Kick Back in a Failed Z-drag

Charlie Walbridge using throw bag.

Near Miss in the Watauga Gorge

The Watauga River west of Boone, North Carolina is one of the best technical river runs in the Southeast. I’d been down it a few times before, and except for a rather eventful first run with Jack Wright in the mid-70’s, had always found it enjoyable. The two previous trips had been in the company of local paddlers who knew the river extremely well. This time the gauge was reading -8″. Half our group had been down the river before, but none of us really “knew” it.

We’d been proceeding slowly and carefully, scouting the big drops as they came up. We portaged Hydro and ran everything else. We arrived at a steep boulder drop, the last major rapid above Stateline Falls, that some people call “knuckles”. I sat in an eddy while Ned Hughes scouted, then ran. He reported hitting a rock, so I got out and scouted the drop also. The base of the drop appeared shallow, but not dangerous. As I scouted, two other boaters went over. They tagged the rock lightly, but it didn’t slow them up.

My run was probably farther to the left than the others. When I hit the rock my boat stopped dead. The outfitting gave way, throwing me forward in the boat about four inches. I hesitated momentarily, then tried to push myself back upstream with my paddle. The boat slipped to the right, then settled into the drop against a left-hand boulder. Water shot into my back and flew over my head. This jammed me tightly against the front of the cockpit. I was stuck!

I knew I was in real danger. The cockpit rim was pressing hard against my hips. The deck of my C-1 was so slippery I really couldn’t push myself upstream. The current was powerful enough to knock me over if I didn’t brace myself upright. I was scared, and called for help. Peter Hubbard, who was on shore, threw me a line. This helped me stay upright, but wasn’t going to get me free. I asked him to move behind me, then I carefully tried to slide backwards without success.

Suddenly a tag line appeared above me. Ned Hughes had paddled to the center of the river, and positioned himself on a mid-stream rock. I hung my arms over it, and yelled for the group at river right to work upstream to put more bend in the rope. This improved their ability to hold on and pull. Pete, now joined by Kate Heisler and Cindy Otto, started to pull back hard. The force pushed me against my back deck, then lifted me back a few inches. My thighs came free. It was time to get out! I kicked my legs back, and slid out of the boat. My wife was preparing to run when she heard the screams and investigated. She saw me slip below the surface and thought I was gone, but fortunately this was not so. I swam to shore about thirty yards downstream, badly shaken, but otherwise OK. My boat, a full-sized Hahn Munich C-1, was completely under water and required considerable effort to pull free.

This incident came as quite a shock; afterwards my main feeling was disbelief. Although I have no illusions that my safety work provides any special protection, I consider myself a pretty careful paddler. I’m primarily into the scenery, people, and the experience, and not shy about carrying big drops. A number of people with considerable experience on the Wautauga, including a group of local paddlers who helped recover my pinned C-1, have said that the rock has been there a long time and except for a single prior incident has never caused trouble. I suspect that my long (13′) boat, carrying my 240 pound weight, dives deeper than smaller individuals in modern high-rocker designs. Or I may simply have been too far left. Either way, I simply did not read the water correctly.

It was fortunate that the remainder of my group was equipped and trained for rescue. Several of them had been students in my rescue classes, and performed well under the pressures of the moment. Ned Hughes, by moving into position, played a key role in setting up the tag line. By getting set up immediately, rather than waiting for a “leader” to give him orders, he minimized my time in the water. He held onto his end of the rope with great difficulty, but fortunately long enough. My reading and teaching gave me a good idea of what to expect; I knew what was coming and what to do. I did try to keep my sprayskirt in place as long as possible so that water wouldn’t fill the boat. Although I thought I’d released the sprayskirt before exiting, in the heat of the moment I did not. I actually came out through the waistband.

Normally a stabilization line, rather than a snag line, is used to recover alert, stable victims. The trapped person holds onto the line and uses it for support as he or she works free. But the adrenaline was flowing and the group simply pulled back hard. It was a bit uncomfortable, but it lifted me enough so I could escape. I was glad to be in a C-1; a kayak would have sunk much deeper and a paddler would have needed to work harder to get free. Although I was only pinned for a few minutes, it could have been much worse.

To those who think that they can’t get into trouble, this narrative should serve as a wake-up call. This is a dangerous sport; potential hazards are not always clearly visible and anyone can make a critical mistake. If you think that river rescue courses are somehow “nerdy” or impractical, this incident shows that the things we are teaching now really work and can make a difference. Moreover, there may not be time to improvise during an actual emergency. Experienced paddlers who are mechanically inclined may be able to get the information they need from reading books. It is sobering to think that if this had happened back in the 1970’s, I could be dead. Back then we simply didn’t know what to do.

