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...