What a save: Local kayaker’s feat goes viral
November 18, 2015
Steamboat Springs — The video is astonishing, the kind that makes you holler to a friend, "You gotta see this!"
"No, I promise this time."
"No cats, I swear."
"Just watch it."
In the video, Steamboat Springs adventurer Lucas Strickland is waiting beside a river, one positively roaring as water smashes through a corridor of rocks. A kayak comes through those rocks first, upside down and barely visible in the surf. Even less visible is the kayaker bobbing behind — above the surface for just a moment at a time as the river rages toward even bigger rapids.
Kayaker and kayak float a little deeper into the screen before Strickland strikes. He jumps from the rocky shore into the white commotion, leapfrogs over the boat and pounces on the kayaker. His arms loop inside the boater's life vest, and in a flash, they're being hauled out.
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Strickland even manages to grab a paddle floating by as they reach shore and a crowd offers a loud salute.
It's a video that's been viewed nearly 500,000 times, but as dramatic as it is, Strickland himself said what it doesn't show is at least as stunning as what it does.
On hand to help
Strickland has been exploring Steamboat Springs high and low for nearly a decade, guiding for Steamboat Powdercats in winters and serving as a kayaking instructor and rafting guide through summers. He more recently started working as a statewide river ranger for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which allowed him to spend the shoulder season visiting family in his native Georgia.
That's how he ended up standing on the shore of the Green River in western North Carolina earlier this month.
The Green River Narrows Race is one of the premier whitewater kayaking races in the country, attracting more than 150 boaters for a perilous, timed descent through the rapids.
As important as any virtue in the race, Strickland explained, is endurance. It's exhausting, he said, and that's what he tried to keep in mind as he waited on that shore about 75 percent of the way down the course.
Some of the bigger highlights were above his location in "the Pit," such as a 15-foot drop and a tight, rocky rapids section known as "Gorilla."
Some were below, however, including Class 5 rapids just beyond his vantage point, at the exit of the Gorilla run.
He was volunteering at the race, putting to use the swiftwater rescue techniques he's learned through years of classes and on waters across the globe. He had plenty of opportunity. He said he jumped in eight times.
The paddlers were often panting heavily by the time they reached where he was stationed, and some who'd been flipped in by the Gorilla lacked the strength to right themselves. Strickland dove in and either flipped them back plastic-side-down or helped them kick out and swim for shore.
Nick Fielder didn't need any help kicking out or righting his boat.
He had come out of his boat well up the river, actually, and other kayakers and those on the shore began blowing whistles, alerting downstream rescuers such as Strickland that someone was coming and something needed to be done.
Help from behind
What you don't see, Strickland said, is the man behind the jump and the save. That man was John Abercrombie, a friend who was a part of Strickland's two-man rescue team that day.
When Strickland hit the water, whether it was to flip a boat, haul in a paddler or stretch for Fielder, he was attached to a rope, and it was Abercrombie on the other end of that rope, hauling him and whatever he could grab back to safety.
"Without him, I wouldn't have been able to do any of it," Strickland said.
Abercrombie's crucial contributions only barely make the video.
Strickland said his vantage point wasn't as good as the videographer's — Gwendolyn Sarah Arvidson — so he didn't see Fielder approaching. It was Abercrombie who first spotted Fielder, as the boater without a boat bobbed above the surface for a second.
"He shouted, 'Swimmer!'" Strickland said. "There's always gear in the way, but when he shouted that, I knew not to focus on the boat, but to look for someone in the water."
Another rescuer just upstream was the first to take a shot, but he couldn't reach Fielder. His attempt to drag the boat to shore didn't work, either.
Missing wasn't an option, Strickland said, and the reason isn't on the video either.
Fielder had already come through rapids and already gone over that big drop. He had broken vertebrae in his back, and those Class 5 rapids were still downstream.
So, he didn't miss.
"When I make the move, you can see there's definitely a half a second of hesitation on how I was going to get him," Strickland said. "The only thing that seemed to make sense was to go up and over the boat.
"I did that, then I was coming pretty much straight down on him. I rotated my body to where I was behind him, locked into his PSD (personal flotation device) and John had left just enough tension in the rope, and as soon as I had him, he was pulling me back in. I can't reiterate enough — John's the man."
Waiting for the call
Strickland began applying first aid after reaching shore, and medical professionals took over as soon as they arrived. Despite his injuries, Fielder actually figured the trip down the rest of the river to be a better route out than the hike, so he got back in his boat and kept going.
Strickland first realized there was a video after the competition, and he didn't get his first look until days later.
He was humble about the feat from the start.
"It's cool, great to see, but I don't deserve all the credit," he said.
Nevertheless, links to the video have spread quickly — through boater forums and beyond — across the globe.
"My sister really wants me to go on The Ellen DeGeneres Show," he said with a laugh.
There's been no call yet, but plenty of praise.
“Whitewater ninja!” one commenter wrote.
“Insane!” another added.
There have been plenty of "wows" and many, many, many calls of, "You gotta see this!"
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