Thursday, June 19, 2014

A two hour pin

The following is a comprehensive look at a bad, nearly 2 hour long wood pin that occured on the Foss River, WA, USA. You will find first the story from the view of a rescuer then the story from the view of the rescuee, then some pictures. There is a lot here to take in, and it is meant as educational to teach people what can and sometimes may need to be done on a river in a bad situation.

A bad pin (rescuer perspective):

On Sunday, fresh from a quick trip over Steven's pass to the Wenatchee and a Miller run our group of 7 paddlers decided to head up the Foss River of the Skykomish drainage, we set shuttle at a bridge downstream on the South Fork Sky and headed all the way up to the upper put in bridge to start, not knowing anything really about the run. Some of us luckily managed to weave our way through all the log jams early on without exiting our boats, probably made possible by the low water.

As we got to the first couple rapids and eddy hopped our way down it was apparent this river has wood everywhere in it, but it all seemed avoidable. Then we came to what I understand is Ken and Barbie. The first larger single drop was clean and lots of fun, the rapid following that ended in a boulder fence before a pool and going over another 5ish foot ledge. It was in the left side of the boulder fence and underwater that some wood was featured. Denny noticed it going down the rapid first, followed by me, we tried to point to people to stay right but that wasn't always happening. Annie got her PFD snagged on it briefly, then Scott came down last only to eventually end on a dead stop midstream pinned horizontally, bow facing river right and hull facing upstream. Luckily his head was mostly out of the water, although getting splashed frequently. 5 of us were there with one person having gone downstream after the paddle only to swim in the rapid after but getting to shore quickly. People quickly mobilized. Turns out Scott's legs were pinned in his bow by a log coming in there through his cockpit, the boat may have partially collapsed under the water pressure as well.

At this point 3 of us were on river right with 2 on river left, which was the division of labour for a majority of the rescue. After communicating with Scott to find out the issue we quickly set up a series of bags across the river to make it easier for Scott to hold his body up out of the water. At this same time I went to work on a quick 3-1 pulley system from river right that Scott managed to attach to the small grab loop on the right side of his Dagger Nomad cockpit. This didn't provide enough power so Ben ended up making up a 5-1 pulley system.

The bags across the river presented an issue as 1 was anchored to a tree while the other needed constant tension from someone positioned in the water. This entire time Scott was trying to wiggle his legs loose. Finally after about an hour we were able to set up and pull enough length with the 5-1 to loosen the boat enough for Scott to become partially free and in a better position of sitting on his boat, though less stable and with one leg still stuck. By this point Scott had cut through his spraydeck and one of his shoes.

With this new position a new direction of pulling was required. Scott took the river left half of the bags that were strung across and attached it to his stern grab loop. It was then pulled with a 3-1 while Scott wiggled free slowly, which did take some time. Towards the end Tegan was downstream with a bag in anticipation of him swimming down, and I had joined Alison on river left. Finally after about 45 minutes in this second position Scott managed to free himself and swim downstream to shore safely on river left. He was shivering heavily, very cold especially his hands. I offered him gloves and a fruit bar while Alison and I rubbed him and applied body heat. The entire ordeal happened through varying periods of rain, cloud cover and sun with the temperature hovering around 10-15 degrees celsius. The water was quite cold.

Of course at this point, this meant that Scott would need to be somehow taken to river right to extract. Downstream was a calmer spot and Denny, Alison and I ended up roping him across after he'd rested and regained some energy. Luckily his boat and all the materials used besides a throwbag and his paddle were recovered as well. His boat was still in great condition.

4 people walked out after that while Denny, Annie and myself continued downstream to try and find his paddle. Everyone was ok and cold beers were waiting! Once we all got together again and also ran into Brett we gathered in Monroe for some Mexican food as well, happy to be back in warmer confines.

Some lessons learned that day, at least by me:

- Drysuits and creeking go well together. If Scott hadn't had a drysuit it's doubtful he could have had energy to function as long as he did in the cold water. Not to mention myself and other rescuers who spent periods of time immersed in water for various reasons. We all had drysuits on this trip luckily, and I think I'll wear mine more readily in the future.

