Averting Doom – Part 1

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Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

I sit here recalling with an occasional shudder the close calls I’ve had while fly fishing–situations either foreseeable or unexpected that could have been very bad. I thought I’d recall a few of them here.

Naturally risk to self outweighs risk to gear, and as a wading angler most of what I’ve come up against involves danger of drowning. I drove from Ohio to the American west coast as a college student once, got myself up into the High Sierra, and found a little trout stream near a campground. I could see the small pebbles on the bottom so clearly that I knew it was only a foot or so deep, so despite its swiftness I donned my four-dollar vinyl waders and stepped off the bank. And I was in no way a stranger to the wild, or to Mother Nature, either, yet still I was caught by complete surprise that the shallow clear water was actually at least eight feet deep, and that those pebbles were boulders far down below me. “Where the @!*%!@ did the bottom go…I was aimin’ right for it, how could I have missed?!” I thought as I went in over my wader tops, saving myself from a brutal flume ride down a swift narrow mountain gorge by clinging to some thorny briars that had thankfully elected to hang over the edge right there. A bad experience turned into no more than a night of shivering in an open-air sleeping bag and a couple of bloodied-by-briars hands to remind me that I was in The West, dang it, where water was clearer than Ohio’s air.

Figure 1

As I wised up (across decades, I admit), and especially now that I’ve spent the last few years teaching my child fly fishing and wading…and thinking about the perils in a more serious way, I found that the primary risks to taking a swim while wading are:

1. Hurrying, either to get to a good spot before someone else did, or because it’s past time to leave, or because I saw a rise over there, or to run back to the truck and get the other rod…or just out of general stupidity. Hurrying while wading means discovering taller-than-average rocks on the bottom only when your foot hits one. Foot stops, body weight does not, forward thou doth pitch. You may or may not catch yourself on the bottom with your hands, but even if you do, 20-inch water is going to dunk you up past the nostrils…or more. Hurrying also introduces us to crevices between rocks that catch and twist and trap a boot…and to tongues of current swifter than what we’d thought…and to sudden drop-offs we never saw. Hurrying? Just don’t. Instead remember that a huge part of the fun of fly fishing in a stream is the wading itself, and slow waaaay down and enjoy it.

2. Fatigue will get you wet even when you’re focused on doing everything right. Been hiking upstream for hours or miles? In mountaineering, you don’t know you’re getting tired until you start stumbling on small stones and catching your boot on mere twigs. You may still feel plenty energetic, but the fine motor skills are the first to fade…and in the water that little stone-stumble will give you a swimming lesson faster than you can set your favorite expletive free. Even the way I tend to fish has the same risks–if I like a spot I’ll stand there for four hours trying different flies and depths, watching the sun rise, trying to figure the spot out. When it’s time to go, I find that my leg joints are cold, locked, and about as bendable as a maple log, having been holding an inadvertent isometric the whole time. Typically I can barely scuffle out onto a flat gravel bar, let alone navigate difficult spots back to the bank. So do what I always forget to do–if fishing the same spot for a long time, do a few deep knee bends every 20 minutes or so, lest you find you can barely walk when it does come time to move.

3. Upstream wading is deceptively tricky. Water that’s trivially easy to wade going downstream is quite a different animal going back up. We use a normal walking gait where it’s shallow, then it gets a few inches deeper, and now the current is moving that forward foot backward under us a little on each step…while our momentum up at torso height is still going boldly forward. It can take no more than one or two steps to find our body weight far out in front of our feet instead of above them…with belly-flop results. Wading upstream requires high-stepping, and reaching that forward foot almost comically out in front of us on each step…and slowing our momentum down. Doing those things will generally avert catastrophe even if we hit a sudden deep hole.

4. Crossing current is one that almost gets me each time. They say one should go across-and-down, but that still doesn’t avoid most of the gotchas, and it’s just not possible in most cases because of the holes and currents and where you’re coming from and where you’re trying to get to. I have numerous times found myself in slowly deepening…and simultaneously slowly swiftening…current, until I got to a point that I decided I must go back. At that point I could not, because it was too difficult to walk backward and too difficult to turn. Twice I’ve been frozen in such a spot, doing what I could to gain a single toe’s width in one direction or another, hoping my boots did not lose their grip on the bottom until I figured it out. Remember that we rely on our body weight to make our boots grip the stones below, but every additional inch of water depth significantly lightens our downward force on those stones, due to the flotation we naturally possess, until we’re literally skating sideways downstream with no ability to stop ourselves. Any drop-offs or swifter tongues of current just below us are waiting like hungry jaws. I believe the only answer to a predicament like this is the dual advice of not overreacting and not getting that far out before deciding to bag the crossing to begin with.

