Monday, December 15, 2008

Fall Paddling

After a busy fall paddling season I have been a bit lackadaisical about updating the blog. Although the southeast has yet to emerge from the miserable drought we've been in for the past two years and counting, there was still some great fall whitewater to be had. With gas prices high and traveling a necessity in order to find running water, we were forced to become more efficient about getting to and from the river, creatively cramming as many people in as few vehicles as possible. The logistics involved in organizing a group of paddlers to join together to achieve a common goal can sometimes be mystifying. Paddlers at times are like chaotic molecules who bounce and collide frantically off of one another until the right conditions allow them to bond together to form some greater compound. When such organization is finally achieved the result can be magic.

Releases on the Gauley river in central West Virgina mark the beginning of the fall whitewater release season in the southeast. As the summer winds down, the heat and humidity of August gradually yield to the cooler crisper skies that frame those magical September river days. The Gauley river is about as dependable a friend as the southern paddler has. I once read somewhere that the average paddler spends so many days on the river unrelenting to societal expectations that he / she is lucky to befriend someone willing enough to travel to the corner store for a bottle of aspirin, much less achieve a lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex. For those to whom this is all too true, there is always the dependability of four days a week on the Gauley. Here are some of my favorite cuts from the season. Photo credits go to Charles King and Will Stubblefield.

We had some great first-time upper G runs this season. Here Cat shows she can hang with the boys...and then some.

The Gauley sees a lot of traffic and a wide variety of watercraft. Here are a few "floating undercuts" drifting through the flat water. There are so many rafts on the Gauley that it is not uncommon to see them swallowing up kayakers whole only to spit them out further down the rapids. There are other dangers on the Gauley as well. Although it is a place of incredible beauty, every season the river seems to claim at least one life. One weekend, while cruising down one of the river's unnamed rapids, we noticed a pair of distressed kayakers on the left hand shore. I gave a quick glance upstream and noticed a kayaker pinned in a slot between two rocks. I was able to make a quick change of direction and eddy out just below the rock that had him pinned. I slowly and carefully got out of my boat and climbed onto the flat rock where I would be able to access the pinned paddler.

I say slowly and carefully because even though the paddler was in need of help, the rock I was crawling out onto was severely undercut posing a manageable yet significant danger. In a rescue scenario you never want to create a second victim in the process of providing assistance. Dave Clarke was able to safely get up on the rock with me and together we got "hands on" with the pinned kayaker. The best rescue is the most simple one. In this case we quickly attached a rope thrown from the shore to the bow of the boat just as a precaution. I grabbed the paddler by the life jacket and lifted him while Dave lifted the bow of the kayak out of the water. Without making his situation worse we were able to pull him from the slot safely onto the rock. Without rescue he would not have been able to keep his head above water for much longer.

With safety on our minds, and the fall paddling season in full swing, we took a weekend off from kayaking to sharpen our rescue skills. Here the crew practices some common knots used in rope rescue.

The two day, ACA Swiftwater Rescue class run by Sundog Learning covered a variety of rescue techniques from simple to complex. We pushed through some of the season's first cold weather, sharpening our skills and having a great time in the process.

Jump in, the water's great.

Left to right Ted Werrre, Me, Conner Graham, Dennis Gillfilin, Dave Clarke, Will Stubblefield

Unfortunately, (insert sarcasm) we had to share our campground on the Nolichucky River with a group of local home brewers. They arrived with dozens of kegs of home crafted beers and were an extremely hospitable crew. In this one the boys seem to have forgotten all about the cold water. Kids in a candy store.

The next stop on the fall whitewater circuit would be the Russell Fork river. Known as the grand canyon of the south, the Russell Fork releases every weekend in October and offers steeper rapids and smaller crowds than the Gauley. The Russell fork spans the Virginia / Kentucky border and is the home of some of the best people on earth. Each year the folks from Elk Horn City hold a paddler appreciation picnic to celebrate the fall river season and those who come to enjoy it. Here you can find people from all walks of life joining together to share food, spirits and tales from the river. After a few sips from the mason jar it really doesn't matter whether your vehicle of choice is a kayak or a four wheeler.

