I returned home after a day of swiftwater rescue practice to messages about a hunter whose body was recovered in the Wrangell Mountains (Alaska). Friends had shared the news because packrafts were used in the body recovery, but I was more interested in what went wrong. The NPS news release stated:
Based on evidence found by searchers, it appears that White attempted to cross Jacksina Creek and was swept away by the current.
We won’t know what actually went wrong—but because I was practicing wading techniques just hours before, I thought it was worth sharing documentation on the wading techniques I teach for the Swiftwater Safety Institute.
Typical applications for shallow/swift water crossings are to wade across moving water (like this hunter) or to access something in shallow water: a rock to sunbathe on, pinned boat, entrapped swimmer, etc.
Choosing a crossing
Look for the broadest part of the channel. A wide channel has shallower water. Braided rivers might allow you to connect gravel bars. Single channels will be deepest between the middle of the channel and the outside bank of a river bend.
Expect to swim: Before attempting a crossing, evaluate what could go wrong. “What are the consequences if I lose my footing?” If there are river hazards downstream (wood, rocks, waves), crossing is probably not appropriate. Expect to lose your footing, and have a plan for recovery.
Be prepared to let go of your gear: If you need to swim to shore, you will want to do it without the added bulk of a backpack. Keep your waist belt unbuckled so that you can escape the pack. I find trekking poles to be incredibly helpful during crossings, but I don’t use the wrist leashes. I want to be able to let go of the poles.
Evaluate your clothing: If you lose your footing, your clothing will fill with water. Caroline Van Hemert opens her [incredible] book The Sun is a Compass with a story about her husband Pat struggling to swim in a rain jacket in the Brooks Range of Alaska. The added weight of water in his sleeves made it nearly impossible for him to lift his arms out of the water while swimming. This is also why waders are so dangerous in moving water. Pat gave me this feedback: “My take away tips for having a long swim with a raincoat on is try to keep your arms in the water and choose a coat that’s relatively snug.”
There are many different wading techniques taught by various organizations. These are the techniques that the Swiftwater Safety Institute prefers based on a decade of field testing with thousands of participants. Other techniques can work just as well. The point is to be intentional and practice your crossings in a controlled setting before needing them during a trip.
The following is an excerpt from The Packraft Handbook, written by Luc Mehl (me!) and illustrated by Sarah K. Glaser. Print it out, throw it in the glove box, and practice these techniques (with a PFD and appropriate safety gear!) next time you are in a controlled setting and can afford to lose your footing.