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Impervious to Harm

This morning, as I was pouring my first cup of coffee, the bubbles and sound of the liquid flowing into my cup reminded me of an incident a few years back that involved a much greater volume of water dropping into the Yakima River near Ellensburg, Washington.  This portion of the Yakima is mostly Class 1 and 2 and attracts many Puget Sound river rafters who rent their inflatables in the tiny hamlet of Thorpe and then ferry up to Cle Elum twelve miles or so up the river and float back down to where their their cars are parked alongside the road.

No Place to be Playing Once This Starts to Melt!

It’s not a difficult float  but there is one well-marked hazard on the trip where an irrigation canal dumps its water into a fairly narrow section of the river from a height of about twenty feet. The canal doesn’t have water all the time so there are two large billboards about 1/2-mile upstream that can be opened to advise all boaters to exit their boats river-left due to extreme danger ahead. The roar of the water dropping into the river underscores the capital letters: DANGER AHEAD!

You would think that anyone in a raft who is unfamiliar with these waters would eddy out and walk down the bank to take a look. You would be wrong.

On one sunny day my wife and kids and I were kayaking the Yakima and, as usual, exited river-left and walked down the bank to check the situation. You can usually pass the drop by hanging close to the left bank but since the water in the canal can change it’s our habit to check. Our river-running mantra is, “If in doubt… get out… and scout!” When we got to the bank opposite the canal drop we noticed an eddy across the river full of PFDs and other items. There were several other people standing there so we asked what all that was from. They told us that a raft full of  people got sucked under the water drop. The first thing that happened was that all the PFDs not on the rafters were washed out of the boat and ended up in the eddy. Then the people in the raft were dumped into about 3 feet of froth and trapped there while the force of the water falling onto them stripped their clothes off them and the water rushing in kept them under the falls.

Eventually bystanders managed to get throw ropes to the trapped rafters and pulled them to the river bank where a medical helicopter evacuated them to nearby hospitals. One died. When they were asked why they were under the falls a survivor told them that they wanted to play in the white water.

While we were standing there we watched raft after raft pass by hugging the left river bank; but none of the rafters had joined us on the bank as the sign clearly advised. I asked several as they went by only feet away from me if they had been down this river before and none of them had. We heard another group in a raft discuss the option of “playing” in the white water under the falls.

Later that summer we were camped along the Deschutes River in Oregon on another kayak trip. At lunch I watched raft after raft – all rentals – plunge through the Class 3 rapids in front of our tent with rafters yelling and whooping it up; none of whom were wearing their PFDs. Several were standing in the bow holding the raft’s painter in one hand and a can of beer in the other.

One winter night my wife and I stopped at the Traveler’s Rest at the summit of Snoqualmie Pass east of Seattle for a break. It was 2am and the temperature was in the teens with several feet of snow and ice on the ground. A pickup pulled up next to my car and a guy got out dressed in pyjamas and slippers. He ran to the door of the rest stop and disappeared inside. A minute later a young girl about 12 got out in her pyjamas and slippers and disappeared inside the building. A few minutes later the man reappeared and tried to get back into his pickup truck. But his daughter had prudently locked the doors when she exited. So stood there, in his slippers and pyjamas, in the middle of winter, high in the mountains, in freezing temperatures; locked out of his running pickup truck. A few minutes later his daughter joined him.

We had to break a window on his truck to get them back into the cab and on their way. I never did as them why they were dressed so lightly. It never occured to me. Over the years we had watched many other city dwellers drive through the mountains in winter dressed in tee shirts, shorts and sandals. After all, they had heaters in their cars. What’s the problem?

During a kayak seminar near Tacoma a group of paddlers watched a young man and woman in a rental canoe caught in the 5-knot current heading for the Narrows and unable to get their boat to shore.  The woman was clearly frightened while her companion paddled ineffectually. A couple of kayakers launched and went out and rescued them. The guy was mad. He didn’t need rescue. He could have handled it just fine. There were dressed in tee shirts and shorts because it was a warm day. The water temperature was 45-degrees F.

What’s going on here?

Many of us seem to have lost the ability to recognize danger. By spending most of their lives in a safety bubble of rescue and medical services they have begun to look at the world in terms of adventure parks where you can’t really get in trouble; and if you do have a problem there will be a tour guide or rescue team right there to save you. I have called this the “theme park syndrome”.

Television is not helping either. Neither does alcohol intake.

Most of us live in free countries where, frankly, there are probably too many restrictions already. So we can’t stop people from trying something. Most of them succeed just fine, anyway. Lots of people climb rocks for the first time successfully. Almost all newbie rafters in rental boats make it down the Deschutes River even when they’re drunk.

Last spring I watched two teens walk out on lake ice that was so thin I could see it sag beneath their weight. Then they discovered that if they jumped up and down hard enough the water would spurt out of the cracks in the ice so they did that for a while. I got my drysuit and fleece underliner out and set them where I could get into them quickly. Put the phone nearby. Got a cup of coffee and watched them through my binoculars. Yelling at them would have done no good. Calling 911 would have been useless because someone would have had to traverse the ice to get to them. Someone probably heavier they the teens with a greater likelihood of breaking through the ice.

I watched them as they played on the ice, wrestled, kicked holes down to the water with their feet, and eventually make their way back to shore. I finished my coffee and put away my gear.

I don’t have the answer to this problem or a solution. But I thought I’d throw this out there.

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