On being stranded on a river in a raging blizzard – and why rescue services need to be free

bermuda-bubbleI read with interest the story of Reza Baluchi, an ultra-marathoner trying to “run” from Florida to Bermuda in a human-powered inflatable bubble. He was rescued at sea after he signaled for help.

I was captivated by the idea, and watched the videos of him creating his bubble, of testing it extensively, of taking smaller trips in preparation. And then came his coup d’etat – a run from Florida to Bermuda – a feat he had trained for years for. It ended in a significantly less spectacular fashion than he had hoped.

And then came the inevitable judgments. He was stupid. He should have to pay for his rescue. He never should have been out there in the first place. He failed the idiot test.

I disagree. Rescue services should be provided with taxpayer money for many reasons – perhaps most importantly because we’ve all been there. Sure, one could argue that Reza’s run to Bermuda was foolish, but don’t we all take our live in our hands when we climb behind the steering wheel to drive to the grocery store? If we want to be rescued if something goes spectacularly wrong a block from our house, we need to rescue those far away from home as well.

Learning happens through those failures.

*********

This whole debacle brought me back to 1983 when, according to some, I would have been considered an idiot. Had cell phones been a thing back then, there is no question that we would have called for help. Seeing as how it happened in the dark ages before the invention of cell phones, we were on our own. We were lucky all six of us made it out alive.

canoe on lakeIt all started when a group of friends decided to spend Thanksgiving canoeing down the Platte River. We were all students at University of Northern Colorado, and decided to go for one last adventure before winter set in. We loaded three canoes, a turkey, sleeping bags, tents, and other assorted gear into our cars and headed out.

The cast of characters were:

Pete: Pete was your quintessential mountain man. He knew everything. Having practically grown up in the mountains, Pete was a treasure trove of knowledge and experience.

Steve: Steve didn’t have quite the level of knowledge that Pete did, but he would certainly be considered an expert in all things backcountry.

Me: I came in third on the “knowledge and experience totem pole.” I had grown up backpacking and had taken a mountaineering class in Washington, including several winter camping trips on Mt. Rainier.

Pat: Pat had a fair level of knowledge, having done several backpacking trips.

Jeannie: She clocked in with about the same amount of knowledge and experience as Pat. She was no stranger to a backpack or the backcountry.

Gail: Gail was our newbie. A city girl who had never been camping in her life.

canoeIt was a beautiful fall day when we climbed into our canoes. The air was crisp and clean; the leaves were at their peak of fall color. We slowly glided along the smooth water, soaking in the last of the sun’s rays before winter hit.

The following day we spent lounging around our campsite on the shore. Pete and Steve dug a pit, filled it with coals, and cooked the most tender, delicious turkey I had ever eaten. We read. We wrote. We sang songs. It was delightful.

When I awoke the following morning, I was surrounded by an eerie silence. I lay in my tent, listening to soft, muffled sounds off in the distance, wondering what was going on.

One peek out my tent door gave me my answer. Snow blanketed my tent and covered all our gear. In the white-out conditions, we could barely see the river a mere 20 feet away.

The six of us huddled together, discussing our options. We could wait it out, but how long would we need to wait? One day? Or six? We were in a fairly remote part of Colorado, with no possibility of hiking out. If we were to leave, our canoes were our only option.

In the end, we packed up and climbed into the boats. Our plan was to go all the way to our cars, rather than take two days as we had planned. It would be a long day, but we figured we could make it.

Snow continued to fall, making visibility very limited. The river was filled with slush as snowplows in Denver poured a never-ending supply of snow into the water. We somberly paddled our canoes toward our cars.

For a while, everything appeared to be going well. We slowly, but surely, made progress. But then everything fell apart at the seams.

“I’m going to stop and get Gail into her sleeping bag,” Pete called out to us. “She’s too cold. I’ll catch up!”

We pushed on and, sure enough, Pete and Gail soon caught up. Gail was trembling uncontrollably in her sleeping bag and Pete was controlling the boat on his own. It was clear that Gail was in danger – hypothermia was setting in. We needed to get to the cars fast.

And then, I’m still not exactly sure how this happened, but my canoe hit a submerged log. The fast-flowing waters quickly spun the boat around until we were broadside to the log, and it went down. Pat and I jumped to our feet, not quite sure what was about to happen. Fortunately, our boat never went all the way down – it remained pinned to the log, about 2 feet below the surface, roughly fifteen feet from shore.

Steve and Jeannie were ahead of us and had no idea we were in trouble. They continued on to the cars and returned to the university. Fortunately, Pete and Gail were behind us.

“Hang tight!” Pete yelled to be heard over the howling gale. “I’ll get Gail to shore, then come back for you.”

Pat and I stood in our submerged canoe with water swirling about our knees. At least we were dry above that.

Pete navigated his canoe up to shore and asked Gail to get out. She was too far gone with hypothermia to think straight.

“Gail!” we shouted. “Take your arms out of your sleeping bag!” She slowly extricated her arms from her down cocoon.

“Gail! Stand up!” She slowly stood up.

“Push your sleeping bag down to your ankles!”

“Take your right foot and put it on the ground!”

It took forever, but we managed to coach Gail out of the canoe and onto dry, snowy land. She stood there, staring at us with a dazed look. We knew we didn’t have much time.

