Van Beek: Discovering your inner river rat
The snow is melting, the water is rising, and fun is on its way. Whether it’s whitewater rafting, fishing, jet skiing, sailing, or simply admiring it from the shore with a cold brew in hand … river fun is a widely anticipated joy of mountain life.
Like everything else we do, living in the midst of a forest, excitement is paired with danger. Fishing, jet skiing, parasailing, diving, rowing, or simply swimming, when in a moving body of water, can present unanticipated situations.
Cautionary measures would include some common sense approaches; appropriate equipment and safety gear, outdoor skills including water proficiency, etc. Other times, Mother Nature, with humor intact, may offer a fallen tree at a critical bend, blocking the entire river, or a sudden upsurge in water, slamming a boat into a hidden rock, or a sudden lightning storm, or other natural occurrence, adding a new level of excitement to your trip.
Since prevention is better than recovery, here are some safety techniques.
River and lake
- Remember that a river is not a swimming pool; it moves and has unseen elements beneath the surface (underwater obstructions)
- Always enter unknown water, feet first, don’t dive in. Diving requires at least a 9-foot depth
- Lightening can strike a half hour before or after a storm, so remain aware of weather changes
- Water currents can also occur in moderately shallow waters and can be surprisingly strong
- Be aware that beneath a shallow area may lie an unexpected drop in depth (pothole)
- With wildlife in the area, dams are a reality, often located below the surface. They can bring your boat to an abrupt stop, possibly throwing you overboard. If you make it over the dam, the interruption of the water flow may cause a hydraulic (somersault) situation on the other side, which can flip the boat, tossing its passengers.
- If caught in a hydraulic somersault, try not to fight it and dive below the turbulence, to the slower current underneath and swim downstream
- While flowing downstream, remain seated, don’t move around the boat; it can cause instability
- Be careful around bridges, as they tend to accumulate debris which effects water flow, creating underwater hazards.
- If you are wading in a moving river, be on-guard of oncoming boats
- Don’t stand in water that is above your knees because a strong current can knock you down and rocks can trap your feet, making you immobile and potentially stuck underwater.
- Wear shoes onboard that can be easily discarded underwater, so as not to get caught on branches or other debris, which might make escaping nearly impossible
- Don’t wear anything around your neck that can get caught on something and strangle you
- Just as in skiing, swim or boat with a buddy
- Try to select clothing with few things that could get caught on tree limbs or debris
- Learn to swim if you plan on spending time on the water because life jackets may slip off
- Swimming in a river or lake is tougher than in a pool; one can tire more easily, with moving water and under currents can pull you down. Also, river water is not clear like pool water, so finding you is much more difficult.
- As with any outdoor venture, tell someone where you are going, when you anticipate returning, and who to call if they don’t hear from you
- Make sure your river skills match the river’s challenges and conditions of the day
- Always wear a personal flotation device and make sure it is properly fitted and secured because If you take a fall, the water pressure will lift that vest right off your body
- Notice the upcoming water flow. A downstream “V” indicates an unobstructed flow; an upstream “V” indicates submerged rocks
- Current is usually slower along the inside bend of the river and faster along the outer bend
- A constricted channel (narrowing of the river) produces faster currents, so be ready
- A fall in the river, particularly during springtime, can quickly produce hypothermia
- Bring plenty of water because summer temperatures can cause dehydration and heat exhaustion
- Bring a first-aid kit and know how to use it
- If you own a boat, get CPR certified for obvious reasons
- Safety equipment should include, life jackets, an air horn or whistle, flashlight, buoyant rope
- Keep in mind when running the rapids during the spring, with heavy rains, you may run into debris from nearby mountain slopes, inhibiting passage
- Be sober. Alcohol and drugs can affect your body’s ability to withstand temperature differences. In addition, a “buzz” inhibits your ability to think and act quickly, while also impairing your judgment. When an emergency arises, seconds count and even a small delay can make the difference between life and death.
- Bring a waterproof bag for your cell phone, needed in case of emergency
- In addition to water, bring snack bars, and clothing to keep you warm, if stranded. Once the sun sets, temperatures drop quickly.
Have a safe spring and summer season, enjoying the beauty and adventure of our water venues.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.