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Out Alive: Caught by a Strainer

A kayaker struggles to stay afloat when a tangle of trees pins her boat.

Downstream, Ralph was able to beach his boat and run back along the shoreline to help me. Neither of us had swiftwater rescue training, so we’d never tried best-practice techniques like rope rescues. Eventually, Ralph opted to take a huge risk: enter the water himself. He decided the waist-deep, 8-mph current was slow and shallow enough for him to wade out and help.

Ralph fought his way toward me through the icy-cold water. (We both would have been much safer if we’d had our entire group to help with a rope-assisted rescue.) When he was within reach, I grabbed his hand and stepped into the river. I knew that one false move might put us both underwater, trapped against the bushes. But I fought the current, and reached shore safely. Ralph freed the boat before a hypothermic chill set in. Later, as we regrouped and warmed up next to a campfire, I was finally able to relax. Our final day would be short, and we’d pass through a broad, slow valley en route to the pull-out. Good thing: I’d had plenty of excitement for one trip.

Lifesaving Skill Escape a strainer
If you can’t avoid an obstacle, fight to climb on top of it as your boat hits. If there’s no one nearby to assist with a rescue, get off the strainer as soon as possible; dismount on the downstream side and get to shore. In the water heading toward a strainer? At the last second, switch from a foot-first to a headfirst position and swim hard, trying to launch yourself atop the tree to escape the current (see above). Don’t let your body swing parallel to the trunk, or allow your boat to pin you.

Never Forget
Groups are better for rescues and can more effectively scout safe passage, so keep boaters together. Individuals should each carry a throw bag, whistle, and river knife. Split critical group gear—such as rescue supplies, signaling devices, fire-starting materials, bear spray, medications, and first-aid kits—among different boats.

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