liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,

River Tales: High Water San Juan with Rookies

Here's a photo of a typical river camp along the section of the San Juan where we were. Imagine however that the area that they are camped on is under 10 feet of roiling fast brown water, and you'll have an idea what it looked like that day in May. And we were in little playful whitewater kayaks, not rubber barges.

I'm still reading Deep Survival and as I read, I remember the many times on my own outings that someone could have died, but didn't. People are often unaware of how close to the edge they are walking. On the river people underestimate the hazard of high water, on the snow people forget about avalanche, in good weather people act as if the weather won't change with no notice. One of the more risky trips was relatively recent. This trip, while it turned out well, was on the very edge of disaster. Let me record what I remember about it.

It was May 2005, and the San Juan River in Utah had been running around 4,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) for a couple of weeks. This week it had finally gotten really warm in the mountains, and snowmelt was increasing. We didn't know how high the river would be, but we knew that the section of river we wanted to do was easy even at high flows.

There were five of us who agreed to this adventure: myself, neptunia67, Liz, Jay and Sam (Liz's son and boyfriend). Names have been changed to protect the guilty. We were all guilty of going unnecessarily close to the edge that day.

neptunia67 had kayaked one river run before, and I believe she agreed to this run because she trusted me. She was frightened by the power of the brown flood, and that just showed her good sense. Liz had never ever been in a kayak on a river, though she could Eskimo roll one in a swimming pool. I had a lot of confidence in her to stay right side up because she is a professional ballerina, and her posture and balance are above average. But she knew nothing of waves and holes. Jay had also never run a river, but he was a strong young teen boy in a ducky, and the least of my worries. The real wild card on this run was Sam.

Sam talked as if he were an expert kayaker. We had hung out and chatted about rivers. Based on the rapids that he bragged of running, I knew he had a certain minimum skill. I did not know that the minimum plus embellishment was all the skill he had. He had nice muscles, a sparkly helmet, a dark tan and a go-for-it attitude. I had never paddled with him before, but I was counting on his assistance to shepherd all these rookies down the river. This turned out to be my greatest mistake.

We drove toward the Four Corners area and on highway 163 we crossed the San Juan. We stopped near the bridge (above) to take a look. The river is narrow there, and the high flow looked serious. The water was surly, swirly and brown, and moving really fast. neptunia67 reasonably asked if we were really going to paddle on THAT river, and I told her that we were, but in the pit of my stomach I was asking myself if we should. We dropped off a car at the takeout, drove to the put-in (aka launch point), and proceeded to gear up.

The BLM requires that all river runners have a permit, and we did not. We were counting on getting into the river fast enough that we were not noticed by the river ranger. When we arrived at the putin, the ranger was in full sight, but she was busy checking out the fully loaded raft trips that planned to launch that same day. We quickly got our boats off the car, and donned our river garb under a gazebo, to stay out of the hot sun. When the ranger walked away from the launch ramp for a minute, we jumped in our boats. As we were putting on our sprayskirts a large tree with branches intact floated by, tumbling in the deep flood. neptunia67 was getting more worried every minute. The rest of our small group were not as finely attuned to the objective risk, and showed less signs of stress at the launch.

Once we shoved off the current took us and we were moving downstream at a high speed. neptunia67 says that the banks were going by so quickly that it made her dizzy. Sam kept yelling at Liz and Jay, trying to instruct them. His yelling only added to their stress level and made it harder for them to function. I tried to calm them all down, because to keep your balance in fast swirling water and waves, you need to be relaxed, and calm.

The truth is that the river was running something near 20,000 CFS, and even though there are no substantial rapids on this section, the danger involved in being in that kind of flow is substantial. These rookies had only a slight chance of rolling up if they were to flip over, and also only a slight chance of completing a T-rescue if needed. (T-rescue is when the upside down kayaker grabs the end of another kayak and rights themselves.) These new boaters were being asked to maintain their balance in larger water than they had ever seen, with an asshole yelling at them, in conditions that could kill them if they failed.

