Going with the Flow – River Safety Part 2
Last month I discussed the over-arching danger of our little stretch of the Catawba which is large volumes of water. Surprisingly, you can’t drown on land so that wet stuff is the biggest danger to you while paddling; and while always wearing a life jacket is the best prevention there are still situations where a life jacket won’t help you at all. Besides the physical dangers, there are also mental and, while it may be an exaggeration of the word, cultural pitfalls that can put you in a situation where things can turn south quickly.
With all of the rain that has fallen, and the amount that the river has risen, fallen, and then risen again my biggest concern for paddlers going into the spring and summer months are what is known as “strainers”. Strainers is a generic term meaning trees, branches, or other debris that is partially submerged in the river, with the water flowing through it. Between log jams on the tips of islands being blown out and scattering downstream and eroded banks causing trees to fall into the water, we have the potential to have an enormous amount of strainers in the river this year. What makes strainers so dangerous, just like icebergs, isn’t the part that you see sticking above the waterline but instead what hangs below. There are many cases where a person swept out of their kayak got pushed into the limbs and branches that hung beneath the water, got snagged, and never came up again. If you ever find yourself out of a boat, and being pushed directly into tree branches hanging in the water, the rule is to always go over, not under. Better to get tangled in branches where you can breathe.
Another concern on rivers are undercut rocks; rocks where the current over time has eroded the section of rock under the water almost like a cave. While not an issue on the this section of the Catawba due to a geologic anomaly, if you ever find yourself on a larger mountain river with rounded over, smooth polished rocks you’ll probably find a few undercuts. Much like trees, the danger is the current pushing you into that hollowed out section of rock and the force of the current pinning you there so you can’t move. So, first rule: Do your best to not come out of your boat, and second rule, don’t swim towards things that can push and hold you underwater.
By this point in an article and a half, I’ve discussed what I consider to be basic tenants of river safety: don’t paddle alone, always wear a life jacket, try to stay in your boat, don’t go under strainers and rocks, don’t put on the water at flood levels, etc. What concerns me the most about our section of Catawba is the increasing popularity of tubing; and please don’t think that’s me being a snob about kayaking being superior to tubing. Au contraire, I have fond memories of tubing on the Lower Green in Saluda NC, watching the 3 Bs: bikinis, beer guts, and bad tattoos, sometimes all on the same person. The common war cry of “SAVE THE BEER” heard on every one of its class 1 riffles made me laugh, and feats of engineering to secure coolers to inner tubes rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa in their gravity defying awe.
The Lower Green though, has several major differences from the Catawba. Its widest point is maybe 100’ wide. Most of the Catawba through this section is nearly 600’ wide, with much more water especially at high volumes. And while I find the general carelessness towards safety scary on the Lower Green, on the Catawba, especially with children, I find it downright negligent. Life jackets are seen as a mark of cowardice or inability to swim, and when the water is never deeper than 2-3’ on the Lower Green, the risk of drowning is at least low. But, it’s common for me to see people tubing on the Catawba when the river is running at 6000 CFS or more, and none of them, including the children, are wearing life jackets. I can tell you from experience there are plenty of places that are well over my 6’4” in that river at that flow. Another thing to consider as well, is that at high flows, in a tube you are at the mercy of the current: if you miss the take out, congratulations, you just signed up for either bushwhacking through the woods to find a road, or for a much longer trip down to the next take out. Anecdotally, the total number of rescues has risen dramatically over the last few years, mostly to grab tubers who have floated past the takeout.
All of this advice and talk isn’t fear mongering or hate towards people enjoying the river; as little as I like crowded outdoor experiences which is what the Catawba is becoming, I am glad that people are out enjoying the outdoors. Just take some precautions for safety, don’t be afraid of being called a dork for wearing a life jacket, and have the good enough sense that if the river is too high to just stay home.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.