Why Are They Called Life Jackets?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dodge - Ruby

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.

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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.”

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Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
http://www.doryfun.com
208:628-3523  (if calling us by cell)
or

800-488-9872

 

 

 

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What Does The Devils Slide Have in Common With Colt 45?

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Nothing. Water and alcohol do not mix, especially when that water is funneling through the second deepest gorge in America where solid cliffs on one side and a rock slide on the other pinch the longest free flowing river within one state down to a narrow chute maybe 50 yds wide. You could shout at someone on the other side of the river and hear them quite easily, that is,  if it were not for the thunderous roar of the monster rapid created by this splendid geomorphology called The Devils Slide.

The Devils Slide is  only a nemesis of a rapid in high water on the Lower Salmon River, but disappears entirely in low flows. (less than 4,000   cfs) While some may need the liquid courage of one can after another of Colt 45 beer to muster up enough steam to run the fearsome rapid when it becomes fearsome, it in no way helps keep a raft right side up.  Such was the case in 1978 when I was working for Grand Canyon Dories and we had a commercial trip in high water and found ourselves where we didn’t want to be.  We had  one guest-guide (let’s call him Factor A) the company had hired to run a baggage raft for a three dory boat trip, who thought us dory people were elitist snobs and worried too much about getting our little wooden boats through a rapid he thought looked like just some big fun and no big deal.

He took one quick look at the same rapid we spent considerable time scouting in earnest, went back to his raft and began pounding down Colt 45’s as he waited impatiently for us dainty dory guides to figure out how to get through the whitewater chaos that churned our stomachs and wracked our nerves.

The 13 day trip started from Corn Creek, and was led by Clarence Reese in his dory boat, along with Barry Dow and myself in our dory boats. Normally one of the company guides would row a baggage raft, too, but this time we had to hire an unknown guest guide whom none of us had worked with before.  He was a nice enough guy, but had more of a caviler cowboy attitude at the time, that didn’t quite jive with the finesse fanatics that clean run attitudes in wooden boats require. Like alcholol, water and wood clash, and rowing boats is much preferred over fixing them.

Because of high water, which was hovering around 30000cfs-ish when we started off, we were worried about the Slide if the river came up much. The back-up plan was that the company was going to pull us off the river at Eagle Creek, which is the last place possible that has a bad access road into this remote area, if the flows came up too much. Before our trip a scouting mission of guides only ran some dory boats through the Slide at about 34,000 cfs and barely made it right side up. So, they assured us that if the river went higher than that they would come to our rescue.  But if is was above 30,000 cfs they would send a jetboat for an extra margin of safety for our runs with commercial guests.

Well, we had been keeping track of water levels vehemently, and knew it did nothing but rise. We guessed it was too high for us to run the Slide, so had a great time the night before, knowing we would be pulled out the next day…or s we thought. But, the next morning when we began floating down to our take out, there were no rigs. We waited around, in case they were late, but soon discovered they were not coming and we were committed to a different date with destiny.

All us dory guides were direly worried, but tried not to let it show, as we drifted on downriver. The sky was blue with not a cloud in sight. But as we stopped for lunch at the head of Blue Canyon on a big sand beach, we could see clouds starting to drift in from the west.  None of us guides could eat, as we were so nervous as to our rendezvous with a frenzied rapid, and as we got back into the boats and began drifting  closer dark clouds began creeping in from the west. The current was fast and as we pulled into the small eddy to scout, thunder and lightning clashed adding a bad omen as prelude to what was about to happen.

When we got up on the pile of boulders to see what was in store for us, it soon became apparent this was a serious situation.  It was the first time I had ever looked at a rapid and tried to figure out where the place was to be with an upside down boat. On the far side of the river (east bank) about a third of the river is a back eddy that itself looked like a river doubling back on itself. It contained two giant rolling ocean-like waves that we dubbed “The Things,” that surged upstream into the vortex of the middle where all the “mayhem” converged. Giant diagonals were rolling from each side of the river into a center collision that exploded sporadically high into the air.  Nightmare material.

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On the left side, there were two diagonals, one above the other. The upper one looked small, compared to the lower one, but was big enough itself to stand a dory high on its bow.  The larger one had a soft spot between the largest part of its curl and the vicious vortex in the middle. It looked do-able, but the consequence for error looked awe-fully troubling. Below it was a depressed eddy full of wild swirls, huge boils and bottomless whirlpools. They blended together like a giant mix-master that would be a “Forever Eddy” for any body or boat that got trapped in it. So my plan was to be in the very middle where we would get shot through between all the more dangerous looking stuff on both sides.

The other bad thing that happened was that there was no jetboat back-up. We had people, some women and children who did not want to run the rapid, nor did we want them to.  But we also did not want to run empty boats through.  So Clarence told the group that if there was anyone foolish enough to run this rapid with us, meet on “Fools Rock”, to scout and plan our runs. All this, while Chip pounded 45’s.

I still remember the dead salmon in a tiny pool on top of Fools Rock, where they got trapped when the water dropped.  Even at that, we were still maybe 10 yards higher than river level, so it was hard to imagine what the river looked like when the salmon were getting bashed. But, we were glad that there were enough volunteers to put two passengers in each of our boats for much-needed weight and high-siding. Also, the promised jetboat finally arrived, with company guides whom actually helped all the guests not wanting  to ride, do the class V climb-around over a treacherous maze of boulders, almost as bad as the rapid itself. In fact, a few minor wounds  that resulted when the smoke all eventually cleared happened there.