Of course, I didn't mention to anyone what I know about the high risk of high water. I did not want to add to anyone's stress level because it would subtract from our ability to pull it off. And at this point we were committed.

In hindsight, I personally could have stopped this train long before the point of no return. I should have. In hindsight, I will not ever do again what I did that day; risk the lives of two dear friends with the faint hope that someone not known to me would help me take care of them. If I EVER take friends new to kayaking on the river again, it will be at low water with a known paddler for backup. The risk we all took that day was more than I would choose again, and the only one in the group who knew it instinctively was Neptunia. If Neptunia had trusted me less and her intuition more, we might not have gone that day. Because all it would have taken was one person to say "I'm not going" and the whole expedition would have fizzled. But go we did.

The water was so high that it was carrying a substantial load of sediment. neptunia67 says she could feel the sand against her paddle blade whenever she did a backstroke. The droplets of water that landed on my shades dried into little brown spots. The San Juan is famous for its sand waves, which are waves that move around as the sand on the floor of the river shifts. Some of those waves that day were four or maybe even five feet tall. And there were no eddies. Every mid-river rock was submerged, and the shores were hissing with water rushing through desert grasses and shrubs. If you wanted to stop, you would have to wait for the right kind of notch in the shoreline.

The first one to flip over was neptunia67. I was waiting for someone to flip at this place, because the river's linear current dissipated into a vortex of boils and sucking whirlpools, and it was more than most any beginner would manage. She flipped, and set up her paddle, and rolled up like a pro. I yelled my joy and congratulations at her. I was really glad, because if she had swam out of her kayak there, she probably would have been sucked down very deep, and been very low on oxygen by the time she resurfaced. After that, it might have been miles before I could get her to shore. There are times in kayaking when rolling up is considered "mandatory"...and rolling is especially beneficial in flood situations when the whitewater is continuous and the shore hostile.

Meanwhile tension was brewing between the lovers Liz and Sam. Finally Sam blew up at Liz, and Liz told him off, and our trip was split. Liz was so angry that she was shaking and lost her dancer's posture and balance. I grabbed her boat and we floated down together, so that she could not flip over. We talked and gradually she calmed down. Sam was upset but trying to act like a big man, pushing hard to try to play every single wave that he could see. Eventually Liz regained her composure enough to paddle again, but the split in our group remained. Jay the teenager was doing very well in his ducky, but he would probably not be able to help if things went wrong.

Sam was completely on his own, paddling out ahead or far behind trying to play in the waves. He was not helping me to guide and reassure the beginners, and he would not have been close enough to help with a rescue if one was needed. Finally I called him in close and had my say. I told him that I needed him to help me take care of the rookies on the trip. He thought that he was close enough to execute a rescue, and I begged to differ. He treated me like I was some kind of fearful drama queen, exaggerating the hazard, but I was cold and clear about the hazard that I knew. I finally landed on the idea of assigning him a person to watch and rescue if needed. His ego would require him to perform the assigned task, because he had said it was easy and no big deal. Assigning him a specific charge served two purposes. One, it added protection for the beginner, and the second was to keep Sam closer. This was partly for his own protection. He underrated the risk and thus may have been the one at highest risk. If he had been lagging behind and then found himself pinned, it would have been nearly impossible for us to stop and get back upstream in time to help him.

It turns out that my ploy was useful. Both neptunia67 and Liz swam at almost the same moment in the tail end of the run. Sam was close enough to get one to shore, I got the other. I gave a little thanks to the river gods that it had worked out so well.

We had no further difficulties, and succeeded in running a 20 mile section in one short day. Most groups take two or three days to run this section. We ran it at very high flows with a highly inexperienced group and made it look easy. I am grateful that we survived that day, in spite of the possibilities and odds. I would like to take credit for our success, because I did make a few good calls that day, but overall, it was the mercy of the river, and the low odds of a fatal accident, that came out in our favor. If one more wild card had been thrown in, it could have gone very differently.
Tags: floods, friends, guiding, risk, river, utah

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