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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Senseless Mishaps on the Susquehanna

I am always saddened when I read about folks drowning in any body of water, especially the Susquehanna. I experience other emotions when I read that they weren't wearing their PFDs and/or they were renting canoes/kayaks from an established (?) outfitter when the river levels were - in my opinion and experience - definitely unsafe.

First: Here's a quick primer on the danger posed by lowhead dams.

Second: See the yellow line on the USGS graph below? At Wilkes-Barre, any river level above 6' would more than likely ( it has been done in the past ) cause RiverFest to be cancelled. In other words, it would be unsafe to be on that stretch of the Susquehanna at that gage height, especially with the number of novice and otherwise inexperienced paddlers that usually participate in RiverFest.

First, check out this brief article and video clip. And another covering the same incident.

Here's what the river was doing at that time @ Lock Haven.

And here's yet another unfortunate incident from earlier this year. I wonder what the water temperature was on April 13th? I'm guessing it was pretty darn cold.

And yet another near tragedy from the 4th of July weekend. See where the river was on July 4th at Wilkes-Barre in the first graph above?

There have been several other drownings and rescues on the Susquehanna this year. Any loss of life is a tragedy, and there is always a risk associated with being on the water in a boat, or inner tube, or even  standing along the shoreline, as this article sadly points out. High water levels, cold water temperatures, lowhead dams, not wearing PFD's and consuming alcohol - individually or in any combination - are a potentially dangerous mix.

I always check the USGS website for current streamflow conditions and check out the local weather forecast before planning any trip on the Susquehanna. Been doing that for years. I also know where most of the lowhead dams and other significant hazards are, and try my best to avoid those areas if I possibly can. It may make for a boring trip at times, but I'd rather err on the side of safety.

Considering the number of mishaps on the Susquehanna so far this year, perhaps it's time the PFBC, DEP, DCNR and other state agencies save a few lives by issuing a widely-distributed joint warning about the dangers of boating in high waters and/or near lowhead dams and not wearing PFDs, instead of (IMHO) useless drivel like this recent announcement.

Finally, circling back to RiverFest 2013, I have bits and pieces of an event on the river that I'd like to address before I forget the same.

When paddling with a large group of people, especially in an organized event like RiverFest, there is usually a point boat leading the way and a sweep boat bringing up the rear. The rules of the river are simple: no one gets in front of the point boat, and the sweep boat keeps everyone in front of them - i.e. they should be the last boat to take out.


Now, having paddled a couple of thousand miles on the Susquehanna - in all types of weather - with groups both large and small, I know that it is inevitable that in (usually) less than an hour, a group of boats that put in at about the same time becomes spread out over wide distances due to the varying abilities of the paddlers. I do, however, find it somewhat difficult to understand how anyone can ( or be allowed to ) fall behind by several miles on such a short trip like day #2 of RiverFest, especially with the river up and running at higher levels than in prior years. If I were the sweep boat on June 22nd, I would have been - without a doubt - the most unpopular paddler on the river that day, as any/all dawdlers would have either been asked to get off the river at an appropriate take-out spot ( Reason: Safety concerns for them and me ) and call for a ride...or been subject to one helluva workout from which they still might not be fully recovered. 

All that being said; I'm being told that within a few hundred yards of the take-out ramp at Nesbitt Park, the sweep boat paddled ahead and left the last two and obviously tired paddlers in the flotilla to finish the trip by themselves. And shortly thereafter - you probably guessed it - one or both of them fell out of their boats and lost some important valuables. As I understand it, Paddler A ditched first, and then in an attempt to help him, Paddler B swamped and lost her cell phone, car keys, etc. Fortunately, everyone made it back to shore alive.

If the sweep boat paddler would have done his/her job and stayed at the rear of the group for the remaining ~200 yards of the trip, it would have been his/her responsibility to assist Paddler A, and Paddler B would have more than likely remained high and dry. 

Anyway, I wasn't there to witness this, so I do not know for certain exactly what happened. However, having assisted other paddlers who have gone for unscheduled swims over the years, I know things happen very quickly when a boat flips. What I also know is that if you don't know what you're doing, you probably should not be on the river in the first place. That includes both paddlers and those who are assigned to assist them.

Here's my 30 second PSA: Always wear a PFD when in a boat, always protect and secure your valuables, always let someone on land know where/when you'll be putting in and taking out, ( Hint: at minimum - call them when safely back on terra firma ), always check river levels and the weather forecast before the trip to make sure it's safe to be on the water, always travel with others who know the river or lake - either in the same boat or with multiple boats that stay relatively close - and never mix alcohol and boating.

Finally and forevermore: if you are a novice paddler and/or planning a trip on a section of a river you've never paddled before; go with an organized/experienced group - be prepared to keep up with them - or STAY HOME.  

As for me? I've always had a simple rule; if you're in my boat, you wear a PFD and be willing to break a sweat. Otherwise, you walk.

Up next: My "experience" at the Forty-Fort Meeting House.

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