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Strong Utah snowmelt highlights value of swiftwater rescue training

Instructor Matt Haberman speaks to Swiftwater Rescue Fundamentals students on the upper Provo River in Jordanelle State Park.

HEBER CITY — We stood at the edge of the Provo River. It was full of water that just days – or maybe hours before – was mountain snow. We were dressed in full kit: water-proof dry suits, PFDs, helmets, gloves. We were prepared for this and here by choice.

So why, then, was my heart beating just a bit too quickly?

“We’re trying to up people’s comfort levels in the water and to do that you do have to expose people a little bit,” Matt Haberman, lead instructor for Remote Rescue training, said. “I think our biggest priority out there is managing risk and making sure we’re training safety.”

The class was Swiftwater Rescue Fundamentals. It was early May in Utah and about 15 of us were signed up for the day-and-a-half course.

Nervous or not, we all did it. One by one, we flopped into the water on our backs and bobbed like marshmallows, elbows and backsides dragging against the rocks.

The University of Utah College of Health’s Remote Rescue and Wilderness Medicine program has offered this open enrollment class for the last five or six years. It aims to teach people, mostly rafters, kayakers and novice river guides, how to avoid trouble, or at least prevent trouble from spiraling into disaster.

Moving water is inherently dangerous. Already this spring, Utahns have lost their lives in Parleys Creek, the Ogden River, the Blacksmith Fork River and Tapeats Creek in the Grand Canyon to name a few. For most everyone, the best advice is simply avoidance. Stay away from the water.

But just as snowstorms lure skiers and snowboarders into avalanche country during the winter, snowmelt sounds the siren song for river runners come spring. This year, a huge snowpack and high-flow releases from dams like Flaming Gorge have pushed waterways to or even beyond their banks.

Sam Gowans and Racheal Irizarry signed up for swiftwater rescue fundamentals after scoring a permit to float the Green River later this summer.

“Sam and I are planning a river trip down Desolation this year and we are bringing 10 people. We just wanted to be a little more prepared,” Irizzary said.

Last June, Sandra Wolder of Aurora, Colorado drowned while on a commercial rafting trip through Lodore Canyon on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. The raft she was riding on flipped in a rapid and became pinned on a rock. Wolder went downstream and was trapped in the roots of a downed tree.

Utah Department of Health records show over the last 10 years, nearly 43% of Utah drowning deaths happened in open water, like rivers, canals, streams or lakes.

“It’s a challenge by choice kind of a course, for sure,” Andy Rich said. He’s Remote Rescue program coordinator. “There’s no question we see people come with different levels of preparation and they have different outcomes. But that’s okay.”

Our work didn’t start in the water. It began in the classroom. Matt talked a lot in the first meeting about priorities and tactical decision making, about identifying and avoiding hazards, like debris that can snag a swimmer. In river talk, that’s called a strainer. Or like foot entrapment, a symptom of trying to stand up against the flow.

In the evening sunlight out on the lawn, we practiced tossing throw bags – literally bags full of rope – that are the river rescuer’s weapon of choice.

Then, we went over gear: life jackets with rescue harnesses, special waterproof suits with latex gaskets at the neck and wrists, insulation to stave off hypothermia.

On day two, Matt and Andy discussed the fundamental knots like the bow line, overhand bend, figure eight on a bight and how they can be used to set up anchors both on pinned boats and on the river bank.

Then, they led their students to the water.

Matt went over the two critical swim positions one last time. They include defensive, on your back with feet up out of the water and offensive, where you front crawl with everything you’ve got.

Finally, it was time to put it all in practice. Rich was like a drill sergeant, barking out instructions as we went through drill after drill. We went for repeated swims, pretending to be in peril while classmates plucked one another from the river.

Even for people who never intend to take a raft down a river, there are lessons to learn. Moving water can easily knock you off your feet. Swimming in swift currents is really hard. Acting without first thinking in the hopes of saving the life of someone who’s floating away from you is an easy way to put two people at risk instead of one.

In the end, students like Sam and Rachael were tired, but beaming.

“The class was very interesting to me not just because we wanted the knowledge, but because it sounded really cool. It was a great time, great group of people,” Gowans said.

Andy Rich admitted there’s an element of fun to it all, but with a purpose.

“We’re giving people tools but we also want them to understand the limitations of those tools so that they can prepare properly, so they can bring the right equipment, so they can make the proper decisions and avoid needing to rescue each other. All that’s just as important as the actual rescue skills themselves,” Rich said.