Kayak rescue training and how not to run a whitewater river

Picture of Seth.

Seth begins his swim across the Wolf River.

I spent the weekend brushing up on my kayak rescue skills in northern Wisconsin with the Hoofers Outing Club. Our instructor for the day was Scott, who works at the Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort on the Wolf River. We spent Saturday morning going over the basics in the classroom, then headed to a rapid called Gilmore's Mistake for some “on-the-job training.”

First, we practiced rope throwing (both the giving and receiving ends), which is important to know because you wouldn't want to go over a waterfall or a nasty rapid after self-ejecting from your boat. Swimming across rapids is also an important skill, so we each took turns crossing the river in moving current. We also practiced wading to the middle of the river, which is a lot harder than it looks. Scott spent the rest of the afternoon giving us various challenges on the river, and we managed to have some fun along the way. After a long day of training, we tipped back a few beers and ate some delicious pizza at Bear Paw's pub.

Scott is a great instructor who has the rare combination of tremendous technical skills and lots of patience that one needs in his position. I took this same lesson two years ago and was glad to have had the opportunity to brush up on my rescue skills, not that I hope to ever have to use them.

Picture of Varun.

Varun braves the last drop of Monastery Falls.

The Wolf River was running a bit low, so we decided to head south to the Red River, which is dam-fed and almost always runnable. The rapids on the Red are pool drops, meaning that there is a large pool of flat water below each rapid – if you have to wet exit from your kayak, you probably won't get pinned against rocks. Our run went smoothly through the first few drops, although we were competing with about fifty locals who were running the river in inflatable tubes and pool chairs.

There is one class III rapid on the Red called Monastery Falls, and the water was high enough that the top hole was very sticky, meaning that if you are unable to clear it, the recirculating water will suck you back in and hold onto you. The sneak route was a viable option, however, so a few from my group chose to run it and hope to remain right-side up before the final rocky slide, which would not feel good on your head if you happened to get flipped at the top of it.

The first group of tubers were wisely skipping Monastery Falls, which I was glad to see because none of them (other than the little kids) were wearing life jackets or helmets, and most had been drinking all afternoon. But then one brave (or dumb) soul went over the falls and got sucked under. He popped up, but lost his glasses and came dangerously close to slamming his head into a rock. Others followed, all of whom got ejected from their tubes but somehow managed to avoid catastrophe. The fact that they weren't wearing life jackets probably saved them from getting sucked back into the rapids because as they plunged to the bottom of the river, they hit the downstream current and didn't surface until they were clear.

Four people have drowned on the Wolf River in the last two years, and though each instance had its own unique circumstances that led to disaster, these guys weren't doing anyone favors by risking their lives. A few people in our group were ready with the throw ropes, but we didn't want to have to use them. It's important to have the skills to rescue yourself and others from potentially deadly situations, but it's even more important not to put yourself into those situations in the first place.

More photos from the weekend.

External Websites:
Hoofers Outing Club
Bear Paw

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