Canyon Snapshots: “Rope!”

Posted by jlubans on December 10, 2013

(This is the third in a series of vignettes from 8 days on the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande in Texas. I was one of 11 expertly guided by Burt Kornegay. We paddled 6 fully-loaded canoes 90 miles and slept out under the stars (or cold, drizzling clouds).
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Caption: Calm waters: Tim Weikel in the back and me up front. Photo by Inès Weikel.
In a previous post on my canoe adventure I stressed the importance of communication between the paddler in the front and the paddler in the back of the boat. Each influences the direction of the boat whether in calm or raging waters. It’s more urgent in the latter; still if you want the boat to go in a more or less straight line; the two constantly need to inform each other.
Before heading out on the fourth day of paddling our guide gave us a quick rescue rope class. We gathered on the riverbank and were told about throwing the rescue rope (a bag with an enclosed rope which streams out when tossed). Burt, our guide, emphasized the necessity of catching the eye of the person in the water you are trying to rescue. Finally, we were not to throw the rope without calling out “Rope!” Well, hearing it is different from doing it. We want to rescue the swimmers, of course, but we also need to rescue the boat – we cannot afford to lose either the swimmers or the boat. So, there is some anxiety and confusion surrounding a rescue.
That very day I got to apply what I heard - or hadn’t heard.

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Caption: Capsize! Photo by Burt Kornegay.
It must have been at the aptly named Rodeo Falls. After scouting it from the top, five of the paddlers signed on along with Burt – three canoes*. I volunteered for stand-by and was assigned as a back-up rescue roper. The lead rope-thrower stressed that in case of a rescue I was to hold onto him tight, wrapping my arms around him from the back; there’d be an almighty yank and he’d need my help not to get pulled into the water. Our post was a slippery rock and both of us wore life jackets and helmets.
The first boat slipped through the boulders at the top of the rapids and then plunged down the slope; the bow disappearing into a hole in the water, and then popping out, leveling off. From there, the two paddlers made it through the rough water into an eddy.
When the second boat was ready, I was on my own. The lead roper had joined a small group further down the riverbank in anticipation of retrieving flipped boats. So it was the rope and I on the rock – see the photo.
The second boat flipped at the top row of boulders and tossed out its paddlers. They were hurled down the slope into the hole and spit out. As soon as I saw the boat go over, I knew it was show time - I would have to throw the rope. I waited until the swimmers were in range – by chance I did catch one’s eye – and then tossed the rope bag – a smooth, well-placed, arcing throw if I say so myself. He caught the rope and made it to shore. (The other swimmer – banged up, no less - was rescued further down). I hauled in the rope and put it back into the bag and continued my sentinel duty.
As I was patting myself on the back, déjà vu! The third boat flipped, right at the top. I waited for the swimmers and tossed the rope to the two of them. In the excitement, I forgot to catch the eye of either swimmer or to yell “Rope!” The swimmers made it to the eddy, with my useless trailing rope.
Upon reflection, I realized I’d taken in less than half of the riverbank rope throw class. But, we do learn from mistakes: Lesson One: I am not a quick study. Lesson Two: I need to do something for it to stick; hearing the theory is not enough. Lesson Three: I learn from my mistakes.
My not catching the eye of the swimmer (to confirm I was about to do something) and not yelling Rope! (to tell them what it was I was doing and that help was on the way) could have had serious consequences, just like in the real world when we fail to communicate as thoroughly as we should. When we forget to inform each other or choose not to talk to each other, the result can be disastrous mistakes, large and small.

*If you are wondering what happened to the three other canoes, Burt and a volunteer took them through the rapids.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Coe College, Stewart Memorial Library


Copyright John Lubans 2013

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