Sunday, June 19, 2005

Real Swift

I was standing in the shallow water watching the rapids roll by in a never-ending force, flowing over and around rocks, branches and other obstacles. Ahead of me in the middle of the river was the bridge pylon where just last week a canoe was pinned against the cement pylon, trapping its occupants as it folded under the water pressure and stuck to the front of the pylon.

I jumped into the raging water and began swimming for all I was worth trying to make it to that pylon.

The target was not the front of the pylon where the water surged against it in a seemingly angry show of force, but I were aiming for the eddy just behind the pylon where an outcropping of rocks was located.

Swimming in the strong current, I pointed my feet downstream and attempted to steer my way through the rapids so that I would come close to the pylon but not so close that I actually hit it or landed in front. That would be a bad thing.

This was the first day in the rapids during a Swift Water Rescue training class.

As I got closer I could see the first few team members that had already made this journey waving me over attempting to tell me to move a little further away from the pylon. Too late, the current had me and it was all I could do to just keep in the proper position as I shot past them and soon learned why they were concerned.

It seems that near where we had planned to hook into the eddy were a few rocks just under the surface and so my butt smacked into them with the full force of my traveling momentum. Luckily today I decided to wear my 7.5mm full wetsuit instead of my 1mm “shorty”. Not only was I warmer, but the extra neoprene padding helped deflect the rocks.

Just past the “speed bumps” I rolled left, swam like heck, and managed to get into the eddy behind the pylon where the rest of the team was waiting. My buddy was right behind me and executed the same bounce and hook maneuver that I did. One of our teammates wasn’t so lucky and missed the eddy altogether sending him on down the river causing him to make his way to shore alone.

I’ve been on the water rescue team for over a year, but up until now my position on the team was as a diver more then a surface person. The Swift Water Rescue class is taught annually, and last year I was unable to attend. This year I made sure I could get to the class, Father’s Day or not.

It was a great day for the class, over 80 degrees, sunny, with occasionally cloud cruising by. In the morning we worked on handling ropes, practicing tying various knots and putting together a variety of rescue systems based on ropes and pulleys. The details would probably bore you, but when you’re there actually working on creating the systems and learning how they all work it was a blast!

Back at the eddy, the team planned its escape and each two-man team jumped into the waves of the rapids and headed down river. Eventually it was my turn and once again I leaped into the rapids on purpose with nothing but my wetsuit, life vest and helmet. This time we were on the backside of the worst of the rapids, but still moving quickly down river.

Immediately after jumping from the eddy we were in a wave-train, which is basically a succession of multiple waves one after the other. Back into the proper position, feet pointed down river and watching for things to avoid, the first wave hit square in my face.

In the ocean I am used to waves having a bit of time before the next one hits, and so I figure right after the wave hit I had a chance for a breath before the next one. Wrong. Just as I was taking a breath wave number two hit me and I inhaled a fair amount of lovely river water.

Coughing rather forcefully I rolled onto my stomach and began the hard swim to the shoreline where we were to all meet up. The swim went okay, but it felt like I had to hack up a lung by the time I made it into the smoother water at the shore.

Once we were all gathered once more, we floated down river to the next set of rapids. This one was interesting, and we started this approach by heading to the center of the river once more and crashing into the head of a small island of weeds.

We stopped for a breather and assessed our next course which was going to shoot us through a swiftly moving section on the right side of the river. Near the bank was a succession of more wave-trains a little more severe then the previous ones.

The goal for this next section was to stick to the left, avoiding the wave-train, and once again roll into an eddy, this time at the backside of the island of weeds.

I watched as one-by-one the teams left our little patch of weeds and struck out into the current. By the time my buddy and I went, everyone had made it to the proper location and we were all waiting for the last two guys to come down.

The first guy on the last team veered right and went into the wave-train. This shot him past us rather quickly and he did a great job rolling left and getting into the eddy, but it was down river from us by about 20 feet and he just could not swim hard enough against the current to make it to us.

We formed a human chain to reach him, but that got us to within about 6 feet. His buddy was coming down, and we were hoping he would get there soon so he could get to the end of the chain, which may have given us the extra stretch we needed. By the time his buddy arrived the guy was out of steam and headed down river to rescue himself on the shoreline.

The day proceeded along these same basic skills of floating through the rapids, reading the river, and rescuing ourselves and our teammates. Luckily for me I did not try to breath river water any more.

It seems I can be taught to keep my big mouth shut after all!


  1. Thanks for your efforts at keeping those of us that live in this area safe! It is appreciated.

  2. Our pleasure, because those of us on the team truly enjoy doing this sort of thing.

    It's sad to see the number of people floating the river without life vests on. When you start mixing drinking into things as well, that seems to be when our pagers go off.

    Float safe, and enjoy the multitudes of water around the Spokane area.

    After taking the rapids in the proper equipment as a strong swimmer, I can assure you it's no place to be without at a minimum having a good life vest on.