We were blessed with several first-time runs this season including a stellar birthday run. Here Dave Clarke eats up Tower Rapid for the first (and certainly not last) time.

Below: the author race training in "El Horrendo"

Dennis Gillfilin blowin out the candles of his metaphoric birthday cake

Adam Herzog prepares to disappear

Will Stubblefield pulled over for speeding

Dave Clarke looks down stream toward winter in Costa Rica

As the last few days of 2008 fall off the calender I can't help but to feel blessed. Despite an ugly 2 year drought, we were able to get to the river consistently and each time come home safely. While it's hard to pick a favorite day after having so many good one's, our December run of The Linville Gorge stands somewhat above the rest. Paddling The Linville Gorge reminds of why I kayak. There are few places, especially in the southeast where nature remains so indomitable.

Scouting "Babel Tower"

Alex Hymen gets things started

Kayaking the Linville River takes substantial commitment and effort. Never the less, the rewards are great. The day begins by hiking a mile down into the gorge with your boat and gear. Once you arrive at the river your first task is to run Babel Tower a class V rapid named after the trail that leads from the rim of the gorge down to the river. It's a great rapid, but not much of a warm up. From there the river continues to drop, rarely letting up. The rapids in the gorge call for frequent scouting as wood often collects in hard to see places making many drops unrunable. Unrelenting whitewater, combined with crawling in and out of the boat to scout or portage, begins to take it's toll by the end of the day. Many times I can remember feeling ready for the day to end only to have yet another vertical wall gorge to descend before getting to the takeout. The take out, mind you, is not where the day ends.

Once off the river the Linville paddler must hike a mile and a half long trail that climbs over a thousand feet up to the rim of the gorge. When you finally make it up to the car you arrive humbled. As if the beauty of The Linville Gorge alone were not enough, the experience of paddling there always reminds me of just how small I am in comparison to the forces of nature. In the summer of 2008 two paddlers Chris Gragtmans and Adam Herzog paddled The Linville Gorge 3 times in one day, a landmark accomplishment in anyone's eyes. The high water runs totalled up over 15 miles of whitewater and 7+ miles of about humbling.

What a way to finish off the 2008 paddling season! Many thanks to Will Stubblefield for taking these amazing photographs. Thanks also to everyone involved in getting Sundog up and running this year. The upcoming year already looks to be a busy one. I will spend the winter helping instruct EMT's in Watauga county, then I'll return to the Student Wilderness Medicine Conference for the second year, this time as a presenter. After that we'll be off to Colorado for swiftwater rescue training on Clear Creek. Who knows what else is in store. Here's to a happy and healthy new year, hope to see you down stream!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Summer Guiding

Summer is long over and fall is rapidly setting in. We've been busy gearing up for fall classes, but not too busy to reflect on a great summer out west. With near perfect conditions in the Colorado Rockies and a strong desire to take a break from emergency medicine, I headed west for two months of guiding. As the flat land receded and the snow capped mountain peaks began to poke above the dirt of the plains, it was difficult not to mash the accelerator all of the way down to the floor. Though I've made the trip half a dozen times now, I still get that giddy child-like excitement every time I see the rockies through the windshield. I have to give credit to my employer for the uncommon generosity of allowing me to take two whole months off at a time without sending me off to the river with a pink slip in my pocket. Thanks to Craig Sullivan at Watauga Medics Inc. for letting me go, and better yet, letting me come back!

Once in Colorado it's a short drive up to Clear Creek Rafting where I have spent five out of the last eight seasons guiding rafts and running safety support for class III and IV whitewater trips. Clear Creek is a roadside run that parallels I-70 for much of the way. Never the less it still boasts some wonderful scenery, hidden canyons, and some of the best commercial whitewater anywhere. It is not uncommon to find guides that have worked 10-20 seasons exclusively on Clear Creek.

