Accident timeline

Let's take a close look at a fairly typical accident timeline. You are participating on a Lower Yough trip in early April. A new paddler wants to join your party and has never run the Yough before. You ask him some questions to see if this is a suitable step-up for him (good precaution). He has run Bloomington and Lower Gunpowder and is comfortable on those runs - cool - he passes the test. You keep a close eye on him in Entrance Rapid and you notice he his having difficulties with eddy turns and ferries, not a good sign. He manages to get down the rapid upright, seems like he knows how to brace well. You rationalize that Entrance is tough (it can be) and he should do better now that he is warmed up. The next rapid is Cucumber and he swims that rapid. You manage to rescue him and his gear. You talk things over with him and discover he has a shaky roll, maybe works half the time. You continue to paddle and his boat control is getting worse and he doesn't seem to be following instructions as well - you are guessing he is having difficulty hearing. At this point, you should be considering he may be exhibiting the early stages of hypothermia. Hypothermia hinders judgment, slows reaction time, and often shows up as inattention to your surroundings. I could go on with this scenario and the outcome will not be pretty. Big accidents are often the accumulation of a number of very small mistakes.

In the above scenario, lets summarize the timeline as if we are producing an accident report.

  • Joey could have worked on his roll this past Winter in a nice warm swimming pool but didn't. Lack of preparation.
  • Joey read a trip posting on a canoe club site and saw an opportunity to run the Lower Yough - AWESOME! He felt he was ready for this next step since he paddled suitable runs like Bloomington and Lower Gunpowder. Unfortunately, he didn't work these fine runs. Mistake in Judgment.
  • Joey packed his gear but since he hasn't paddled this early in the year, he lacked decent cold weather gear like a skull cap, dry suit, etc. He did have a farmer john wetsuit and a cheap splash jacket. This may work on a local run but not in the mountains where temperatures are much colder. Inadequate Equipment.
  • The trip leader evaluated Joey but it can be really hard to assess a new persons skills in a few minutes before a trip. Good precautionary step.
  • The trip Leader failed to evaluate Joey's paddling gear to see if it was adequate. Yes I know we are responsible for ourselves but we also need to take a few precautions for the benefit of our team. Besides, we all forget items from time to time and most of us bring extra gear that we can loan out. Failed to perform equipment check.
  • Joey failed to demonstrate adequate boating skills in Entrance Rapid - a typical rapid difficulty for this run. Trip leader chalked it up to Joey being nervous. A wise precaution would be assigning someone to paddle close to Joey in subsequent rapids.
  • Joey missed his line and swam Cucumber Rapid. The seeds for this swim were steps 1 & 2.
  • Joey's paddling skills degraded and he became unresponsive. Joey is now exhibiting classic signs of hypothermia. Steps 3 & 5 lead to this issue.
  • Possible outcomes to this story are a potential pin, equipment loss, drowning due to lack of strength and motor dexterity, and possible injuries to others in the group performing numerous rescues.
  • Another better alternative is a frank discussion with Joey and having him walk out with assistance.

The choice is yours. River trips can change very rapidly. Try to avoid the little mistakes and constantly evaluate your situation. Early recognition and intervention leads to successful and enjoyable trips.

Prevention and “what if…?” strategy

The above accident scenario shows the value in accident prevention. Some great "what if's" you can take away are:

  • What if I swim? Is my roll up to par?
  • What if someone gets cold? Are we dressed in layers? Do we have extra warm gear we can loan out? Can we easily evacuate?
  • Research the run before driving out to the river. Online sites like AW's River Database and guidebooks are excellent for this research.
  • What if I encounter a rapid that is too difficult for my current skill level? This takes some guts but if you can't break it down into manageable pieces, portage the rapid.
  • What if someone is injured? Did someone bring an adequate first aid kit? Which boat is it in?
  • What if someone needs a rescue? Have you and others in the party taken a SWR class? Does everyone have a throw rope, carabineers, safety whistle, and adequate flotation?

Prior planning for accident management

Be prepared for accidents. Take periodic training in SWR, CPR, and First Aid so you are able to make correct decisions when an incident occurs. Evaluate your gear to ensure it is adequate for your level of boating. Creeking has greater chances for pinning and strainers than park and play boating. When creeking, you probably should have a pin kit, decent hauling line, and collapsible saw. If an accident occurs, think before you leap. This can avoid further injuries to yourself, fellow boaters, and the victim as well. Set safety below and above if appropriate.