Yough Coroner’s Inquest Report

On November 28th I attended the coroner’s inquest into the three drownings that occurred on the Lower Youghiogheny at Dimple Rapid this past summer. Dr. Philip Reilly, the Fayette County Coroner, has examined other Yough river deaths with an eye towards improving safety on the river. This past summer he stated that he thought it would be advisable to destroy Dimple Rock.

Most of the day was devoted to gathering testimony from people who were there. This included Ohiopyle State Park rangers (including Park Manager Doug Hoehn), relatives and friends of the victim,, the victim’s trip companions, river guides, and other paddlers who were in the vicinity when the accident occurred. The inquest was also attended by several outfitters, a lawyer from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pa. Fish Commission’s Waterways Patrolman. I was asked by the Coroner to come to testify as an outside expert based on recommendations from Doug Hoehn and NOC personnel.

I got on the stand late in the day, as Dr. Reilly and the jury were examining possible ways to improve safety on the river. I answered questions on the following subjects:

1.      PFD’s: Dr. Reilly and some jurors were concerned that, because victims were pulled under water, that the life vests used by outfitters may have problems. They were also concerned about the PFD’s coming off in some accidents. I explained that strong currents in the river will pull people and even boats under water. We wear life vests because even an expert swimmer can become disoriented by this.  Furthermore, when a person is trapped under water, and they lose air, even a tight fitting PFD can be pulled off by the current. The Type V PFD’s used by the outfitters have considerable excess buoyancy and the components are thoroughly tested. Current outfitter policies that remove PFD’s when they show signs of wear are, in my opinion, sufficient.

2.      River Modification: I explained that opinion in the paddling community on the advisability of filling in the undercut area of Dimple Rock was sharply divided. Some people want the river undisturbed, other think that fixing known danger spots is a good idea. But aside from philosophical concerns, there is a real risk that modification could cause unforeseen problems. I gave examples of past efforts and explained the problems encountered. I told them that any effort needs to be carefully planned by experts in construction to protect the site and insure that we achieve the desired result. No one wants to be lying awake nights wondering if their well-intentioned efforts caused a fatality! I noted that even if a solution is found, water levels will not allow anything to be done until the fall of 2001.

3.      Lifeguards: Dr. Reilly and some jurors were wondering about the advisability of posting lifeguards in rapids. I explained that it would take dozens of guards to get reasonable coverage, and in the case of Dimple Rock, even a lifeguard stationed on the rock itself would be helpless to assist someone trapped underneath it. I told them I felt that our resources would

4.      Education: I explained that I felt that Doug Hoehn’s Safety Focus Group felt that this was the best course. At this point Doug Hoehn presented the safety program, developed by consensus of his Safety Focus Group. This included:

·        Using stronger wording of the risks of river running in the park safety video.

·        Building better place for prospective river runners to watch the video than the current site, where there are many distractions.

·        Creating signs warning of danger at dimple at the put in and at the top of the rapid. These would identify the rapid, describe the danger, and recommending scouting and portaging when in doubt.

·        Creating handouts on the dangers of Dimple, aimed at the rental customer.

·        Improving guide safety training, including whether specialized gear can be pre-positioned at known hazardous sites.

·        Creating a portage trail at the top of Dimple rapid. This land is currently owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and there are endangered species on the site proposed trail.

Shortly thereafter the Coroner’s jury deliberated, and returned with the following recommendations:

1.      That warning signs be placed at Dimple Rapid and elsewhere that specifically indicated that people had been killed there.

2.      Improving education in the manner suggested by the Yough Safety Focus Group.

3.      That the state begin a study as to the feasibility of filling in the undercut area on the upstream side of Dimple Rock.

4.      They commended Park Manager Doug Hoehn and his safety focus group for their efforts in planning improved safety measures for the 2001 season. Clearly his proactive actions were of considerable help here.

I had a brief conversation with the lawyer from DCNR after the proceedings. She indicated that the State of Pennsylvania was wary of modifying the river because of liability concerns. People cannot sue the state for what happens on a natural river, but a rapid, once modified, could expose the state to lawsuits. She assured me that this could not happen without public hearings being held.

I think Dimple Rock will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.  But because of the extent of the recently discovered undercut, river runners need to be wary.

