A(nother) Plea - It CAN Happen to You!
The night before we prepared the coolers, food (Chang and I eat a lot better when the wife comes and makes good food), water, etc. The fleet of Feelfree Lures for Chang and I (and a Feelfree Moken for the wife) are on the trailer. Rods are prepared with river tackle, and our Bending Branches paddles are at the ready in the back of the Jeep. Kayak anglers and gear are impatiently waiting for the next day.
Morning arrives, we enthusiastically hook up the trailer, jump in the Jeep, and head towards the meet spot while sucking down some caffeine. My wife stands back as Chang and I go through the familiar unload/rig ritual performed dozens of times this year. When finished, she stays with the gear while we drop the Jeep and trailer at the takeout. A short time later we are floating.
We take our time, stopping at sandbars for food and to cool off. It is a beautiful day, so the fishing is slow. But we all manage to land a fish or two. I was proud because my wife caught her first walleye on a PowerTeam Lures 4.5" Grub soaked in JBs Fishsauce! She even handled the fish by herself and gave it a safe release.
We get near the end of the float in this beautiful area of the river. To the left is a steep sand bank 100'+ tall. On the right bars of smooth river rock and sand. We stop to enjoy the scenery, chat to some canoe anglers about our kayaks, then sit and chat.
I am not a religious person, but believe everything happens for a reason. For some reason Chang, Stacy, and I just sat there chatting about random things. I don't know why. Maybe it was because we were (finally) on no time crunch. Maybe it was the beautiful day or the beauty of this sandy s-curve area. Maybe it was to be there for what happened next.
After talking for a while, we seen a group of river tubers come around the corner and hang up on one of the branches on the opposite side of the river. We had passed several tubers who were enjoying this nice day earlier. We continued talking and noticed them stop in an odd spot in the swift current opposite us. A hazardous piece of the river that claimed a new pole of Chang's (and nearly me) last year. We assumed it was some people messing around. A short time later, Stacy said, "I think those people need help.".
I look over and there is a couple down the sandbar about 20 yards running for their canoe, they are going to go help the tubers calling out in distress. Knowing the canoe will be difficult to hold in the dangerous current, I jump in my wife's Feelfree Moken and grab my Bending Branches Angler Pro paddle. The Moken is narrower than my Lure and much easier to paddle. It was my best chance of getting to these people and staying there if required.
Paddling vigorously, but calmly, towards the tubers I call out to ask if they are OK. I can't tell by the scene. They cannot hear me over the sounds of the river surrounding them. Paddling closer I can see they are indeed in need.
While I'm assessing the situation, Chang was paddling his Feelfree Lure upstream, a difficult task in this fast current. I call out to him and Stacy, who is watching the situation unfold from the bank, calling out any problems she can see. I tell her to grab the spare life jacket we keep in one of the Lures and toss it to me. Chang is able to strong-arm his way upstream and toss the life jacket to me as the current sweeps him away.
Handing the life jacket to the girl in the water, I tell her to put it on. She puts it on backwards, the only way she can right now. But it will do. I try to free the tube from the stump but the current is too strong. I'm holding onto the grandfathers tube while trying to pull on the snagged one. I'm taking water over the side of my kayak. The force of 5 people pulling on it via the current is too strong to free it. The girl with the life jacket had bumped into something hard under water during the incident and was starting to panic about hitting something else if we freed them.
In an attempt to calm her down, I told her it was my only option and they would be pushed downstream to the corner where Chang and the couple in the Canoe were waiting to catch someone if needed. She was still panicking about hitting something, so I told her to pick up her legs. The water was deep her and that would keep her safe. I knew in my mind a bump, bruise, laceration, or break was better than drowning. And the party was only going to be able to hold onto her in this strong current for so long.
In addition to extra PFDs, we always carry extra safety gear on our kayaks. Chang, Stacy, and I are all CPR/FirstAid certified. I am also training to be an EMT. We each have a Stohlquist SqueezeLock knife on the rail of our kayaks (Chang found out the sheath for them snaps perfectly into the Feelfree track so it is handy). We also carry CPR masks, first aid kits, a Stohlquist throw bag, and other survival gear. Today I'm glad we do.
