Emergency Situation: You’re whitewater rafting down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho when you approach a Class IV rapid. Midway through the rapid, you fall out and become separated from your craft. You’re wearing a helmet and PFD, but you need to act quickly before you’re seriously injured. What do you do?
You could try walking on water … but believe me, it doesn’t work. I’ve tried.
There are a number of dangers associated with going overboard in whitewater: drowning and bodily injury come to mind, but a third not-so-obvious one is hypothermia. Snowmelt raises river levels and creates Class III, IV, and V rapids. Thus, the water is going to be cold. Really cold. This makes it imperative that you get out as fast as possible, since hypothermia immediately saps your strength.
According to safety guidelines created by American Whitewater, a nonprofit dedicated to paddling and river conservation (americanwhitewater.org), don’t try to stand up in fast-moving water—at least until you know the water depth. There’s a good chance your foot will get caught in an underwater obstruction. Result: a broken ankle or worse. Instead, adopt the proper survival position: floating on your back, feet held high and pointed downriver.
Next, quickly evaluate 1) the position of the nearby crafts and 2) the depth of the water. Your chances of getting out unscathed are higher if you can get back to a boat—if it’s reachable.
Why bother trying to reach a boat? First, it offers protection from rocks and other dangers. Second, people in the boat can see what’s ahead. Floating on your back, try to maneuver as close to the raft as you can, then grab a line. Stay on the upstream end of the boat to avoid being crushed against rocks.
But what if the boat is unreachable? Or upstream? This is where water depth comes into play. In shallow water with obstructed rapids, continue on your back, feeling the water depth with your hands. Scan downriver. Use your arms to maneuver to an area of smoother water before trying to stand, and then carefully walk out.
If the water is deep (more than two to three feet), you should not try to stand. In this situation, roll onto your stomach, look for eddies (water flowing opposite the river’s natural direction) or slack water, and then use them to swim to shore. Aggressively, eh?
Areas with undercut rock or strainers (partially submerged trees and branches) can be deadly to swimmers, so take care to avoid these when approaching the shore. If the shoreline looks dangerous or seems difficult to reach safely, continue downstream in the defensive swimming position (feet first) until you spot a safer escape route.
Experts recommend that eyeglass wearers use a retaining strap and keep a spare pair in a protected pouch or pocket. Also, consider clipping a sheathed river knife (with a blunt tip) onto your PFD to use in case of rope entanglement.
Keep a length of coiled rope inside a throw bag mounted on a waist belt or strapped to your PFD. You can toss one end to a potential rescuer if need be.
And, if you can’t swim, don’t raft.
Josh Piven is co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series. Visit his Web site at joshpiven.net.