River running involves risk. Most paddlers recognize and enjoy their time in a hazardous environment. However, risk means that bad things can and do happen. Good rescue pre-planning helps reduce the likelihood of needing a rescue and increases the odds of success should rescue be necessary.
How to be prepared
A. Mental Preparedness
1. Recognise that there ARE risks.
Many people go through life apparently unaware that bad things can happen near them or to them. When emergencies occur, these people are, at best, useless and sometimes worsen the situation with inappropriate behavior. Fortunately, since you are reading this, you are not one of them. And you probably already apply most or all of the steps below.
2. Be able to recognize and evaluate the hazards (likeliness, severity)
Again, you probably do this somewhat automatically. What difficulty of water are you paddling? What is the flow? What weather are you expecting? Each of these and many other factors present hazards that should be considered.
3. Likelihood and severity
If common sense isn’t enough (and it often is not), considering the likelihood and potential severity of the major hazards may help you be prepared. For example, in a big water river, the likelihood of a pinned boat is relatively small but the chance of a swimmer being carried a long way downstream is reasonably high. You would plan on placing your rescue paddlers accordingly.
Potential severity is a little more difficult because indirect factors may play a major role. A mosquito bite in Colorado is usually no cause for concern. A mosquito bite in the Amazon basin….well, I hope you were taking your anti-malaria pills.
4. Consequences and Countermeasures
For many possible dangers, the combination of a low likelihood and low severity make further consideration of that risk unworthy of much thought. If I happen to go without sunscreen in Oregon, I can live with the discomfort of what little sunburn I might experience.
Likewise, I probably won’t spend much time worrying about rockfall in a granite gorge. The severity might be high but the chances are pretty low. What are left are risks that are reasonably likely and may have serious consequences. This is the point at which countermeasures come into the picture. Some of the most basic countermeasures, experienced paddlers take automatically: helmet, PFD, float bags, throw rope. How many other countermeasures get used varies greatly beyond those items.
B: Essentially, there are three ways to deal successfully with situations where likelihood and severity collide and rescue becomes necessary:
The best solution for a rescue is to not need one. That’s why we wear helmets. I don’t plan to hit my head on a rock but, if I do, the helmet should keep me from being injured.
2. Self/Team rescue
The second best option is to have the right people with the right equipment, training and experience to perform a quick and safe rescue without requiring outside resources. Traditionally, the hard-core practitioners of most outdoor sports do this well.
3. Outside resource rescue
This should be the last choice in rescue situations, ideally reserved for very severe injuries or fatalities. However, if the rescue situation is beyond the capabilities of your team, the appropriate agency should be notified promptly. Rescue agencies greatly prefer being called prematurely rather than too late.
C: Before you load your boat on your vehicle, you should at least consider some of the following:
4. People on trip
Number of people and paddling skills, rescue skills, attitude, knowledge of the river, physical fitness, mental fitness, allergies & medical conditions
Types of boats, rescue gear, medical gear, spare equipment, amount of each and how its distributed.
6. Distance from rescue
Access, verticality, communications (on the water and to others), local resources. For most river trips many of the items listed can be checked-off mentally in very little time. For long trips, expeditions into remote rivers and 1st descents, and other complicated trips, the list should be considered much more carefully
7. Last but not least Communicate your plans/concerns
Let someone not on the trip know where you are going, when you expect to be back, and what and when to do something if you are not back. (I insist on my wife NOT calling Search & Rescue for at least 24 hours after my expected return time).
Nothing beats a bit of planning. Time spent making sure that you have everything ready and in place for your trip can really make the difference between an awesome adventure and a paddling disaster.