as the big waves and dynamics of the rapids themselves. All parts of the river become plenty of good reason for keeping alert and paying attention.
The second drowning I know a little more about, due to the fact, that my party was the one who rescued the body and performed CPR, but too late to bring the person back to life. The other person is still missing from the first drowning, but at least this second incident will offer some sense (sad as is it is) of closure to the family in at least not knowing where their loved one ended up. Closure is a relative term, as no one ever really gets over losing someone dear to them.
This person did not have a life jacket on, nor did any in their party of four guys, whom all tipped over in Lake Creek Rapid (at least is what the paper said) as opposed to Ruby Rapids which normally flips more boats, and apparently they luckily made it through right side up. Correction (just learned it was indeed Ruby Rapid where they tipped, and that now makes more sense). Three in the party were able to keep a hold of the raft, while the one who drowned didn’t. Also, when he was found by the gal running a safety cat for my group and dragged to shore by a jetboat she flagged down for help in the process, he was in his underwear, tee shirt and tennis shoes only. The river hydraulics had pulled his pants off his body. With no wetsuit, his body was turning blue in places from the cold water and is precisely why we always where wetsuits in high water, even if it is over 90 degrees in air temps.
It is also why we cinch life jackets on all our guests good and snug, sometimes to a little dis-pleasure to some, thinking they are too tight. But, better that than getting sucked off your body, which can happen if not secured properly. High water trips are not for the timid, but plenty reasonable for those who like adrenalin and are properly equipped and prepared. So as intimidating as it is to hear about, or actually see the aftermath of what poor decisions leave in their wake, it is no reason to not go boating. Nature plays by harsh rules, but by paying attention to those rules with proper respect, your chances of having a safe, fun trip, are far higher when engaged in any adventure that comes with some degree of risk.
Another aspect to how people sometimes find themselves in trouble with the river is due to perception. Often, as an observer on the land watching the many guides and experienced river people running the river and making it look easy, can be quite misleading to them. More than once I have salvaged a sunken drift boat that did not have enough floatation in them, or inexperienced oarsman to negotiate simple water that experienced people have little problem with. Or helped rescue people who jumped on the river in their own gear but over their head in expertise and found themselves without a boat and in a precarious situation.
This is part of the reason I offer driftboat lessons for those whom have their own boat and want to improve their skill level, or wish to get a boat and learn how to read water and maneuver their boat through troubled current. Using a mentoring service is a good way to improve on one’s learning curve. It takes a lot of time to learn about the nuances of fluid hydrology and how to apply small tricks that make the big differenced in keeping a boat right side up and good stories as a conclusion to your trip.
As a commercial outfitter, we often get people who tell us they were thinking of doing a river trip, but in seeing the rapids from the highway, they thought they were too small and would not be much fun. When we convince these folks not to be deceived by the sense of scale (big rivers and canyons have a tendency to dwarf reality) and that they will enjoy it, (and if we actually get them on the water), they will invariably ask: “is this the same river we saw from the highway?” We have to bite our tongues and not make them feel like this is a stupid question, but common sense isn’t that common.
While we in the outfitting community would like to avoid bad publicity in the media and say it is perfectly safe to run the river when it is high, or at any other time, that would be a farcical claim. In nature, nothing is free or without risk. To us ecologist types who appreciate the reality of evolution, we call the consequences of choice and behavior in the wilds, “natural selection.” That is how the real world works.
The moral of the story: there is no such thing as a risk free river trip, anymore than you can walk across the street without getting run over by a car 100% of the time. Bottomline: pay attention. It increases your odds. But, don’t stay home. Two old saying I I always liked are: “those who do not do things because of their fear of dying, never really live,” and “man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Wapiti River Guides
208:628-3523 (if calling us by cell)