Wednesday, October 12, 2005

White-water Kayakers .. Head Smarts Means LIFE

The high-volume rush of water, tumbling over rocks at steep incline, in a constrained space, builds the playground for one of the most exhilerating, fastest growing and dangerous sports in the world This outdoor activity is known as white-water (W-W) kayaking. Thousands of people have rushed to enjoy the sport of W-W and each year there are deaths. Most of these deaths are attributed to drowning, but a good number also show the drowning occured following a blow-to-the-head. Many kayakers - if not most - wear helmets. So - why are there so many deaths when the participant is wearing protective gear? Maybe the gear is not as up-to-the-task of protecting as we think.

In 1998, Lucas Turner was killed on the North Fork of the Payette river when his boat fliped, he was ejected and his head hit a rock with the fatal blow. But how could this happen? This was a common occurance. What happened? Well for one thing the helmet Lucas was wearing was pushed back on his head - exposing his forehead to the full impact on the rock. This was clearly a design issue.

Lucas's father, Gil Turner of Park City, UT sought answers and a solution. His quest took him to Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland. Two graduate engineering students took on the
task of designing a new, safer W-W Kayaking helmet.

I've been kayaking - both white-water (W-W), river and sea, since 1974. It's a great activity; from very challenging to just plain enjoyable. The thrills, spills and chills are real attractant to those int the X-treme sports. With W-W kayaking being one of the fastest growing outdoor sports worldwide, so too comes with it the dangers of big water, fast current, hydraulics, hypothermia and big rocks. A clean run can mean nothing more than an adrenaline pumping experience that will thrash you for days. But a bad run can leave you either dazed or dead.

I've kayaked the Main Fork of the Payette, it's no where near the technical or dangerous water found in the North Fork of the Payette, but it is still a river that should NOT be taken lightly. My son and I were there in 1995 while on a pre-trip planning session on the Missouri River (a long, sad story for another time). The day we ran the North Fork was beautiful; bright sun, blue skies and the water running at about 2800 cfm. My son had never been in white-water in a kayak before and I was more than a little concerned for his safety. He was very athetic and used to water, being an avid wind surfer - but the hydralics of white-water are much different than what a wind surfer is used to. So we chose to put in on a relatively calm section, do a modest 5 mile shoot and hitch a ride back to the truck.

First note ... I'd personally not been in white-water for at least 6 years and never in the new Dagger Responses we were using for the first time. I'd also never kayaked white-water west of the Mississippi River. So, I was taking a risk on 3-major areas: 1) out of shape 2) unfamiliar equipment and area 3) unskilled companion. But we went anyway.

We put in just above a nice chute that looked to be nothing more than a gentle Class III. However, when we got into it - it was anything but 'gentle' ! My son - being younger and more agile - wisely took a route around the main chute and passed through it a 'glancing blow', without any trouble. I, on the other-hand, was heavier in the boat than I should have been, was paying most of my attention on seeing how 'my son was doing' than on the river and ended up going right through the midst of the chute. I was a fun ride - until - I had a unexpected encounter a rock that rolled over in an instant.

My 'kayak-roll' was never great, but it was generally adequate for the lesser-hydraulics of most eastern waters. It wasn't for this river! I soon began to stuggle. This compounded the situation. I was eventually able to do a 'deep-water-ditch' and made it, drawn-and-exhausted to the shore. We had neglected to procure bladders for the boats to aid in floatation and I learned just how valuable that would have been! I was able to get my boat and self to the shore. But I was totally exhausted. And - at that time - I had no idea where my son was. I was frankly very frightened. But I could do nothing at the moment but set in the sun, get warm, catch my breath and get enough energy to walk down-stream, put back in the calmer water and find him: hopefully, well.

I did find him. He was absolutely ecstatic! He'd had a maverlous run and was pumped to run the water for the next 4.5 miles of the trip - and probably do it 2 or 3 times again. I on the other-hand, was wiped out: physically and emotionally. I'd NEVER felt like that before on white-water. And I have had my share of 'close-calls'. But this one showed me I really had no business being on this water - in as poor a physical condition as I was. I made a tough call: we were through. My son was NOT happy and did NOT understand. I stood my ground and explained to him that though he was probably fine with the experience, I was neither about to let him paddle on his own - or attempt to make the same mistake again for myself. He acquiesced - but still was pretty hot about me 'spoiling' his fun day; he still is, 11 years later. But he's still alive, too. He had no idea how much I hated to do that to him - but I just could not go back myself. Sobered and shaken we made it back to the truck and into McCall, ID for the night.

I learned a big lesson that day on the Payette River and I am most grateful that neither I, nor my son, had to pay the expense of that lesson with either our lives or serious injury.

Using one's head pays off in lifelong ... even long life ... dividends.

O'fieldstream