- Dagger Nomad hardpoints. This instance proved the benefit of the Nomad's hardpoints which are on either side of the cockpit, not many other boats have these. They are in an easy to reach position for the boater. Also of note is the lack of a close bow grab loop like the Mamba has despite the fact there are 2 bolts right there in newer models. We also wondered the effect if Scott was in his other boat that day, a Prijon Pure, which has no step out pillar down the center, would this have allowed the boat to cave in or given him more room to free himself?

- Rescue gear. Do not underemphasize the importance of carrying rescue gear in all instances when it could possibly be necessary. It was a blessing that so many of us had so much rope, prussiks, pulleys, carribeaners, first aid kits, gloves, food on us to help out in this situation. It highlighted the good idea of having 2 throwbags as we ran out at one point.

- Spectra rope. There is no way the 5-1 pulley system would have been effective without strong sprectra rope throwbags. Luckily I'd just recently purchased and started carrying one, expensive but worth it.

- River rescue skills. It is my understanding, and was clearly demonstrated that all of us present had some kind of swiftwater rescue training and knew the basics of what to do in this situation. These skills are necessary on rivers, and not to be underplayed.

- Be ready. These things will happen when you least expect it, this wasn't class V whitewater we were in, but visible wood everywhere made people vigilant for sure.

- Helplessness. I and others found ourselves feeling somewhat helpless in this situation, luckily the rescuee had his head on his shoulders and could direct traffic and help. Unfortunately he was the only one who could free himself to an extent as he could still breathe and function, for us this meant a lot of waiting and feeling like you weren't doing enough, I believe this is only natural but it's important not to try and do too much. The important thing is to work together and make smart decisions. Had Scott been underwater and unable to contribute this would have completely changed the dynamic of the rescue. Time is the greatest asset to use or lose.

Hopefully this experience can help others for future rescues.

Foss Creek pin (rescuee perspective):

Adam and I scouted the "Ken" rapid on Foss Creek on river right while the rest of the group scouted river left. We both went first and had fun clean lines down the left chute boofing onto the pillow and riding out through a couple wave holes to eddy out on river right at the base. After regrouping, the seven of us proceeded to eddy hop down to the top of "Barbie" and drop in one at a time. I ended up in the back sweeping as I had been for most of the run. I could see the first ones down had signalled to go right, and we were on the general lookout for a piece of wood in this area, although there had been lots of wood on the whole run already. Some of the folks going down the right looked like they had a bumpy ride, so I thought to enter centre and move right. Apparently there were some wood signals at this time, but I did not see them, perhaps due to the boulder fence blocking the view. As I entered the rapid, I noticed the right channel did look bumpy and the left one looked a bit smoother. I hesitated for a second before committing to the right channel. Around the time of this hesitation I noticed a log end sticking out of the water just downstream of me. While still trying to get right, I'm afraid there was probably a bit of a tractor beam effect as I stared at this log, which I ended up hitting on my left side as I made a downstream move to the right.

The log was pointing upstream at a ~45 degree angle to the shore towards river right, with a slight upstream inclination and its top end just out of the water, middle part wedged against the midstream boulder, and bottom end probably lodged underwater on the river left shore. So it was completely across the left channel at an unknown depth, and mostly blocking the centre channel, which was small and pinny anyhow. I stopped and was braced high-siding on the log to prevent getting swept under. In retrospect, at this time I should have probably taken an aggressive right back stroke to spin off and go down the left channel, backwards and probably out of control. As it was, I eyed up the centre channel (small and twisting), while side-surfing a brace against the log. At this point the end of the log (about 6-8 inches in diameter) pushed through my spray skirt and came into the cockpit of the boat (Nomad 8.5). This quickly turned into a somewhat stable but very unfortunate braced position with my left arm on the log, a strong downstream lean, and the boat sideways or pointing slightly upstream towards river right. The boat was almost entirely submerged, and I was getting strongly buffeted in the chest by the current. My head was out of water but would get splashed and knocked around regularly. It would get closer to the surges and have less air if I relaxed, I had to prop myself up on my left arm to keep an upright posture further out of the water.