Thankfully, we were blessed with a relatively safe summer even with higher than normal water levels. I did come home however, with a few rescue stories all of which were resolved with pleasant conclusions. Here is a brief account of one of those situations and a few of the lessons learned.

High water on the Arkansas early this summer brought frequent gorge closings as well as big water excitement. I had the opportunity to get some big water safety kayaking in on the Royal Gorge with some of the greatest guides anywhere which brings me to Lesson #1:
The river does not discriminate! Whether you are running a river for your first time or a seasoned veteran, the liquid world is dynamic and sometimes unforgiving. Accidents happen even to the most well trained river runners.

Such was the case on the Arkansas, where high water and unknown forces combined to result in several early season fatalities. This, I know was on all of our minds as we entered the Royal Gorge for a high water run the first day it re-opened after being closed by the park service. What can I say about nerves? Fear, or at least concern should be present on every river trip. Fear keeps us alert and it keeps us open to possibilities. It can, however, be crippling. It can cloud our minds, skew our judgement and ultimately lead to mistakes.

I can honestly say that I took some of that fear with me into the gorge that day. I think the other guides would admit the same. Safety kayaking is a unique responsibility. Should you have difficulty there is little a commercial raft can do to help you in continuous whitewater. It is very much like running solo, and yet you have the added responsibility of being "on call" for whatever chaos may ensue.

This day our trip was to be blessed with clean lines and big smiles. We blasted through the first sets of major rapids without incident tumbling towards "the narrows" a quarter mile long stretch of whitewater where several thousand cfs of water pushes through 1000 ft. vertical towers of rock that constrict the river down to about 25ft in width. It is a powerful place which commands respect and awe.

As we entered the last hundred yards of the narrows I noticed that something was horribly wrong. Off to the right was a partially submerged raft belonging to another company. Behind it clung half a dozen terrified looking people some of which were pinned between the raft and the rock. For a split second I considered attempting to eddy out just the right just above the chaos, then I remembered my priorities. I had rafts of my own behind me to which I was responsible. As a guide you are responsible to yourself first, your guests second, and any one else third. It was difficult for me to pass by the stranded paddlers knowing they were in imminent danger. Never the less, our trip came through smoothly and was able to pull aside just below the site of the accident in order to offer any assistance that may be needed.

The first few minutes were total chaos. We could not see the stranded boat from our vantage point and had no idea how many paddlers were missing. Lesson 2: Communication is key! With any critical incident the way priorities are assessed and managed very much depends on the ability of the people involved to communicate needs and develop a plan. This is particularly challenging on the river where you cannot just hit the pause button. It is difficult to hear making hand signals and improvised communication a must. All the while the river keeps on screaming by, it does not wait for you to get ready.

All would turn out well this day. The stranded paddlers were able to swim to safety or were rescued by throw rope. The guides unpinned the raft and one guest sustained a minor leg injury. Guides from several different worked together to resolve the situation. Lesson 3: we are all one on the river. It doesn't matter what flag you wave or who you voted for last election. when the proverbial poop hits the fan you better be ready to put it all aside and get the job done. The river can divide land leave people stranded on opposite shores, but more so I've seen it bring people together just as it did that day on the gorge.  Well that's all for now. I'll save my last two stories for the campfire. We're off to Gauley Fest for the weekend then back home to put the finishing touches on this fall's swiftwater rescue class.  Be safe...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

High Angle Rescue Training

Skill mastery is an allusive goal. To become highly proficient in any discipline it takes a lot of time, dedication and of course practice. While participating in a rescue class recently my instructor told a story of a conversation that took place between he and his martial arts mentor. In his own words he said "I asked my mentor, how many times must I practice this skill? to which he replied 'at least one more time', this was his answer and it never changed". The concept here is that continual practice is required in order to master a skill. Infact, we many never really "master" any thing at all. We use our skills in situations that are dynamic and unpredictable with both foreseeable and unforeseeable variables combining to form an infinite number of possible outcomes. This is why training is so critical and it is the reason that a group of high country rescue agencies convened this spring for a day of training.

