When planning a river trip, it is a really good idea to check gauges, weather conditions, sunset time, water temperatures, and accessibility. A number of trips have run into difficulties and paddlers had to walk out when the river rose substantially while they were paddling. It is really important to keep an eye out for this situation since you can often paddle faster than the current to stay ahead of the bubble. You really don't want to get caught short on daylight and be stuck spending the night on the river. The Cheat Canyon is an excellent example of a very remote run. If someone loses their boat and needs to walk out - do you know where a land based escape route is?
It is very important to check the weather before you head off to the mountains. It isn't unusual for the weather in the mountains be more than 20° cooler than the Baltimore / Washington area. Air, water, and wind are all important factors in hypothermia prevention.
The weather can quickly change, especially in the mountains. A nice bright sunny day can change to a very stormy day or even snow fall late in the season. It is always a good idea to stash an extra top in your boat just in case. If someone is very cold and less than prepared, you can loan them that top and avoid hypothermia or plain discomfort. Thunderstorms often warrant a break in paddling as well. Hail storms are no picnic either - get out of harms way. Fortunately sudden storms also pass quite quickly.
Here are some good weather web sites:
- NOAA Weather: I have to warn you, this site takes time to learn but it is jam-packed with great information.
- Weather Underground
- Your local television, radio, or weather station
Water and Air Temperature
I prefer the 50:50 rule, if either the water or air temperatures are less than 50°, hypothermia is a risk factor. High wind speeds also need to be considered as well which is why many weather forecasts provide the wind chill factor. All of this information is available at any of the above weather sites with the exception of water temperature. Water temperature is typically available from USGS or NOAA web sites. Here is an example: Potomac River Water Temperature.
Hypothermia is not that uncommon in whitewater boating. Milder forms of hypothermia can even occur on a hot summer day (as many whom have paddled the Savage River and swam have discovered). Hypothermia in simple terms is when the body's core temperature drops and it doesn't take too much of a drop to cause significant problems.
Here are the various stages of hypothermia:
- Stage 1: Body temperature drops just a degree or two. You will notice that the person is shivering and may have blue lips. Take these warning signals seriously. Check the person's clothing for suitability. Provide extra insulating layers and wind protection. I really like a skull cap to add warmth really fast. If you have warm liquids like soup, tea, or coffee - offer it to the victim. If you have been sitting eating lunch, get back to paddling to get the blood flowing again. If these steps are not feasible, consider walking out with the person. Whatever you do, don't ignore these symptoms.
- Stage 2: Body temperature drops 2 - 4 degrees. This is starting to get very serious. The body in an effort to save itself shuts down blood flow to the extremities to concentrate on core protection. The muscles stop working in this stage and that means they can't even hold their paddle properly. Many start acting rather silly in this stage of hypothermia and are often totally unaware on where they are at. If someone is in this condition, they don't belong on the river - period! You need to get them dry and warm pronto. You also need to evacuate them and get them to a hospital for further evaluation. In the mean time, wrap in anything that provides significant insulation like a sleeping bag, blankets, space blanket, spare clothing, etc.
- Stage 3: Body temperature drops roughly 10 degrees. This takes some time to occur and the body basically shuts down as much as possible. Heart rate and breathing slow considerably in this stage. You must get the victim to a hospital or ambulance ASAP!
Prevention is rather simple:
- Check the weather and water temperatures prior and during the trip.
- Dress appropriately
- Dress in layers, bring spare clothing
- Look for hypothermia signals on your paddling buddies
- When paddling in cold weather, paddle at least one grade lower than your normal runs
- Remember the 50-50 rule: if either the water temperature or the wind chill factor is 50° or lower - be prepared for hypothermia
The ACA River Kayak Level 1 curriculum covers a couple of strategies for conserving body heat should you capsize in a large body of water and assistance is expected to take some time. The first is HELP which stands for Heat Escape Lessening Position. Basically you curl up into a ball exposing as little body surface area as possible. This is a good strategy if you are by yourself in open water which by itself is a serious lack of good judgment. The second approach is when a group of boaters have capsized near each other. This strategy is called HUDDLE which is self-explanatory. Think of this as a group hug and you are keeping each other warm and can talk to each other. These strategies and other useful information are in the following ACA pamphlet: Safe Paddling Brochure.
Hyperthermia is the exact opposite of hypothermia, the body gets too hot. Other terms for hyperthermia is heat exhaustion (beginning stage) or heat stroke (advanced stage). This isn't as common as hypothermia in paddling but does occur (I know from firsthand experience). Initially, you begin to sweat profusely which is the bodies cooling system. Dehydration then takes place. Muscles cramps are really common and they really smart! You may get a splitting head ache, tire easily, vomit, and find your heart racing. Believe it or not, you may shiver periodically. The body is doing everything it can to drop your core temperature. You need to take care of this now! In mild forms, try rolling or use your helmet to pour water on your head. Consider taking a break and completely immerse your body in the water. Water does a great job at transferring heat from the body. Take off excess clothing. By all means, start drinking - you need to replace lost fluids. Water is best but sometimes you also need to replace salts as well. Dilute Gatorade is great at quickly replacing your vital electrolytes. I always take a bottle with me and drink throughout the day. If the situation is serious, take the person to a hospital immediately.
- Dress suitably, clothing that aids in rapid evaporation is ideal
- Drink early and often
- Monitor your urine. Ideally, it should be clear. If it is a dark yellow, you are dehydrated.
- Consider dilute Gatorade to replace salts
- Get wet. This is a great time to practice your rolls.
- Eat lunch in the shade
Changing Water Levels
You also need to keep a close eye on the water level during the trip as covered in the River Sense article. Determining if the river is quickly dropping is pretty easy, the rocks will have a distinct water mark above the current river level. Lunch time is a real good time to note or mark the water level before and after lunch. If you are familiar with the run, you can also get a sense whether the river is rising as well. In some cases you may need to pick up the pace a bit. In other cases when it appears that the river may be heading towards an unsafe level for your group, walking out may be the smart move. This is why it is important to check upstream gauges as well on the day of the trip.
Time of Day (Don't get caught short)
As we approach winter time, the sun sets earlier in the day. Many of our favorite runs happen to be in canyons as well so the sun sets even earlier for us. The last thing you want to do is paddle in the dark on serious whitewater. All of the weather forecasts provide the sunset time. When leading a trip, bring an inexpensive waterproof watch and monitor the time. It is all too easy to lose track of time when having fun playing the river. Besides getting stuck overnight, you may really tick off shuttle drivers and loved ones. The following article provides a vivid reminder why time of day is so critical: Alone Article.
Accessibility (some runs are very remote)
Remote runs present extra safety challenges. If someone needs to walk out due to a busted or pinned boat, this may take a great deal of effort and additional risk due to climbing. The American Whitewater site contains great information on river run characteristics and accessibility. Guide Books are even a better resource: Guide Books. Also try posting on your club site for additional information - I am certain that every run in this area has been paddled by numerous boaters that are willing to share notes. Another great source of information is local fishermen and even local home owners. This is a great way pick up new friends learn a great deal about the area you are paddling in.