The nylon ropes connecting the snagged tube to the rest of the group are openly exposed. I can safely cut them without risking injury to the family. I pull the blade out of the sheath and cut the first rope. There is a brief jolt. Before any nerves can set in with the family, I cut the second rope and they float free down current.
Looking back, I see Chang and the couple in the canoe on the corner ready to catch them. Since I'm already upstream, I pull the limp tube off the stump and throw it on the deck of the kayak before turning around to check on the family.
At the corner, they are hanging onto the front of Chang's Lure. He is back paddling, but 5 people against the current is abating his progress. The couple in the canoe had thrown a life jacket to the other young girl in the group just in case she were to fall out. As I was trying to figure out how to get these people to shore, one of the girls is able to touch bottom and walk. I slide over the rail of the kayak and walk to them, grabbing the tubers, allowing Chang to reduce his paddling efforts. I suggest the family come to the sandbar so we can check them out and let them collect themselves (and honestly me too because my adrenaline was on fire in my veins). They thanked us profusely and insisted they were fine. But they were now short one tube.
I suggested the girl most shooken up (the one stuck in the water) ride on the front of my Lure. I explained the river was too dangerous to go without a craft. Sharp rocks, holes, undercurrents awaited them on the brief float to the takeout. She needed to be out of the water, especially shooken up and possibly injured. The family agreed she should ride with me, I assured them my kayak had room and was plenty stable.
I had her get in the Moken as I pulled her along the shore back to my kayak where Stacy was waiting. I got my tackle cleared off the deck area and had her sit on the front cooler on my Lure 13.5. She tightened the life jacket and we pushed off. Chang and Stacy were going to gather their things and follow behind. I wanted to catch the rest of her family who were floating down river. Unsure of their current state given adrenaline and fighting the current, I pulled my throw back from under the seat. The girl and I rescued their cooler lid before reaching her family who were immediately concerned, asking where she got hit under water and if it still hurt. Luckily it didn't and she was fine.
I tossed the family the throw bag and tied my end to the handle on my Lure. The current by the takeout can be tricky, so I want to keep the family retrievable just in case. Glad I did.
We did some chatting with the family on the short float to the takeout. Talked about me training to be an EMT, owning a kayak fishing business, being a guide, etc. The girl riding on my kayak is interested in going into medicine and asked a few questions. The grandfather asked what I recommend for safety on the river.
I told them I always wear my life jacket. And anyone that comes on trips with us is required to wear one. Even the strongest swimmers are no match for Mother Nature. I don't give people a hard time that don't choose to wear them, but if you are with us we require them (for safety AND insurance reasons). We also have straight blades on us. Which, I explained, is what I used to free them. These are the minimum items I recommend on the river. I told them even if they don't wear it, they should have life jackets with them in case this happens. A river, no matter how shallow or visibly slow, can turn on you quickly. They change constantly. You never know what will happen.
As we near the launch, we have another situation. The difficult current by the takeout takes them to the opposite side of a small island than I. With some brute force, I was able to verify my kayak was securely tied to the throw bag line, get out, instruct the girl to stay on my kayak, and pull the other family members back around by my kayak. One of the family members was able to get out and help. The rocks here were shallow and jagged. He suggested he walk back to the takeout, but I advised against it.
At this point Stacy and Chang had passed us and landed, ready to catch the family as we came around the corner. They had sandals on and were able to safely walk on the jagged rocks. The landing was mostly uneventful. As Stacy called their ride back, we chatted. They thanked us profusely, and we insisted we stay with them until they had a ride to make sure they were OK (and honestly it took a while for my adrenaline to wear off).
Their ride arrived shortly after. They took some business cards, thanked us again, and went on their way. These kind people send us a nice thank you card and a monetary donation. Completely unnecessary, but very much appreciated. We wanted the money to go towards further rescue efforts so it will be donated to our local EMS.
I didn't write this article for attention, thanks, etc. It is in my nature to help people and react quickly, calmly. I get that from my father. I wrote this for those who say, "It won't happen to me." and "I'm a good swimmer.". Please, at least have a flotation device within your reach if you don't wear it. Get a nicer life jacket. The inflatable ones and paddling-specific life vests are comfortable and easy to wear.
I personally want to thank my good friend Chang Lor and my wife Stacy. They kept calm and in critical positions to make this rescue happen without further incident.
Don't let a beautiful day with your family turn into a tragic day permanently without.