Fly fishing isn't an extreme sport. You will never see the One Fly entered as an X Game challenge; yet, every year, anglers of all ages, sexes, and skill levels drown while playing the fly game. Last July two back-to-back drowning events involving two anglers each brought home the finality of losing the game. No two drownings are identical and these four were as widely disparate as they were tragic. None involved alcohol or drugs, inordinate risk, or doing much beyond the ordinary nature of a fly-fishing trip.
In the last week of July, well-known guide Chester Marion was rafting the Boulder River with a longtime friend and client Sheldon Goldberg, and his wife Ramona Crowley Goldberg, both of Frederick, Maryland.
Marion was no stranger to the Boulder—in his 73 years he had drifted and waded the river hundreds of times. All three started the day wearing waders with wading belts. No one on the raft was wearing a lifejacket. The trio stopped the raft on a shallow gravel bar and got out to fish. That's when the two men removed their wading belts.
The winter of 2010-2011 buried the Rockies under an enormous snowpack, and the spring runoff was spectacular. In the verbiage of fluvial geomorphologists, the runoff achieved "channel-changing flows." These flows undercut a group of cottonwood trees, causing them to collapse into the Boulder, thus creating one of the most dangerous situations in moving water. The river sweeps through the obstruction and the trees seine anything that can't squeeze through the branches. These death machines are known as "sweepers."
Marion had been warned that new sweepers were being born on the river, but he apparently misunderstood where they were, or simply miscalculated his ability to row past them. His raft slammed into the sweeper, capsized, and all three were dumped into the icy water. Ramona's wading belt was buckled firmly, and she was able to swim to shore and call 911. The two men without wading belts were swept downstream and drowned.
Two days later, 800 miles away near Whistler, British Columbia, a young couple were swept to their deaths in what could only be called a freak accident. Amy Wong and her boyfriend Justin Chan were on a walk/wade guided fly-fishing trip on the Cheakamus River. They were wearing waders with wading belts and wore felt-soled wading boots.
Wong hooked a fish and while backing toward shore, slipped and fell in calf-deep water. As she sat in the riffle unhurt, she laughed and continued to play the fish. Chan waded upstream to help her to her feet. As he was pulling her up, he slipped and both were swept into a nearby deep channel. The guide could only watch in helpless disbelief as the river quickly dragged them around a bend and out of sight.
Chan's body was found among rocks downstream. He had a deep gash on his head and there is speculation that perhaps he got knocked out. Wong's body was never recovered. A lifejacket may, or may not have, saved one or both of them, but then again, Chan may have needed a helmet to survive.
The best drown-proofing is to be prepared. Carry a wading staff. A staff can be used as a probe to feel for ledges, drop-offs, or slick boulders. It is invaluable when used as a brace or third leg when crossing unstable terrain. One of the trickiest things to do while wading is turning around in heavy water in midstream. Allowing the current to pivot your upstream leg around a solidly placed staff makes doing a 180 a piece of cake. It's kind of fun and a move certainly worth practicing.
Expensive wading boots and waders are nice, but it is the ten-dollar belt that will save your life. The only thing better than a wading belt is two wading belts. When you fall in the water without a belt, the waders fill up quickly. A wading belt can delay or even completely prevent water from filling the waders. The belt should be snug and preferably have a slight amount of stretch to follow your contours. A good belt should have a buckle that can be popped open even when under a load. The last thing you need is to take a swim, get your belt hung on a willow branch, and drown simply because you can't release the buckle.
Contrary to popular myth, waders full of water do not pull you under. The water inside the waders weighs the same as the water outside the waders. Swimming in waders is about as difficult as swimming in wet Levis.
Another widely held fallacy is that wading belts trap air in the waders and cause you to float upside down with legs in the air. The truth is, as you wade, water pressure squeezes the air out of the waders and past the belt. If for some reason you fall off a boat with air-filled waders, simply bring your knees up to your chest, wrap your arms around your legs and squish the air out.
Waders kill when they are worn with stretchy, loose belts or no belt at all. The typical position for swimming anglers to assume is on their back, head upstream and feet downstream. This is the position taught by the Boy Scouts, Red Cross, NOLS, and the military. Unfortunately for anglers, the defensive swimming technique is designed for someone wearing a life jacket and not a pair of waders.
Rivers move much quicker than a human drifting downstream. With your head upstream, the moving water quickly flushes in and fills the waders. The current can keep the mouth of the waders flared open and create, in effect, a sea anchor that will drive you wherever the prevailing force wants you to go. Michael Phelps would be no more able to fight these hydraulics than Rosie O'Donnell.
