Fast, deep water
Aspen, CO Colorado
When I looked into Mark’s eyes all I could see was fear and desperation. We both knew that, as soon as he lifted his foot, he would be swept away by the rushing waters.
Mark and I were instructors with 11 students on a 23-day National Outdoor Leadership School course in Olympic National Park, trying to cross the Ozette River to meet our bus.
In the Pacific Northwest, more people die from drowning than from climbing accidents. Crossing mountain streams entails all kinds of risks.
In June of 1996, a student on a wilderness course with NOLS died while trying to cross the Buffalo River in the Absaroka Mountains of northwest Wyoming. She fell while crossing, hit her head on a rock and was later found a half mile downstream.
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I would guess Mark had some of those thoughts on his mind as he lifted his foot to take one more step toward me.
As he tried to take that step, the current spun him around and away he went to the Pacific Ocean.
We had already scouted the crossing, and three groups had made it safely to the other side; only Mark’s group was left to cross. We were using the eddy method to cross.
It’s the method where a large human with a large stick faces upstream with the stick braced against his shoulder.
The large human is in a tripod position with his pack on and his hip belt released. Directly behind this person will be two or three more people, each gripping tightly to the pack in front of them. The theory being that each successive person will have less current to fight.
In midstream, Mark’s group came apart, with everyone falling because of the strength of the current. Mark was at the back of the group when this happened. I was less than 5 feet from Mark, trying to reach for him. That was when our eyes locked, and I saw the fear ” a look I would rather not see in a fellow instructor.
Fortunately there were no strainers downstream. Strainers are half submerged trees that are very dangerous because of swimmers getting caught in their branches, in which one can drown. In that scenario, the swimmer is supposed to swim directly at the strainer and then immediately climb up on it in one smooth move.
We had spotters downstream who were now pulling people out of the water. No one was washed out to sea, even though Mark thought he was going to. Mark was the last one extricated from his baptism in the Ozette ” an experience he did not relish and one that we would thoroughly debrief as a learning experience for the entire group.
We do a lot of debriefings on NOLS courses. It’s one of the tools we use in outdoor education where we are constantly trying to learn from our experiences where our actions have immediate and profound consequences. At the same time, the debriefings can be very tiresome. All you really want to do is move on and forget the episode as quickly as possible.
Before the crossing had taken place, we had scouted the river and tried to determine the depth of the water and the speed of the current. Most mountain streams can be crossed by a single person if the water is below the knee and the current is not too pushy.
I’ve crossed East Maroon Creek with the water over my knees and struggled mightily to get to the other side. I made a terrible mistake that almost cost me more than a pair of lost flipflops.
You can tell the speed of the current by tossing in a stick and seeing if you have to run to keep up with it or walk to keep up. It’s a rough measure of the speed of the water. I also will listen for the sounds of boulders being tumbled around by the current. The tumbling sounds of larger rocks being pushed along by the current are a sure sign to rethink your crossing location.
My friend Richard is well-muscled and hairy and likes the risks of crossing scary rivers. We were trying to cross the Buffalo River in Wyoming with students at floodstage.
Richard said to me, “We can cross here, and if we do, people will die. Let’s just turn around and go home.”
After two days of sitting on the banks, I eventually agreed.
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