Saint Alphonsus Health System

Whitewater Tips

Before you enjoy Idaho's swift waters it is important to fully appreciate all they have to offer and respect the boundaries they set forth for us. Please review this information to make sure you are fully prepared.

Outfitter Safety Checklist

Before you select a whitewater guide or outfitter, get answers to these questions:

  • The Outfitter?
    • How long has your company been in business? If less that 3 years, how many years of whitewater experience do the owners and guides have?
    • What is your safety record? How many accidents? How many injuries or deaths?
    • Do you have liability insurance? What is the company's name?
    • Do you have a policy and procedures manual?
      • Are employees required to read and sign this manual?
      • Does it have an emergency response plan in it?
      • What are the drug and alcohol policies for both guides and clients?
  • Pre-Trip Preparation
    • Are guides required to give a standardized safety talk before each trip?
  • Does the talk include:
    • Basic swimming position?
    • How your personal flotation device (PFD)should fit?
    • What to do if the boat overturns or you are thrown out of the boat?
  • Equipment
    • How old is your equipment and is it inspected and tested regularly?
    • Will the life jackets pass the “float test”?
  • Water Rescue Training & Skills
    • Do your guides have advanced first aid training, wilderness EMT, Wilderness First Responder (WOFER) or equivalent training?
    • Do your guides have river rescue certification? If not, do they have independent training or in-house rescue training of 16 hours or more?
    • Do you know if your local fire or search and rescue team is river-rescue certified?
      • Do you know what their estimated response time is for a river call?
      • Do you carry cell or satellite phones in order to contact them?
      • What is the cell/satellite phone's coverage area?
    • How many training runs do experienced guides have to do on a new run? How many hours of guide training is required for new guides?

Precautions You Should Take

    • Match your skills and experience to the class of the river (see below).
    • Cold water, which could lead to hypothermia, can rob your strength and impair your ability to swim to safety. Wear a wetsuit, dry suit, nylon or fleece—not cotton!
    • Coast Guard approved whitewater lifejacket/PFD (Type 3 or 5), fastened and snug
    • Helmet—on appropriate river stretches, to protect from serious injury
    • Coldwater protective clothing
    • Protective footwear
    • Throw rope, whistle & knife—and make sure you know or your guide knows how to use them
    • The minimum party is three people to two craft
    • Have a frank knowledge of your boating ability – never attempt rivers or rapids beyond your ability
    • Have a float plan and rescue strategy
    • Safety of group is only as strong as least experienced member
    • Fallen trees, low-hanging branches and other strainers
    • Rocks and undercuts
    • Powerful hydraulics
    • Away from hazards, toward calm water, the shore or your boat
    • If rafting, pull swimmers aboard immediately
    • Avoid undercut banks and rocks
    • Feet up and pointed downstream
    • Use your arms to maneuver
    • Don't stand up! Avoid foot entrapment. Fast water can entrap your foot between rocks, push you over, and pin you under the surface.
    • When spilled, check on your partner, get to the upstream end of the craft and swim to safest shore (a 15-foot canoe hurled against a rock by a current of 10 mph can exert a force of over four tons). Leave the boat only if it will improve your personal safety. If a rescue is not likely, if the water is numbing cold, or if a worse set of rapids is approaching, swim to the safest shore. To lessen your chance of injury, adopt the safe swim position.
    • Special training in recognizing and treating hypothermia is important
    • Proper foot wear, throw rope, knife, whistle and waterproof matches
    • If you wear eyeglasses, secure yours to your head and bring a spare pair
    • Full repair kit to mend the raft
    • DO NOT WEAR: bulky jackets, ponchos, heavy boots, or anything that will reduce your ability to survive a swim

Recognizing Life Threatening Conditions (for the raft operator)

From the American Whitewater Association
Whitewater rivers contain many hazards which are not always easily recognized. The following are the most frequent reasons people are injured or killed. High water. The river's speed and power increase tremendously as the flow increases. This causes the rapids, which is the thrill for whitewater enthusiasts. It also makes for the most hazardous conditions. Reliable gauge information will help your guide be prepared for the dangers including the additional risks posed from melting snow, hard rain, and upstream dam releases which may greatly increase the flow.

Cold Temperatures. Cold drains your strength and robs you of the ability to make sound decisions on matters affecting your survival. Cold water immersion, because of the initial shock and the rapid heat loss which follows, is especially dangerous. With water temperatures of less than 50 degree f., wear a wetsuit or drysuit for protection if you should need to swim. Next best material is wool or pile clothing under a waterproof shell. NEVER COTTON. IT WILL WEIGH YOU DOWN.

Strainers. brush, fallen trees, bridge pilings, undercut rocks or anything else which allows river current to sweep through can pin boats and boaters against the obstacle. Water pressure on anything trapped this way can be overwhelming. Rescue is often extremely difficult. Pinning may occur in fast current, with little or no whitewater to warn of the danger.

Dams, ledges, reversals, holes, and hydraulics. When water drops over an obstacle, it curls back on itself, forming a strong upstream current which may be capable of holding a boat or swimmer. Some holes make for excellent sport. Others are proven killers. Paddlers who cannot recognize the difference should avoid all but the smallest holes. Hydraulics around man-made dams must be treated with utmost respect regardless of their height or the level of the river. Despite their seemingly benign appearance, they can create an almost escape-proof trap. A swimmers only exit from the "drowning machine" is to dive below the surface where the downstream current is flowing beneath the reversal.

Broaching. When a boat is pushed sideways against a rock by strong current, it may collapse and wrap. This is especially dangerous to kayak and decked canoe paddlers; these boats will collapse and the combination of indestructible hulls and tight outfitting may create a deadly trap. Even without entrapment, releasing pinned boats can be extremely time-consuming and dangerous. To avoid pinning, throw your weight downstream towards the rock. This allows the current to slide harmlessly underneath the hull.

Boating alone is discouraged. The minimum party is three people or two craft. HAVE AN HONEST knowledge of your boating ability, and don't attempt rivers or rapids which lie beyond that ability.

Whitewater Classification System

Divided into six classes, the whitewater rating system attempts to provide a uniform set of evaluation criteria for rivers. Bear in mind that changes in river levels can dramatically affect a river's difficulty rating.

Class I: Easy
Fast moving water with small waves; passages clear; no serious obstacles. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.

Class II: Novice
Straightforward rapids with wide clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily avoided by trained boaters. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.

Class III: Intermediate
Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult and can swamp open canoes. May require complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges. Large waves and strainers are often present. Strong eddies and powerful current effects are common, especially on large volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries to swimmers are rare; self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be necessary to avoid long swims.

Class IV: Advanced
Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids or rest. Rapids may require "must" moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting is necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills.

Class V: Expert
Extremely long, obstructed or very violent rapids which expose a boater to above-average endangerment. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex and demanding routes. Rapids may continue long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. Eddies, if any exist, are small, turbulent and hard to reach. Often, several of these factors are combined. Scouting is mandatory and often difficult. Swims are dangerous and rescue is difficult even for experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience and practiced rescue skills are essential for survival.

Class VI: Extreme
These runs exemplify the extremes of difficulty. The consequences of errors are usually fatal and rescue is usually impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close inspection and taking all precautions. This class does not represent drops thought to be unrunnable, but may include rapids which are only occasionally run.

Source: Chapin Clark Whitewater Safety Foundation

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