With jetboat in place, and butterflies in formation, we began the task of getting our flotilla through the troubled water. Barry Dow led off, with Factor A  following in the raft. Barry’s plan was to plow through the soft spot on river left. He had a good entry through the first diagonal and nailed the soft spot. But the soft spot wasn’t that soft. As his bow went skyward, he went stern ward with an oar in each hand as he left the seat and landed backwards all sprawled out. But the boat made it over  the top, then slammed down the back side, caught an ugly eddy boil and did a 360 degree spin faster than the blink of an eye (or so it seemed). The bow of his wooden boat missed the solid cliff-side rock by less than a foot, (which would have turned it into mere match-sticks) but he was able to crawl back into the seat and gain enough control to not get sucked back up river into the land of the “Forever Eddy.” Then made it to the first place downstream he could get his boat in to wait for the rest of us.

Factor A  followed Barry, but when he came around the blind corner of our eddy stop and could see the rapid from river level at full strength perspective, he froze like a deer in the headlights. He did manage to square up for the same not-so-soft spot that knocked Barry off kilter, but his raft flipped as fast as Barry’s boat did the 360. Fortunately, he too did not get trapped by Forever Eddy, and the jetboat was there to pick up the pieces.

My turn was next. Clarence would wait, watch my run from Fools Rock and then run sweep. While we normally run two boats at a time, for safety, this time was different. Having only one jetboat to collect us up, meant it would be wiser to run one boat at a time, so we didn’t have people scattered all over the river to make carnage even worse.

Watching other boats run bad stuff first can be good and bad. Good to see where to make corrections, but with better options lacking, it is more like lining up behind the lemmings about to make their last plunge.  Even though Barry made it through right side up, it was all so Russian-roulette and iffy looking , that I opted for the middle route. But,  when I round the corner to see the spectacle at real scale, that soft spot looked good.  I thought about taking that line, and in 20-20 hind-sight, that hesitation on my pre-determined line may have been my crucial mistake.

My original plan was to hit the vortex precisely where both left and right mega-waves slammed into each other, both capable of flipping a dory like a pancake on their own, so that each would hit me at the same time, thus off-setting each other. But, in my moment of hesitation, I was about 3 feet off of where I wanted to be, so my theory didn’t get tested properly. Instead, it was if some one on shore had a plunger connected to dynamite in the vortex and set it off when we arrived. At least that is what it felt like as the right wave exploded and we all went flying through the air as the dory tipped violently upside down.

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Luckily one guest had never lost contact with the boat and I felt his leg on my way down to grabbed it to crawl up alongside him, where we both then climbed on to the bottom of the boat, grabbed the other swimmer who made it back to the boat, then threw my stern line to the jetboat that held us in the current, so we could tip the dory right side up and recoup  before entering the next big rapid immediately downstream. Once we were ok, the jetboat went back to wait for Clarence.

He too went for the middle, but had the same result as me, though I don’t remember all the details of his run, because I was in similar shock mode, as was Barry, who I saw sitting on shore shaking his head when I floated on by him to find my own debriefing eddy.  We waited for the jetboat to help pick up all the aftermath of Clarence’s run, then met somewhere downriver in calmer water to reconnect with the walk-around folks and head on down to Cottonwood on Snake River for our last nights  camp and cathartic carnage stories.

As guides, fully responsible for the welfare of commercial guests, we were furious with the management end to having  sent us on this folly expedition when the river rose to such ugliness. They didn’t think a mere thousand or two cfs higher than the exploratory run at 34,000 cfs would be a big deal, at such high flows. But, they were wrong. It is. But that was a long time ago, and is how evolution works trying to figure out when to run or not run a river in question.  Educated guesses work sometimes. Sometimes they don’t.  Other than tippage, fortune rode with us that fateful day on the big water.

The date was July 2, 1978 and The Slide was at 35,200 cubic feet per second. (which is tons of Venturi Effect – or Nozzle Effect).  Since that time, I have run The Slide many more times and have other carnage stories to tell, as do many other people on various other trips that all add up to give this rapid legendary status in the river world. This would include one time when the Slide surfed my dory in the vortex. Notice, I didn’t say I surfed the Slide, because that usually means that was my original plan A intention.

An interesting side note about the Slide is that because it is located in a remote canyon it isn’t something that is run everyday. So, unlike day trips on more accessible stretches of the Salmon River, where all the nuances of various flows are possible to learn by those who spend a lot of time with back to back runs, the Slide isn’t seen as much. Some rapids are worse in higher flows, some lower. Yet sometimes, in-between flows can present weirdness that higher or lower flows miss-out on.

Many outfitters, with different kinds of craft, or private enthusiasts  who like hair-boating, have different cut-off levels that determine when they don’t run the Slide. My personal level, as an outfitter is now 25000cfs.  But there are those who have higher level cut-offs, and when the sun goes down, and if the rapid could speak, it would have much to tell.

But whatever the story, the moral they have in common is: from dory boats to 33 foot pontoons, to triple-rigs, highly beware if you ever have a date with the Devil.

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 PS – The only craft I would ever run The Devils Slide in at flows above 65,000 cfs is an aerial one.

See youtube video of the Devils Slide at 80,000 cfs from the perspective of a Hughs 500 helicopter:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ2mI8L4mqU%5B/embed%5D

For a good time:

Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
http://www.doryfun.com