5. In such times I took the wading staff out and hoped it would help me. It did, but only a little. There are different kinds of staffs, and the best kind is the one already in your hand, and the second best kind is the kind in a belt pouch such that when you pull it out it forms itself quickly into a stick. But both types have their drawbacks–a solid stick will probably have enough cross section that when you try to plant it where you need it the swift current will swish it away from where you want it. The tubular self-extending kind do that too, but perhaps less…but they’re a little wobbly in lateral directions. The point of mentioning the wading staff is that if you expect more salvation and support from a staff than it can give you, you’re likely to take a swim. Trust the staff, but not that much. Trust judgment more.

6. Slippery river bottoms are out to get you. The good news is that you’ll know they’re slippery your first step into the stream. The bad news is that they’re still out to get you. Special boots help, but they can’t do everything–steel spikes can skate across rocks and catch when you don’t want them to (or on what you don’t want them to–such as your waders, down near your ankles). The best I ever did in the most horribly slippery river I’ve ever seen is to put those crampons onto my boots first–they have aluminum bars instead of spikes, and they grip incredibly well. I made myself a pair (which took a hundred hours) and they do work. But I rarely use them because it’s difficult to put them on stream-side, and because I don’t want to wear them out walking in them all the way from the truck.

7. In white-water kayaking, they teach one thing in the first hour of the first day: Strainers. A strainer is a tree or piece of fencing in the water, in the path of a paddler or swimmer coming down the stream. Water goes through; people don’t. Even incredibly slow current will pin you in the branches of a downed tree, and you won’t get out, and the chances of your head being above the surface are also slim. If you’re a swimming fisherman you’ll likely be minimally mobile, too, no matter how good a swimmer you are–waders are full, fishing vest is draggy, boots provide no thrust. Strainers account for a very high percentage of river drowning deaths. If you’ve taken a swim and see branches or trees or other “strainer” obstructions up ahead, do ANYTHING, as early and as quickly as you can, to avoid being swept in. If you can’t avoid it, on entry do what you can to throw your upper torso overtop, and hang on, and yell your head off.

8. Other than strainers, low-head dams (low spillovers of as little as a foot of drop) account for the lion’s share of stream drownings. They look gentle—like fun places to swim. But their hydraulic is so even that you cannot flush out below, and cannot overpower the ‘suck you back in’ either; not even motorboats can do so. Escape means swimming the tubular hydraulic its entire length with your head under and no knowledge of where is the sky and where the bottom. Don’t attempt to go over a low-head dam in a canoe, inner tube, or any kind of boat, and if you take a swim do what it takes to get out before you go over the thing.

9. Bottom–gaps and crevices can catch onto a boot, after which you just “flag” downstream at bottom depth until you drown…and long after, until they snag you with a big barbed grappling hook. So if you take a swim, keep the feet up and if possible ahead of you until you can side-stroke your way into an eddy. And note that through agricultural country the bottom can hold pieces of rusted automobile body, jagged slabs of corrugated shed roof, and balls of rusty barbed wire, swept into the watershed by some previous flood. You don’t want to play chicken with that stuff. Assume there are “foot entrapment” dangers aplenty just below you, like toothed carnivores waiting to drag you down.

10. A final red flag from my personal experience goes back to the first anecdote I shared in this article. It’s “the unfamiliar.” Any fishing venue in which we lack experience, be it a Midwest farm boy encountering a mountain stream, or a mountain angler braving the surf, or a wader fishing from a boat (especially if the boat is too loaded or not piloted well enough for the rigors of the stream)…or a dweller of the Lower 48 casting flies in Alaska’s bear country…or even just fishing off the rocks at ocean’s edge without the background needed to notice when a sneaker wave is coming…dangers obvious to the initiated are always invisible to the outsider. Read up in advance, and watch and ask questions of others who may be there. Basically, KWWIAGH. Know when we is a greenhorn. Admit it with a grin, and live to grin again.

People have their individual ways of getting into and also out of trouble. Decades ago I read an article about using a fly rod to stabilize and avert a fall–techniques involving swishing/whipping the rod through the water as a kind of “active brace” technique, similar to a whitewater paddler’s brace methods that employ the paddle blade. Such advice takes practice to do it in time, but there are ways. Hand-splashes and swishes can work too–water has mass and can indeed be pushed against, to right a tilt or slow an impending fall. A little thought as to how to deal with inadvertent errors, and a little practice, can’t help but pay off one day. Keeping one hand free while wading is a good idea.

There are plenty more dangers of course, than the ones I listed above; these are the ones that come most easily to mind for me. Remember that it’s better to drastically stretch the truth later, to get your story of danger and high adventure, than to live through it for real. Ain’t nobody gonna know.

In Part II of this article I’ll run through lesser but equally painful kinds of risks.
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