As soon as I got stuck I saw the group jump out of their boats and boulder hop back upstream a short distance up to where I was. I couldn't do anything to move the boat off the log, so after a couple minutes or so tried to throw my paddle on river left shore (about 15 feet away?) but missed and it went off downstream. Even with my hands and pushing off the log and rocking I couldn't move the boat. I felt around a bit more and found that the log was coming over my left thigh, and was under the front deck pushed up against my right leg, with the rubber rand of the sprayskirt encircling the log end tightly. Deck was off the cockpit rim at this point, in the front at least, probably from the log. This is when I realized it was going to take a group effort to get anything to move.

Ben threw me a rope from river right (25 feet away?), and I must have temporarily clipped this to something, but I can't remember what. Then I twisted around downstream onto the back deck so I could see river left, and Alison threw me a rope as well, neither tangling that bad. I connected these two bags with my tow leash carabineer and put it under my armpits; the people on shore added tension to help keep me more upright in the surging current.

Stabilized, we considered the options a bit, and I thought the only way off was to pull the boat in the direction of the end of the log, so that the cockpit would get pulled off the end. This direction was upstream and towards river right, the direction I was facing, but also against most of the current. We were short on bags because they had to double up on some in order to extend the stabilization line. I was able to feel around the log and barely reach the two clips holding my bag in with one hand, and grab it. Anytime I did stuff down in the cockpit or skirt area my head would go mostly under the water pillow flowing over the boat, but I still had an air pocket. I tried to throw my closed bag to Ben on the river right shore, but fell just short. Adam was able to recover the bag in the eddy below before the next drop.

They then threw it back to me, and I made a bit and attached it to the very small rail on the right (upstream, high) gunnel bar on the side of the cockpit, which was underwater, with a locking biner from my PFD. I was also considering using one of the stern security bars for more of a pivoting pull angle, but I could only reach the stern by twisting downstream and then just barely. I would have to receive the bag, twist around, attach it, and get the rope over my head and to stay on the upstream side of the boat without getting tangled - seemed too risky. So I just went for the simplest attachment on the right side of the cockpit. Ben and Adam pulled on this rope with no effect, set up a 3:1 with little to no effect. Around this time I grew more paranoid about the skirt encircling the log end, and tried to take the skirt off, which was too awkward, so I cut it off across the middle of the deck area. Meanwhile Ben etc. had set up a 5:1, and continued pulling on the boat. It did begin to move slightly, and sort of pulled away towards river right slowly as I stayed in a similar position against the log.

Eventually I was almost sitting on the back rim of the cockpit, but the log was now very strongly pressed on my left groin, and still blocking my right leg from getting out, but just barely. I felt around more and could feel my knee and right leg in between the log and rim through about a 2-3 inch gap (not enough, I have big legs). I didn't have much feeling left in my legs at this point, so I thought maybe they were just half-assed. I grabbed the leg drysuit material with my hands and tried to rip the right leg out through the crack while rocking, but this did not work either. I tried pushing down as hard as I could on the back deck of the boat and the log and pulling my legs out or twisting, but could not.

Around this time (~1 hour?) I noticed I was starting to get really quite tired. It was pretty hard to make the efforts to squirm out anymore, and I could barely grab things with my hands. I tried keeping my hands out of the water, and would go somewhat limp for a couple minutes and focus on breathing and gathering energy before another attempt to squirm out. I hadn't noticed Denny for quite a while, so I thought he may have gone for help. I imagined that search and rescue with a huge team could be arriving any minute. I looked at the water on the downstream side, which was where most of my air was, and the flattish water was still not too close to my face (maybe 1-2 ft?). I considered that the water could be coming up, and the surging nature of the rapid would make this pretty scary at times. I did have the stabilization line still, so I could probably hang out for a while. But, I realized that the coldness of the water was probably catching up quicker than expected even with a drysuit and fleece suit on. So I kept trying to squirm out even though it seemed to be really eating into my strength.

