Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Near tragedy on the Chippewa River

My hometown paper, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, had a story yesterday about a guy that was fished out of the Chippewa River after overturning his recreational kayak and getting stuck in an eddy in the middle of the river. I spent many an illicit hour on and in that river as a kid, despite the constant admonitions from my mother not to go near it. Neither her or my grandparents could swim and one of my grandfathers siblings drowned in the river during the end of the logging boom around World War I. Which is a good segue into the main point of this post: Don't play the game unless you know the rules.

We learned most of the rules when we were kids. Don't go in the water if you can't swim, keep an eye on the gates of the Paper Mill Dam when you were below it, stay off the sandstone ledge when it got slippery with algae in the summer, and head for Half Moon Lake in the spring when the water in the river was raging. The river was no place to be that time of year, other than fishing from the banks, with its freezing cold water and strong current.

Kayaking this time of the year in northern Wisconsin has rules that shouldn't be broken also. Rule No. 1 is to dress for immersion. No 2 would be to have the skills and the gear to do a self rescue and get back in the boat. Or have a bombproof roll. Rule 3 through 10 would be dress for immersion again. This fellow went over, got caught in the eddy (an eddy I know well; great fishing spot) and couldn't get to shore. In the 20-30 minutes he was in the water his core temperature dropped to 91.4 degrees (33C). At that point extremities would be completely numb, confusion would be setting in, and the third stage of hypothermia with its respiratory distress, possible collapse, and unconsciousness is right around the corner.

The other thing that can be disastrous in situations like this is when small mistakes compound. In this case it appeared that no spray skirt was used, no paddle float was present, no wet suit or dry suit worn, no fellow paddlers to assist, and of course, the water was around 35F(1.6C). Had this guy been a couple of miles downstream, south of town, we likely would have been reading about a fatality. In this case luck was with him since he got stuck in an eddy where the early season fishing is great and its right behind the city shops. Fisherman and city employees called the fire department who rescued him. In his defense, he did do some things right. He had on a life jacket, a good stocking cap to prevent heat loss, and he stayed with the boat rather than trying to negotiate the current. Click on the Leader-Telegram video for a view of the whole rescue.

The other thing he needed was some awareness of the possible problems he might encounter. The old adage of 'go there mentally before you go there physically' would apply here. Another skill that would have kept him out of the paper would have been a solid roll and/or the wet exit and reentry skills that would get him back in the boat. Also, if not for the hydraulics of that eddy he could have floated downstream and stood up in about 75 yards.

As I've noted in previous posts, I don't know how to get to these folks and educate them about the dangers of paddling this time of year. Apparently the fishermen has spotted this fellow on the river a number of times already this season so there may have been a false sense of security about the whole adventure (wonder if 'watch the gates on the Paper Mill Dam' was one of his rules?). The other bad thing is that once again a "kayaker" is hauled out of the water rather than an "inexperienced guy attempting to kayak". A sublte difference but all kayakers know what I'm talking about. If anyone out there knows Chad, have him get in touch. It would be great after a motivating experience like this to help turn him into a true kayaker.

P.S. Confirming existence of the small world theory, the photo used was taken by my high school classmate, Steve Kinderman. The map of the area was furnished by my fellow tall, lanky crony LorenB, who still lives in EC and will soon have an appropriate 'blog name'. Thanks guys.


Kate Foley said...

Wow. Great summary, Dave!

kykr13 said...

Yes, great summary! There are so many truths here and I always worry about "kayakers" (as you put it) this time of year.

And it's not just this time of year. I paddled the Myers Beach caves in the Apostles just a week or two after the fatality (in '04, I think) and it was a nice hot calm day. We measured the water temp at 46 degrees. The guys we saw in a canoe didn't want to hear what the wetsuit and PFD-clad kayakers had to say...

DaveO said...

Funny, i was there too, the day after the helicopter landed in Cornie to evacuate the hypothermic college student who in the end didn't make it. Check out Grant Herman's Sea Kayaker article and analysis if you haven't already. Talk in the Village Inn, a regular local beer stop in Cornie, was what a bunch of morons kayakers were in general. Night crossing with no lights, heading for Devil's with a northwest blow in the forecast, blind crossings in the fog, sea caves in a NW blow, etc. I found it hard to argue with these commercial fisherman and long time Superior boaters. They all saw this stuff with their own eyes. I did point out that more and more kayakers had their act together and were training but there still is the minority who are clueless. All we can do it spread the 'word' as best we can and try to help and influence folks to be better paddlers.

JeremiahJohnstone said...

Daveo, After reading your blog about the near fatal drowning incident on the Chippawa river, it reminded me of the book i just got done reading. The book is called "The Last River" The tragic race for Shangri-La
This book demonstrated to me that ambitious white water kayakers bit off more than they could eat, ending in a fatality. Well, I might add that they were in the roughest waters in the world. But, by neglecting the basic rules of safety and overall situational awareness, the remaining party had to travel home without their paddle buddy. By reading an article like the one mentioned in the post, kayakers could really learn a lot from the mistakes of others. JJ

teletwang said...

Saw a guy launch just today as i was getting my boat out of the water - 35 deg water - no sprayskirt - jeans - hunting jacket - in a big cockpit rec boat. He did have a pfd. Makes you wonder.

DaveO said...

Nothing better to handle the weather than a pair of blue jeans. Up at our hunting camp I ran into a neighbor who saw a guy in the woods and figured it was not one of our crew: "I figured he wasn't one of you guys, he was wearing a pair of blue jeans. Couldn't have been much of a hunter". People just don't have a clue.