As I get packed for my fourth whitewater rescue / swiftwater rescue course this weekend, I think back to the first time I took one: start of my career change…first ‘hard skill’ after 13 years in accounting / finance…it was A LOT to take in.
Let me tell you how I *really* felt during that first course. Grab a beverage and settle in.
Whitewater Rescue Course Storytime
On the Thursday morning of our first day of the course, the staff at Wilderness Tours issued us our very own whitewater safety helmets, red North Water throw bags with yellow and black braided polypropylene rope, and deep blue Salus PFDs with “Algonquin College” and a maple leaf stitched in white on the back. I took a black Sharpie and wrote my name in the center of the leaf to distinguish mine from everyone else’s.
We gathered up our new gear and boarded a school bus to last week’s lunch spot beneath the Ottawa River’s Lorne Rapids. Whitewater rescue was a challenge by choice skills course that we needed to complete before we could continue on with any of our first term’s skills.
I had applied to the program without understanding the importance of the campus sitting in the Ottawa Valley or the significant impact the river had on the design of the courses. I had no idea whitewater rafting was something this area was known for. I had lived in Ontario for seven years and knew nothing about the province beyond the Greater Toronto Area. I also thought soft adventure and whitewater were mutually exclusive. I tried to tame the dread bubbling in my stomach as we bumped along dirt roads down to the lunch site’s pavilion.
The first module of our two-day course helped alleviate some of my nerves. I stood on shore and practiced throwing my throw bag like football. The rope streamed out as the red bag hit my intended “victim”. I worked to coil the rope back in the bag when it returned to me and we started the process over again. This time we tried it with the commands.
“ROPE!” I yelled as I threw my bag.
“Grab the rope!” I yelled again as the bag hit my target.
“Flip on your back!” I yelled one last time. My classmate fell on the ground and flipped on his back. He flailed like an upside down turtle, making us both laugh.
We practiced one more time, this time with our victims swimming in the water. It was harder to hit my classmate when the river wanted to push him downstream faster than I could land my red bag on his chest.
Our instructors – all world class whitewater kayakers – gathered us together and explained the second module. The pit of dread returned to my stomach. I stood near the eddy in my borrowed and faded, mauve and blue wetsuit, shifting my weight left, right, left, right, toying with the Velcro tabs that encased me in smelly neoprene. I listened to the instructors describe the route they wanted us to swim.
I tightened the chin strap of my white-as-a-cue-ball helmet and dipped a toe in the eddy. The sun shot its late morning hot September rays down on me. Sweat trickled down my temples and into my eyes. I squinted. Another eddy had formed about 50 meters away, in between two wide swaths of black moving water. My destination was an island, a further 50 meters away from the eddy. The game plan was swim to the eddy, rest for a few seconds, swim to the island.
I sighed. I hated to swim when I couldn’t see the bottom. I’d never swum in current. I inhaled deeply, trying to get the air into the bottom of my lungs. My heartbeat would not slow. It pounded in my neck like a big oompah band. Despite the challenge-by-choice nature of this course, success only came if I swam. With another sigh, I eased into the river and started swimming upstream against the river.
I struggled to keep my breathing under control. My body wanted to hyperventilate. I battled the current to make every stroke count as the river pushed me further away from the little eddy. I missed it and kept swimming for the island, hoping to catch its southern edge, else I risked getting swept downstream into the boils beneath Pushbutton or worse, Butchers Knife, never to be seen again. My instructors had put the fear of God in me.
How on earth did you think this program would make for a good career change launch pad?
I propelled myself forward and beached myself on the island. I panted, tears of frustration, fear, and exhaustion stinging my eyes. I promised myself I would never get into whitewater sports.
The young instructors urged us to swim back. We’d taken too much time with this exercise already and they wanted to eat lunch. I stood up, eyeballed my entry into the river and started swimming upstream once again. Not ten meters across and someone from the safety raft grabbed the back of my PFD and hauled me over the gunnels and into the raft.
I hung my head, cheeks burning. I needed a liter of water to soothe the dehydrated charley horse screaming in my left calf. There was no time to feel sorry for myself. I grabbed a spare paddle and started for shore, hauling struggling classmates into the raft as we neared shore. I doubted my ability to see this career change through to its end.
We sat in a semicircle on shore and ate our lunch in silence. The swim had taken its toll and we didn’t know each other well enough yet to commiserate. After the short lunch break we learned how to wade out into thigh-deep moving water to rescue a victim. It looked easier than landing a throw bag on a swimmer but the current was strong and keeping our footing proved to be challenging. Some rescuers ended up victims in short order. The instructors called it a day after the hour-and-a-half-long module. I hadn’t drowned and I’d tried everything.
Back on Land
I got off the bus back at the lodge and headed straight for the cabin. I didn’t want to be in neoprene any longer. I didn’t want to think about what I’d learned today. I didn’t want to move anymore. I peeled off the wetsuit and hung it up on a hook. I knew there was little chance of it drying before I had to wriggle back into it in the morning but I could hope. I cracked the window of the cabin to let out some of the musty wetsuit humidity.
I slipped into dry clothes. Thick wool socks replaced my clammy sandals. Fleece replaced neoprene. I massaged and stretched my still-achy calf. I shoved my headlamp into my pocket, grabbed my logbook and a pencil, and meandered back to the lodge as my young cabinmates bounced into the cabin chattering about weekend party plans.
I sat on the deck and filled out my logbook, a small notebook with waterproof paper that the program coordinators expected us to keep as outdoor professionals in-training. We had to turn it in at the end of the term. I noted the date, the weather, our leaders, and our group size. I jotted down the facts of the day, the progression of modules we worked through. I thought about my lessons learned and changes I would make. A summer of personal training at the gym didn’t make me fit enough to swim in moving water. I would need to practice in order to be a stronger swimmer. I had underestimated my readiness for a career change. I couldn’t include any of those thoughts in the logbook so I simply wrote “BRING MORE WATER” in deference to my lower leg.
Classmates joined me on the deck. Some filled out their logbooks. Some sat and chatted. Some popped their earbuds in and dozed off in green wooden Adirondack chairs listening to music on their phones. It felt unusually quiet with only the thirty-three of us on site. The other outdoor programs had skills earlier in the week and WT’s weekday commercial rafting packages ended on the Labour Day weekend.
After dinner we congregated in the amphitheater for a presentation on river morphology. My tired, waterlogged brain tried to take in information about how to scout rapids, looking for downstream-pointing Vs as a safe route. Upstream-pointing Vs typically indicated a submerged rock that we’d want to avoid. Our instructors discussed how to keep an eye out for natural hazards like overhanging branches called sweepers and submerged fallen trees, called strainers. We learned about manmade hazards such as low head dams which typically span the width of a river and create terrible recirculating currents on the downstream side of the dam that catch and drown anything or anyone who had the misfortune of going over the dam. It sounded terrifying.
I hurried back to the cabin once the learning session finished. I crawled into my sleeping bag and let the day go.
Hindsight is 20-20
The good news about the whitewater rescue course is I’ve come a long way in personal comfort with this stuff since the first time I took it in 2012. I’m not perfect. I’m not an expert. But I *can* bring more curiosity to it than I could almost 9 years ago.