Spring is full of paradoxes. After interminable gray skies and snowy hillsides, the days get longer and the nights warmer. Rivers begin to rise. Driveways and car racks fill up with dusty boats as anxious boaters prepare for the season. However, despite the cumulative human desire to have the cold days behind us, and to launch our boats on swollen rivers, spring is not summer.
As was the case last May on the Gallatin River in Montana. The river had risen after a few warm days. Overnight, once vacant put-ins were populated with eager kayakers, rafters, and canoers. However, as any veteran of western Montana knows, a warm day in May can include snow flurries and freezing temperatures.
While teaching a Swift Water Rescue course, a cold front moved in and the snow began to fly. Participants in the course would swim the river, and quickly huddle beneath a tarp to keep out of the wind as we discussed rescue techniques. Fortunately, most participants had drysuits on, and their discomfort was just that, discomfort, and did not pose a significant risk to life or limb.
As we clamored in and out of the icy river, I noticed a group preparing their raft for a float down the Gallatin. I began to assess their preparedness. I watched as they inflated their raft. It was an older bucket boat, but appeared to be in good repair, and seemed adequate for the class III-IV float they were about to embark upon. I watched inquisitively as they placed three raft paddles and one kayak paddle into the boat–I had not seen a kayak. I was amazed that during this process the group remained in their shorts and flip-flops. Perhaps I was jealous of their thick Montana skin as I shivered from the cold. The group leader then changed into a wetsuit and donned his PFD.
I lost track of them for a time as we continued our class. When next I noticed them, they were preparing to launch. The leader, a middle aged man who I assumed was the father of the three teenagers carrying the boat, was carrying the kayak paddle and wore the wetsuit. The teenagers, however, were in cotton T-shirts and shorts with horseshoe PFD’s on!
It was now clear to me that these people had no idea what they were getting into. Boat flips and unexpected swims are common on the Gallatin at that level. Even if they had great lines–which seemed unlikely judging from their gear (kayak paddle, older boat, horse-shoe PFD’s)–they would still be getting splashed by 35 degree water in a snow storm. No matter how warm blooded they were, hypothermia was going to be a companion on their rafting trip.
Here was my problem. The river ethic I had been taught, included freedom. Freedom for every boater to make choices on how they want to pursue their adventure, and freedom from others telling them how to do it. The river is a frontier, a wilderness, a place to escape the rules of society and immerse yourself in the laws of nature.
The other side of this is that I am a river safety educator. My job/passion is sharing the knowledge I have gained from my years on the river with others to assist them in their future decisions, and hopefully, to make their experiences safer.
In my mind I wrestled with these two contradictory thoughts. Should I tell these people that they are crazy and ill prepared for the trip? Or should I stand aside and let them choose their own adventure?
If I chose to talk to them, would I be overstepping my responsibility? Would that be the same as someone telling me that I shouldn’t run class V? Or the same as a government agency shutting down the river for safety purposes?
I believe in safety, but I realize that safety is relative, and what seems an acceptable risk to some, is off the charts for others.
Fortunately, my co-instructor decided much quicker than myself, and approached the group. He discussed with them the issues he saw in the clothing and gear and asked them to at least rent wetsuits from the local outfitter. They agreed.
For a few weeks I continued to question myself. Would I have stopped them? It seemed almost certain that they would have encountered trouble, if not an emergency, had they not been confronted. Would I want someone or some agency to impose their idea of a safety on my next trip? How would I have felt reading the paper the next day, seeing that an accident had happened, an accident I could have prevented?
The conclusion I have drawn from this experience, aided by the actions of my co-instructor, is that of personal judgment. Freedom is a key element to the river, and should not be abandoned to interference and regulations for the sake of safety alone. However, each situation presents itself with a different set of facts. It is our job, as responsible community members and river users, to judge the situation for what it is, and educate when necessary.