Around this time feeling around I found another log about 1 ft underwater supporting the upper log, almost 90 degrees to the current, which I could push off as well. Finally, with the river right crew pulling and me squirming, maybe with a river surge or something, my right leg unexpectedly came out. Immediately I could sit up on my left leg and the log and felt a lot better, my whole upper body was now totally out of the water, and could breathe easily and almost relax. The boat shifted a bit, maybe going more completely crossways to the current and flattening out a bit. The surf unfortunately did not seem quite as stable as the log end was no longer wedged in the cockpit. Everyone (including me) got really excited, but unfortunately my lower left leg was still trapped, in a new position.

My left knee was on the back of the cockpit rim, left shin pressed under the log, and left foot caught/pressed against the end of the seat. As it settled into this position there was enormous pressure on my shin with shooting pains, and I was worried it would comprimise my ability to focus or even break my lower leg. It kind of stabilized though, and I was able to see that we now needed to pull the boat towards river left to open the gap.

I took the stabilization line (which I didn't really need anymore), and detached the river right side (maybe just chucking it in the water? – oops sorry Ben). I took the river left side attached my tow biner to the stern bar. While Adam and Alison set up a 3:1 on RL, I untied my left shoe which was kind of caught on the edge of the seat. I could only use one hand and it wasn’t really working, so I ended up cutting off the shoe as well. During the rescue I also chucked my elbow pads, which were getting washed down to my wrists, and lost my gloves which were tucked in my PFD. Once river left crew started a strong pull, the boat moved easily and my leg was out.

At this point I did not really look to shore crew for communication as maybe I should have. I was sitting on the boat and straddling the log, with 3 ropes still attached to the boat and in the water with some loose bag ends, sitting on a log in a Class 4 rapid with another log underneath. I decided to get out of there ASAP before the possibility of getting tangled or falling down into the logs. I got up on the upper log with my feet on the crosswise underwater log, then scooted down the log in a barely controlled manner as it deepened, and flopped forward through V between the log going to RL, and the boulder to the R. I landed in the RL chute and slid down without hardly hitting anything. I was glad to make this chute, as the narrow center slot looked twisting and appeared to land on a rock. I surfaced and did a strong overhand swim towards RL, depsite RR downstream safety, as I was just closer to this side. I was able to grab a rock only about 20-30 ft downstream, and lay gasping for breath in the water.

Adam and Alison helped me out of the water as feeling came back to my legs. I started shivering uncontrollably for 5-10 minutes. Finally I could put weight on my legs again. As Ben and RR crew pulled the boat in, I went about 200 ft downstream to a calmer area, and Denny and Alison pendulumed me over. Half the group hiked out RR to the road, which was nearby. I could walk fine and was just really tired.

Later I had bruising: left elbow and sore shoulder from propping, left chest from stabilization line, right leg from log, deep bruise in left groin on my pubic bone from log (luckily the important stuff was out of the way!). The worst though was my left lower leg from the short-lived second pin position. There was not much visible bruising, but the lower leg swelled up huge, almost twice normal size with almost an inch of fluid over the shinbone (and everywhere else). It still worked though and I was able to go for a 10 km hike two days later, so pretty unscathed considering.

People ask if I will change my behaviour or learned anything from this. I tried a more aggressive line above a hazard and got my ass handed to me, when really I probably should have just bumped down the far right. I think the overabundance of wood on the run in general was something that should have given us more pause (although we were being careful). I got a bit complacent with watching signals, and only saw the right signal, missing the later signal to look or go hard right after Annie had a close call with the log on her run. I had a great line on the previous rapid and think this boosted my confidence more than necessary. Getting as much beta about runs beforehand as possible. Staying away from some that have known dangers perhaps?

Luckily we had a solid group, enough gear between us. I had also recently put the front float bags in my boat, and gotten a better throw bag, and was thankful I had finally done these things. I would probably still be there without the focused and skilled efforts of the group to get me off, so make sure you trust your group and that they have proper equipment and training.