The Dynamics of Pinning

Hitting rocks and boulders of all sizes and shapes is a part of river running. Modern boats can take the punishment, but how should the boater deal with the real risks of pinning and entrapment?

Water flows around rocks, not through them. Beginners learn quickly to continue trying to avoid them even when a collision seems imminent. The current almost always pushes them around the rock at the last minute. This river feature doing the pushing is called a pillow, a mass of water which is formed when the current piles up on the upstream face of an obstruction. This makes hitting many boulders harder than it might seem.

Some pillows are so powerful that you can’t paddle through them even if you try. At Pillow Rock rapid you can watch squirt boaters head directly for the left wall. They back-ender in the huge pillow, and wash around the rock. But on smaller rocks, a broached boat goes right through. As it impacts with the rock, it takes a few seconds for the pillow to transfer from the upstream side of the rock to the upstream side of the boat. When this happens, the full force of the river takes hold. If the force is balanced end-to-end, you’re pinned.

When broached, beginners are taught to lean immediately into a rock. This lets the current pass under the boat, keeping the water from grabbing hold. This position is surprisingly stable, but remember: it’s most important to lean the boat, rather than just your body. If the river washes over a kayak deck or canoe gunwale all the downstream body English in the world won’t prevent a pinning. Once this lean is established, you’re in essence riding on top of the pillow. This pile of water gives you time to work, and helps minimize friction as you work the boat off to one side oe the other with your hands.

Slightly undercut rocks are dangerous because no pillow forms. When a paddler broaches on one they’re almost sure to be caught. This is a much more frequent danger than huge undercuts, which are well-known and relatively rare. If a pillow is not forming on a rock, treat it with extra respect. It may well be undercut.

Being able to get out of your boat quickly can be important. As a C-1 paddler, I can stand up in my boat and jump out in a flash. In 1972 I did just that after picking the wrong route on the Upper Yough’s notorious “Lost and Found” rapid and broaching onto an undercut. In a millisecond I was on top of an undercut rock as my C-1 sank beneath it. Getting out fast is much harder in a kayak, and virtually impossible with smaller, old-style cockpits. Anyone who chooses a kayak without a big “keyhole” cockpit these days is asking for trouble in the event of a pin. If pinned upside down, eject. You can’t roll a boat when it’s stuck, so get out while you can.

Practice getting in and out of your canoe or kayak quickly. Note any outfitting problems, then modify your boat accordingly. Each boat and body combination is different, and presents unique outfitting problems. The extra margin that this fine-tuning provides can make a difference in a tight spot, and will contribute to your overall confidence as a boater.

Crashing, bashing, and scraping rocks is not the same as being pinned. While frightening to experience when upside down, as long as your boat is moving you aren’t pinned yet. The same thing is true when “surfing” a pillow.  But once a boat sticks to the rock firmly, you only have only a few seconds to escape before the river takes hold. If you’re right-side-up, watch the scenario unfold, and be ready to bail out. Upside down, you’ll have to rely on how it feels. Wait for the hard impact that stops your movement; then eject. You’ll never roll under these conditions. Don’t wait too long to exit your craft.

Pinned boats get caught because the river’s force is balanced at both ends. The way to work them loose is to look carefully at the pin, then decide how to reduce the force on one end or the other. Often just raising one side a bit is enough to unbalance the pin, allowing the force of the water at the opposite end of the boat to pivot your craft free. Mechanical systems and attempts to unpin boats by pulling one end back upstream are very time consuming, and should only be used as a last resort.

End to end pins can be particularly frustrating. Here both ends of the boat have snagged on closely-placed obstructions. In mild current you may be able to bounce your boat and wiggle free. Certainly you’ll be able to hop out easily. If the water is powerful, get out at once, before the current grabs hold. There’s simply no easy way to work free except lifting one end or the other up over one of the obstructions, or pulling or pushing the boat until it slides forward or backwards enough to swing past one of the rocks that snagged it.

When a decked boat pins bow-first, the paddler is stopped right in the middle of the current. The pillow builds up on the paddler almost instantly, putting pressure on the boater and shortening escape time. The pillow also forms the air pocket which may help people breathe in some of the more extreme examples. Rescue is a pretty grueling affair, and I recommend the use of high-volume boats and good judgment to avoid trouble.

All of these things take experience to recognize. Using these ideas, be alert to your own observations as you paddle. Never stop thinking. Remember: you can either have five years experience or one year’s experience repeated five times.