"GET ME A ROPE UP THERE!
When it became clear that a swift and effective rescue was necessary, veteran Big Sandy Boater Max Harbert took the reigns of the rescue of his friend, Joe (name changed for protective measures), who had found himself in a potentially deadly bind at the notorious Splat rapid, a sequence of two difficult drops. The first drop cascades while losing about 8-feet of elevation as it crescendos through sticky and complicated holes and had reeled Joe into its G-spot. Squirting his boat into a short vertical dance, Joe landed upside down in the rapid's fast current headed for the second drop of Splat, a 15-foot waterfall that lands on a trailer-sized boulder. Separated by about 30 feet (seen in the photo to the right), the duo presents paddlers brave enough to attempt a run with little margin for error. Descending the waterfall safely requires a swift and strong trajectory to the left. Boaters swimming the bottom drop or running it in any other fashion are generally likely to be subjected to consequences ranging from serious injury to drowning.
Big Sandy Creek was running at an enjoyable level of 5.85 feet on the Rockville gauge for the final Saturday of 2007. When my kayaking partner for the day, Jason, and I got to the put in and began to suit up, I expressed surprise at the fact that there were no other cars parked there, giving us the false promise of a quiet and unobstructed run down my favorite local river. The fallacy of it was exposed within a few minutes when a caravan of six more vehicles arrived. Safety comes in numbers, so part of me was relieved and ultimately, the cliche proved itself true on this day.
The mile or so to the first waterfall, Wonderfalls, is an exciting warm up for the big rapids below and a good time for the paddlers in a group to become acquainted with each other. In this case, there were several first-time Sandy paddlers in two groups making up about 15 boaters. The first timers had all successfully run much more dangerous rivers like the Green (NC) and Blackwater, so we all proceeded with no concern and ran the approach and Wonderfalls. Waiting at the bottom of the 18-foot drop, the group saw no issues whatsoever and so we all peeled out into the current and moved on.
It was only a week ago at Wonderfalls where I had witnessed both the most fearful and astonishing moments of my whitewater experiences. After beaching himself onto the ledge at the top of a swollen Wonderfalls, a member of the group in which I was paddling spun sideways to a position parallel with the ledge, and toppled over, landing on his side. To our concern, he disappeared completely for an exceedingly uncomfortable period of time and we saw no equipment, boat or swimmer emerge from the violent hole at the bottom of the falls. After a minute or two, we astonishingly discovered that he'd executed a roll only to find himself behind the waterfall in the large space under the overhanging rocks.
A paddler swam at Little Splat. I was told that he hadn't met his annual quota, so there was little anything could do about it. There's no sense in fighting the River Gods.
The near tragedy then occurred at Splat, and the intensity of the rescue that ensued in the relatively small distance between Splat's two drops was bone-chilling. When the day's first Splat runner, Jason Hilton, indicated his intentions, I proceeded to the best rope-throwing position at the foot of the first drop. From this position, a rope can reach across the river far enough above the big waterfall to pull a swimmer to an eddy before an unthinkable swim onto Splat rock can occur. Jason, who runs Splat regularly, paddled through both drops without incident, perhaps giving Joe a poor impression of the precision required in running the rapid.
And so, equipped with the best wishes of all of the members of both group, Joe proceeded. His run was ugly from the beginning. With a near-flip at the top of the first drop, Joe was moving sideways while bracing hard on his right side as he entered the mayhem of the hole at the bottom of the cascade. Within a few seconds, he was attempting his roll while being pushed against the cliff on the right side of the river, where the current is at its strongest. But, his attempts failed as he scraped his paddle against the rocks over and over. Finally coming to rest underneath an overhanging section of the rocks, he quickly exited his capsized boat and found himself in a grotto behind a small waterfall. We were all relieved to see him give the "a-ok" sign by tapping his head with his hand. Joe even was hanging onto his paddle and boat!
Because I was on the left side of the river and Joe was inside a narrow space, I was unable to do more than to be ready to throw a rope to him if he came out into the current. I started walking back to where the group was all standing, but was quickly and smartly sent back to my position by Max. Several paddlers jumped into their boats, splashed into the water below the waterfall, and paddled across to the other side. Jumping to their feet with ropes in hand, they then quickly scaled the cliff and moved their way to a point directly above Joe.
The rescue from there went smoothly. Ropes and hands were offered to Joe, which he gratefully accepted and he, along with his boat and paddle, was raised to safety. Joe and Max hugged each other there on the rocks, and a small celebration erupted among the rest of us. I have been witness to such celebrations before, and it is difficult to adequately describe the feeling associated with seeing a life saved by the actions of others. It was a great way to end an unforgettable year of paddling.
Git r' dun.