When someone is injured in the backcountry their successful rescue often involves cooperation between different agencies and departments. Efficient communication is critical to achieving a rapid response. Successful rescues are made possible through the culmination of planning, practice and evaluation. This weekends training was organized by the National Park Service and involved participants from Watauga Rescue, Linville Central Rescue, Boone Fire and Watauga Medics.

The scenario which took place at Ship Rock a popular climbing area, simulated a situation in which a climber fell from over 15 feet sustaining multiple injuries. The various participating agencies were "dispatched" to the scene where they were responsible for providing medical treatment as well as evacuation. The accident took place on a flat ledge several feet wide and required lowering the patient in a litter over a 20 foot vertical drop. Successful rescue required the participants to manage patient care while rigging a safe lowering system.

The initial assessment took place as medical rescuers arrived to find a male patient in his late 20's laying on the ground in pain. A rapid assessment was performed identifying injuries to the leg and pain in the arm, neck and back. The medical rescuers immediately immobilized the patients cervical spine and called in a request for additional resources. Command which was stationed 1/4 mile down on the blue ridge parkway, then sent additional personel and supplies. The medical team was able to evaluate the severity of the patient's injuries by trending the patient's vital signs over a period of time. Because the patient was stable. they were able to determine that a helicopter rescue, which can be costly and dangerous, would not be necessary. Meanwhile efforts to establish a safe lowering system were well under way on the ledge adjacent to the patient.

Evacuating the patient from the ledge required the use of a relatively complicated lowering system. With few good trees to anchor to, rescuers were required to place gear in cracks in the rocks in order to set up sturdy anchors. Each anchor had several points of contact with the rock and all were backed up by additional safety points. Redundancy is a key component of developing a safe mechanical system. The lowering system was designed so that if any component of the system were to fail at any point, it's function would be maintained by a parallel component. Once tested and determined to be safe, the patient was loaded into the stokes basket and lowered over the cliff.

The final stage of the excercise was to "debrief" the incident by discussing the various aspects of both the medical and rescue interventions. As a representative of Watauga Medics I had the opportunity to perform the medical evaluation while Robbie Calloway of Linville Rescue served as the rigging evaluator. Overall the training was a success. Treatment was provided rapidly and appropriately and evacuation was safe and effective. Most importantly, we all went home at the end of the day uninjured and hopefully more aware.

As we finished the debrief up on the ledge with Gradfater Mountain in the background, clouds covered the sun and a cool air arrived to greet the spring evening. Although we started the day in short sleeves and I woke up the next morning a little sunburned, the change in weather reminded me just how quickly things can change and just how important it is to be prepared for when things do change. This is a lesson I'm sure I will learn at least one more time.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

First Annual Student Wilderness Medical Conference

The first annual student wilderness medical conference has just wrapped up, and what an event it proved to be. While folks in Boone were captivated by a host of adrenaline fueled outdoor movies offered up at the Banf Film Festival, participants in
Winston were diligently comparing notes on adrenaline fueled accidents
Student organizers Stephanie Lareau and DJ Williams organized the event with the help of the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine and a group of other dedicated sponsors. The conference which was held at Wake Forests School of Medicine was designed to allow participants to network, learn, and exchange ideas about wilderness, pre-hospital emergency care. Student organizer Stepanie Lareau admitted that at first she was sceptical about what sort of draw the conference would have. The fact that she made this confession in the auditorium filled with over 125 participants is testament to the hard work put in by organizers over the last year.

The conference drew students from 14 states throughout the country with participants coming in from as far away as Texas and Florida. Topics covered in the conference included international travel, military medicine, medicine in developing countries, bites and stings, endurance induced illness, traumatic injuries, and more. Most of the topics were held as afternoon electives following a morning of lectures broken up by an excellent lunch in the courtyard.

For those of you interested, you don't have to be a med student to join in on the action, but you do have to wait until the next event. Next years conference is already slated to be held at UNC Chapel Hill and more information can be obtained by contacting the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine at Also, check out the Wilderness Medical Society for updates on other upcoming events.