I patiently braced myself, pinched between the rock and the current. An occasional surge washed water over my head. Distracted by the din of rushing water, I did not notice them until they had already passed. I prefer to catch their attention early, so as not to alarm them. It was too late for this crew, though, they had seen me first.
I can only imagine what they must have thought. Below me, my canoe was wrapped on a rock. The green end of the Coleman sticking up into the air, and me, face down and half submerged.
In 1996, a man had drowned in almost this exact location. He too had wrapped a canoe. And as he swam past it, his shoelaces became snagged on the boat. He was entrapped and unable to free himself.
I did not want to impose this on others. I know what it is like to be falsely elevated into emergency. I had set this scenario up for training. The participants were in the parking lot, still out of site, waiting for the whistle blast to come to the rescue.
I watched, though, as this crew, continued to float past me, nearly hitting the canoe with their oars.
They must have seen me. I was only a few feet away. Yet they had passed, as if my boat and I were nothing more than additional obstacles to avoid.
At least, I thought, I did not alarm them. But what if I had been in trouble? Would they have stopped?
Perhaps this group knew that this was a scenario. It is one of our frequent teaching sites. Maybe they saw me as I scrambled out into the current to set it up. Or maybe they saw the participants, not as out of site as I had thought. I do not know.
However, after teaching these river rescue classes for the past ten years, and being a boater for over twenty, this story is indicative of an observed trend. As the river community grows in numbers, the awareness of others diminishes.
When I first began teaching, nearly every boater that passed, stopped. They would ask if I was alright and if I needed a ride back to shore. But as time has passed, those encounters have become fewer. And now it seems like the only boats that stop are the well-used ones, with grizzled, squinty-eyed captains. Newer boats, with shiny frames and composite oars tend to pass by, determined to continue their float.
Perhaps this trend is due to the fact that people new to the river lack confidence and experience, and just don’t know what to do. It could be, too, that people choose to stay out of the way. Maybe they believe that someone else will take care of the problem. There are endless possibilities.
But as this awareness of others diminishes, so too does our safety on the water. Nine times out of ten we can self-rescue, but there is always that chance that we may need help.
In 2008, my brother-in-law sat wet, shoeless and without a boat on the shore of the Colorado. Numerous boats passed by, including his own group. Not one of them stopped. Somehow he ended up back in the water, but by the time help came, it was too late.
Let’s hope the next time someone stops.
by Cody Harris