A proper wading belt worn at the waist makes the sea anchor effect highly unlikely, and the same belt brought up around the chest will make such an event virtually impossible. A belt around the waist and around the chest can turn a scary event into a fun ride because you are nearly bullet proof.
With or without a belt, do not passively float down a river feetfirst in your waders. Get on your stomach and swim aggressively down and across the current toward safety. In a bony rock garden you might fend off the boulders with your feet, but the bottom line is that the less time you spend in the water, the better the outcome. Swim all the way to shore, then crawl out of the water. Do not try to stand up. The water in the waders will either slap you back down to earth, or the waders themselves will blow up and fall down around your legs. Having water-filled waders pulled down over your knees while trying to get out of a river is a recipe for disaster. Once on shore, lie on your back and raise one leg at a time to dump out the water.
When swimming, stay low in the water. For most people the buoyancy in one arm will make the difference between floating and sinking. Toss your rod or wading staff toward shore and keep both hands under water. Don't needlessly raise your arms in the air in a panicked attempt to draw attention to yourself.
Consciously breathe and think about breathing. It is amazing how the simple act of concentrating on something like breathing will calm you. Don't gasp in huge gulps because right before the gasp you will forcefully exhale and sink. Don't breath in shallow rapid pants where most of the air in your lungs doesn't get recycled. Exhale about half your lung volume to retain buoyancy and inhale as controllably as you can.
Against all instincts, inhale at the bottom of the troughs between waves. At the top of the waves there is relatively little water to buoy you, and your mouth and nose are invariably underwater. At each wave turn your face so the water slaps your cheek rather than your nose, eyes, and mouth.
While breathing, remember to keep your feet away from the riverbed. Keep your knees tucked or point your legs outward. Foot entrapment is one of the leading causes of drowning (right up there with sweepers).
Rivers are incredibly powerful. In water as shallow as knee deep you can get your feet trapped under a ledge or branch and be physically unable to pull your foot out. After a few minutes of entrapment, your knees begin to buckle under the relentless pressure, and you are forced into a kneeling position with your hands on the riverbed as you attempt to keep your head above water. In not much time your arms give out and you drown. I have gone through the foot entrapment drill under controlled environments (using rebar and webbing) a number of times and never get over how helpless you feel in such seemingly friendly water.
The USGS has developed a formula for determining safe wading conditions for government employees and civilian contractors. Multiply the depth (in feet) times the number of feet a stick drifts in a second. If the product is greater than 8, USGS warns people to stay out of the water. It seems to be a pretty reliable calculation when foot entrapment is an issue.
To free someone who is foot entrapped, simply wade in behind them and break the force of the current with your legs. If you reach the victim, try to get a rope or stick against his shins and, with a person on either end, move upstream. Self-rescue is limited to cutting the boots off your feet with a knife or pair of paramedic shears.
Sweepers like the one that pinned Marion's raft are every swimmer's nightmare. They are tough to negotiate and you only get one chance to do it right. If it is a log at water level you can do one of two things. Flip on your back and extend your legs downstream. If done right and with a little luck, you'll be able to stick the log and literally walk to shore with your body planing on the current. This is a good technique to practice in a safe spot with friends nearby. Once learned, it can be a very safe way to escape a normally lethal situation. [To view this and other survival techniques in action, see the Simms Wading Safety video with author Ralph Cutter and others at: flyfisherman.com/?p=6536. The Editor.]
The more traditional way to confront a sweeper is to swim as hard as you can toward it. At the last moment reach up as high as possible and while kicking furiously nonstop, climb up into the branches or kick up over the log. The trick is to never allow your feet to get swept under the log or sweeper. Once your legs get under the obstacle, there is little chance of fighting the hydraulics and getting out alive.
In boats, even while on calm lakes, I wear a PFD at all times. There are many options to choose from and I strongly suggest hunting for one that suits you. I don't always wear a PFD while wading, but I always assess the situation before I make my choice. In hazardous wading conditions such as in high-volume runoff or wading at night, I wear a PFD. Hopefully when the time comes for the next big swim, my education and training will kick in. With luck, I can keep my wits, hold my own, and cross my fingers—underwater.
Ralph and Lisa Cutter own and operate the California School of Fly Fishing in Truckee (flyline.com). Together they filmed and produced the DVD Bugs of the Underworld. Ralph is also author of Sierra Trout Guide and Fish Food, and creator of several popular fly patterns including the E/C Caddis.