Thanks everyone! Paddle hard and be safe.
Scott's deck after. Photo by Scott

Looking down on the Ken part of Ken and Barbie. Photo by Annie

Scott in his later positioning in Barbie. Photo by Annie

From downstream. Photo by Annie

Holding it together. Photo by Annie

Scott's leg the next day. Photo by Scott

Similkameen Canyon

For years I've heard stories about the Similkameen River Canyon from both Claudia's South Mainland BC Guidebook and class III boaters and canoeists of it being a great and fun canyon with great surf waves, unmatched scenery and history at levels up to 50 cumecs. Everytime I went to the Ashnola or travelled East on Highway 3, after traversing the pass from the Skagit headwaters drainage you come into the Similkameen headwaters drainage to see Similkameen Falls and Copper Creek with it's waterfall under the highway. Starting here you'd run along a deep valley that also had a large mining operation (Copper Mountain Mine) and you'd rejoin the water in Princeton. I've always wondered what it's really like in there, the Similkameen Canyon.

Up until a few years ago I'd only heard of it at low water, but in 2011 Ryan Bayes and Sandra Ramsey ran it at 105 cumecs and said it was great big water class IV. Ryan said it got considerably more difficult at 135 cumecs. Dan Bentley, Tristan Oluper and Ralph from Germany also said it was great at 90 cumecs. There is a considerable amount of flatwater in there which the higher levels made more palatable as well, it's highly adviseable to do the run in warm sunny weather for this reason. Scott McBride, Tony Sloane and others ran it at 65 cumecs and also said it was good fun.

Unfortunately now this exact stretch of water is threatened (as it has been in the past as various times) by a Fortis BC proposal to dam the canyon which would inundate basically the entire stretch of whitewater. Not only would this be tragic in that the world would lose this amazing canyon not to mention the environmental impact, there is also the fact that the benefactors would not be the people of BC (as they would were it a BC Hydro proposed dam), but instead simply the shareholders of Fortis BC.

Finally at the tail end of the informal Ashnola River Whitewater Festival a group of 7 of us decided to venture into the canyon at 90 cumecs.

We put in at the bridge over the Similkameen on Copper Creek Road as it was later in the day for a long run with a long shuttle (that you can skip part of if you have the room and are coming from the East side of the run) and not wanting to mess around with Copper Falls or Similkameen Falls, though you could tie either of these into the run to start off with a bang.

The action gets underway fairly soon, around the first one or two corners the first canyon begins. It's all read and run for those skilled enough to be in here at these levels with big holes, haystacks and headwalls that create big boils and eddy lines. After a quick blast there is a bit of a break before the action ramps up again and all too soon you're out of the first canyon and into a stretch of flatwater. This first canyon reminded me a lot of Nahatlatch canyon at equivalent water levels.

Next begins the second canyon, which is longer, more constricted and more continuous with more difficult moves. This canyon has very different geology from the first as well as going under/through/around the mine. Where it constricts at the mine and goes around a few bends was definitely the highlight of the run in my eyes. You get nearly vertical canyon walls and a 20-30 foot wide river, machinery and equipment around, conveyor belts going over the river transporting ore from one side to the processing plant on the other, the remains of the old Similkameen Valley Railway (a branch of the Kettle Valley Railway) preserved as old trestles at the top of the canyon. Eventually you will also pass the tailings ponds contained as a giant earthen dam. At some points you'll also notice bad smells coming from the water, I'd mind the water quality after passing the mine. All of this is happening as you're facing what I considered the most difficult whitewater of the run!

Once through this stretch and some more flats you'll arrive at a nice beach with a really good, friendly surf wave. This is a great place to relax and catch some surf. I understand people used to take out around here but that access isn't readily available anymore, you can also takeout on river right but then you get the choice of either a half hour drive that under certain circumstances only certain vehicles can do or a half hour paddle out through flats to Princeton where we took out by the A&W/Chevron. The last stretch of flats (8-12 km or so) actually isn't bad as there are some waves, small rapids and decent boofs adorning the river.

The entire run took us 3.5 hours I think, which wasn't bad at all, I'd definitely do it again and highly recommend it. I'm glad I got in there before I move away and with the potential for elimination of navigation on this stretch of water with the proposed dam.

Exiting the 2nd canyon and most difficult whitewater. Picture Ryan Bayes.