Pete slowly bought his canoe around to rescue me, then Pat. All four of us were on land, but our situation was dire. All our food had gone down with our canoe, but that was the least of our worries. More importantly, we were left with only one tent and one sleeping bag. We were four people. Two of us were wet from the knees down, and Gail was severely hypothermic.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zschnepf/481732923/in/photolist-Jz1q4-98YzyE-5EpfEH-4sGnt9-jDNeoj-b3Q8Zx-jBav6P-bbMCuF-5QnQdQ-jFcKBy-m9maNd-dXzFip-8T1jMA-jRx15H-4BcfYj-dxpnKR-9kLFvi-6rXBcA-dYmohk-8Shv6k-hyFbJm-93mP63-e166dz-iE1nnt-bi73JP-inwgGJ-kigWWz-njdzxh-6K2sFm-jUdkyU-yb9Ev-yb9PT-yb9cG-yb9Zd-yb93y-yba41-yb9gY-yb9uQ-yb9kw-yb9K8-yb9qz-yb9A2-yb9Uz-jUaSBR-jUbgZc-7qPAVo-5Va7Cw-7rMP3C-BZh5o-d4XB5We jumped into action. I cleared a spot in the woods, while Pat and Pete quickly grabbed the tent and got it set up. Taking Gail by the hand, I led her into the tent, stripped her naked, then stripped down myself. I wrestled the sleeping bag up and around the two of us and hugged Gail tight, hoping beyond hope that my body heat wasn’t too little too late.

In the meantime, Pete and Pat scurried around, digging beneath the three feet of snow to gather firewood. We all knew it would be a long night.

Luck was on our side, I guess. Gail responded to my body heat and, within a couple hours, was back to normal. I left her snuggled into the sleeping bag and headed out to the guys around the fire. What now? Pat and I had soaking wet boots. The fire was great, but we weren’t quite sure how effective it would be against the frigid temps.

By this point, it was dark and the snow had let up a bit. It was still snowing, but not quite so hard. The moon was trying to peak through the clouds. The river was still a slushy mess. The silence was deafening.

And then Pete pulled me aside. I will never forget that moment, standing on the side of the river, looking out at the power of the water. I had never felt so inadequate, so helpless, so utterly dependent on somebody else. Pete was my rock at that moment.

“I’m leaving,” he said. “I saw a hunter a few miles back and I assume he probably had a cabin around here. I’m going back to see if I can find him. You have the most experience of anybody here, so I’m leaving you in charge.”

My heart skipped a beat before it dropped down into the pit of my stomach. I needed Pete. I needed his strength. I needed his experience and wisdom. “Don’t leave!” I wanted to cry out, but I knew his plan was as good as any. We needed help and, if there really was a hunter back there, this was our best bet.

I stood on the riverbank and watched as Pete slowly disappeared into the night.

bonfireHours passed. Gail remained tucked into the sleeping bag. Pat and I sat quietly, boots near the fire, watching the flames dance in the darkness…

“Listen to me guys!” Pete suddenly blurted as he barged into our camp at 3 in the morning. “Just listen. Don’t ask questions. Just listen to me and do what I say.”

Gail sat up in the tent. Pat and I stared at him from across the fire.

“We’re going to leave everything. Just leave it all here. All four of us are going to climb into my canoe and we’re going to head out. I’ve got the car as close as I could get it, but it’s still a ways. We’re going to have to listen carefully for a waterfall and make sure we get out of the river before that. The car is there.”

Not saying a word, we all made our way to the river. One after the other we climbed into the boat. With all the weight, the canoe rode precariously low in the water. “Don’t move,” Pete warned. “It won’t take much for us to go over.”

Silently, we glided down the river in the night, ears strained for the sound of the waterfall. The white of the snow glistened off trees and, if we hadn’t been so scared, I’m certain it would have been one of the loveliest sights I’d seen. When you’re fighting for your life, however, those are not the things your mind fixes upon.

Fortune shown upon us. We heard the waterfall. We pulled out the canoe and piled into the car. At 6 in the morning, we arrived back to our dorms. We had survived. All six of us.

*********

As I think back upon this experience, there is no doubt in my mind that, had cell phones been in existence back then, we would have called for rescue. Some would say we were idiots for not knowing a blizzard was on its way. Maybe we were, maybe we weren’t. I don’t know what the weather reports had said, and am not sure that any of us thought to check them. Maybe Pete did? Maybe he didn’t?

But stuff happens. We had prepared as well as we knew how to prepare. We thought we were adequately prepared. We thought we had crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s. We thought we had the background knowledge and experience to safely plan and execute a 4-day canoe trip on the Platte River.

It’s just that things didn’t go quite as we had planned.

Should individuals be required to pay for rescue services? Some would say they should pay if they are idiots. Take the idiot test and, if you fail, then you pay. But who is going to give that idiot test? What are the criteria? Just because Person A cannot conceive of the idea of doing something, does that mean that Person B shouldn’t do it either?

Consider all the “foolish” feats that people have done throughout history. Each explorer builds off the knowledge gained by those who went before him. Do we really want to put an end to all that? I say no. I say let them go, and rescue them if need be.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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2 Responses to On being stranded on a river in a raging blizzard – and why rescue services need to be free

  1. Green Girls Don't Get Fat December 21, 2014 at 5:13 am #

    This is a great story. I hiked down and back in the Grand Canyon, and even though I didn’t need rescuing, they made it very clear that it would cost people to get rescued. Unfortunately, too many people take too many risks. It is not even just the money, but the rescuers are risking their lives. A big problem happening now is urban sprawl. It is getting harder and harder to get rescuers to cover such a large terrain.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel December 25, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

      It is a hard issue, and cell phones are making it harder. It used to be that you couldn’t call for rescue so easily, so people just died. Now, they can call – and we risk a lot to save them. Is that a good thing? I guess time will tell.

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