Tree snags and foot traps: Students learn river safety during swiftwater rescue course
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Saturday sun glistened on a white froth of rapids in the Yampa River as a group of about 15 students in drysuits, helmets and neoprene prepared to plunge into the water, icy from snow melt.
One of their instructors, Matt Jost, shouted some final safety instructions over the clamor of the current before the students attempted to swim to the opposite riverbank.
“I want you to be constantly looking upstream for people coming down in crafts and wood,” he said. “There are a lot of logs in the river right now. We have to keep our eyes vigilant.”
Nicky Gallo, the second instructor, pointed to a stand-up paddleboarder surfing a rapid behind the Routt County Search and Rescue barn on 10th Street.
“Try not to get too distracted by the surfer,” he said jokingly.
The group was taking a basic swiftwater rescue course offered through Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, which aims to get people comfortable in whitewater and offers an overview of ways to save someone who gets swept away or trapped on the river.
Jost has been teaching the rescue class for four years through the college but has been instructing a variety of water rescue courses since the Swiftwater Safety Institute — which created the curriculum — was founded in 2011.
The course prepares students to respond to a multitude of life-threatening incidents, such as if a rock traps someone’s foot, or they fall out of a raft and cannot swim themselves back to shore.
Such skills are especially useful this time of year, when waters are cold and currents are strong.
The U.S. Geological Survey clocked the Yampa River at just over 1,700 cubic feet per second on Saturday. The flow has steadily strengthened over the week and will continue to do so as snow melts and floods down from the mountains.
Water is a hefty force. A single cubic foot of it weighs about 62 pounds. When water is moving, that weight gets exponentially stronger. Fresh water moving at 8 mph exerts a force of about 264 pounds, according to a report from the National Park Service.
Such brute strength explains why rivers can carry down entire trees during high water, and why people need to be prepared to deal with the dangers at hand.
Just a few days ago, Jost was at Charlie’s Hole, a popular rapid on the Yampa River by the Bud Werner Memorial Library. He noticed several logs someone likely had cut up and rolled into Soda Creek, a tributary of the Yampa.
They threatened several kayakers and paddleboarders playing in the rapid.
“If you’re not paying attention, those big stumps can come right at you,” he said.
After the heavy snowfall from this winter, Jost expects to see more and even bigger logs, as well as other debris, floating down during high water in the coming weeks.
“That’s probably our biggest hazard this time of year,” he said.
Logs can pose an especially dangerous threat when they get stuck in the river and create a snag for swimmers. In such a situation, the Swiftwater Safety Institute teaches people to hoist themselves over the snag — never to swim under. It is impossible to know what is below the river’s surface, and additional snags could trap someone if they try to submerge.
One of the students, Alex Hopkins, is a fishing guide for Bucking Rainbow in Steamboat. He took the class as a way to rescue clients in potential emergencies.
“It’s good practice,” agreed Graham Weaver, a fellow classmate who is also a guide for Bucking Rainbow. “But hopefully we never have to actually use it.”
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