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What you would do? - Sweeper Q / Initial Trip Report
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Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

What you would do? - Sweeper Q / Initial Trip Report on 03/07/2012 14:14:10 MST Print View

I went out yesterday for my debut packrafting voyage.

Rafting A

I selected a 12km (8 mile) section of river that was rated as class II-III and local beta indicated was in good shape. The water was extremely cold (40F?) as it was mostly snow melt and one frozen lake source. I didn't have that much warm stuff (RidgeRest floor, Neoprene socks/gloves, synthetic layers, rain gear) but I figured if I did get dunked and was hypothermic I could always stagger to one of the homes scattered along the river, which would never be more than a few hundred meters away.

I started in a calm section, paddled around for a bit and then started to go. For the first few rapids I was thinking 'Geez this is gnarly'. It was a ton of fun, but also a little scary because the water flow was high and really cold.

Culliton Creek Drop

After 20 minutes or so, I was feeling pretty good. I had been through a few big wave trains and tight/fast spots and I felt a lot more confident. I also realized at this point that the river was moving pretty darn quick. I had covered ~2 miles in 20 minutes.

After an hour, I covered 6 miles and the river continued to be pretty intense (for a new guy) but I felt I had the hang of it. I was paddling strong and used to the bucking feeling of a wave train. It was still a bit scary, but according to the guide book I was through the toughest parts.

I came to a section where the river braided into about 4 channels. I took the biggest channel, which went through some mild rapids (ie. no paddling back) into a narrow but deep (8-10') channel along the shore. It was deep, but moving swiftly:

Packraft Sweeper 1

Right after I snapped the above pic, I noticed a tree down across the channel (the far tree). I realized this was bad. The water looks calm in this picture, but it was moving quick. I tried to paddle against the current but I couldn't paddle hard enough and even if I could, there was no going back because I had just come through some rapids. I knew it was either get out of the river, or go into that tree.

Here's a better look (zoom in) at the tree:
Sweeper 2

I grabbed a basketball sized boulder along the left side, but the river was too powerful and I just pulled the rock into the channel. Faced with just a few seconds, I opted to man-overboard and try to swim for the left shore. I couldn't do it. The river was too fast and powerful and I got pulled into the log. I grabbed it for a second as the river pummelled me, but realized there was no way I was getting out of there aside from going under. I let go and got pulled under the log and through it's branches (taking a few good leg bruises en route). It sucked, but after a couple seconds I popped up (thanks MYOG PFD) and swam to the left shore.

I ran along the left shore as my paddle was getting away. I sure didn't want to go back into that liquid ice, but my paddle was out in the deep part of the river and my wife sure wouldn't have been pleased if I let that brand new paddle go. I got ahead of the paddle, waded in and then swam out into the middle to intercept my paddle before it got to the next rapids section. You sure can't swim long when the water is this cold. I was only in there for many 20 seconds and my body was cramping up.

My raft was still caught in the sweeper. I walked back up stream to retrieve it, but it was slowly filling with water and eventually it was driven under the log once it was totally swamped. Unfortunately it also decided to float on the opposite side of the river, so I went for a third swim, realizing that I needed to collect my stuff quickly and get walking, so I could get warm.

Raft getting away:
Sweeper 3

I got the raft and tried to drag it out of the river, which is actually extremely hard when it's swamped full of water and you're borderline hypothermic. I had exited the raft without tearing open the spray deck, which is why the raft took a while to get swamped under the sweeper. On the plus side, it meant all of the stuff I had in the raft (inflation bag with extra synth jkt) was still there. I just lost my beanie and cheap sunglasses I was wearing.

I deflated the raft, packed everything in the inflation bag and started walking quickly towards the parallel road. I walked briskly for 30-40 minutes to cover the last ~2 miles where my wife was waiting. I was pretty cold for the first 20 min (chattering teeth) but around the 30 min mark I started to warm up. My synthetic jacket was totally soaked but it was still definitely helping.

So with the story told, I'm not really sure what I should have done differently to avoid the sweeper. Having warmer clothes on would have been nice for afterwards, but what could be done to actually avoid this log? Had I bailed out a couple seconds sooner, I might have made it to shore but that's hard to say. By the time I could see the log, it pretty much seemed too late to do anything. Would you guys have ridden the raft right into the log and then tried to crawl out onto the log? In the split second I had to decide, I was picturing me and raft all tangled up in the tree, so I opted to jettison out. I might have been able to grab a branch on the right bank, but the river was moving really fast on the right side so I'm not sure if that would have worked. Obviously scouting ahead would have solved this, but at the same time you can't really scout every rapid on a class II-III river that is supposedly good to go, and still make decent time.

Ideas? Thoughts?

Edited by dandydan on 03/07/2012 21:19:49 MST.

j lan
(justaddfuel) - F

Locale: MN
Re: What you would do? - Sweeper Q / Initial Trip Report on 03/07/2012 14:27:40 MST Print View

First of all, thank god you are alive! That story just filled me with dread. I have lost a friend to a sweeper and it is the easiest way to die. Second, how much whitewater experience do you have, have you canoed/kayaked before? What I would have done is turned the nose of the packraft upstream and paddle like hell for the nearest eddie (backflowing water behind rocks/stumps/shoreline)

In the packraft you have to really lean forward and dig deep fast and hard to make it upstream.

Also, I would put the camera away while you are boating except for in the calmest water or from shore. This I am sure cost you time that you could have used to get to shore and portage around the sweeper.

I am glad you and that beautiful new raft survived.

What did your wife say?

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Sweepers on 03/07/2012 14:42:20 MST Print View

This river was harder that I anticipated doing for my first time out. I wasn't sure about it, but the first couple rapids went well and according to the guidebook the river just gets mellower as you go. By this point, (6 out of 8 miles) I figured it was going to be all mellow from here so I was snapping more pics.

I probably would have noticed the sweeper sooner if I wasn't snapping a pic. I had the camera hanging around my neck on a cord and on the whole time, so it was pretty quick to snap pics but obviously you can never let your guard down. Lesson learned. Thankfully the camera wasn't lost during the swim.

About 10 years I was a canoe instructor and I've done quite a bit of lake and mild river paddling in both rivers and kayaks. I don't have much experience with white water, but I'm pretty strong paddler.

I'm not sure I could have held my ground against the water, but maybe I could have if I kept paddling instead of grabbing at boulder on the shore. The left side of the channel doesn't look too bad in the pic. I should practice more with paddling upstream and the techniques (leaning forward) in doing so to learn my limits. With that said, there was no way of paddling out of this spot, as I had just come through some rapids to wind up here, so landing on shore (with or without the raft) would have been required eventually.

I didn't make this sound as scary as it was when I told my wife. She knows I went under a log and for a good swim, but she was mostly worried about me being cold. She's got a raft order, so rather than get her scared I'm trying to learn what I can and keep us safe.

The spray deck has a ~6" tear, as does my rain jacket.

Edited by dandydan on 03/07/2012 14:55:58 MST.

j lan
(justaddfuel) - F

Locale: MN
Re: Sweepers on 03/07/2012 15:12:51 MST Print View

Hi Dan, Sorry, yes i was suggesting paddling upstream a little bit to find a place on shore to land (preferably from an eddy)

A really good practice for me when i first got my packraft was to play in some mild rapids and practice entering and exiting eddys. Also try to surf standing waves like this video:

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Vid on 03/07/2012 15:28:44 MST Print View

Neat video...eddy's sure are fun. It's amazing how complex the water can be. I'm looking forward to getting out on the water again, but unfortunately I've got to fly to work tomorrow for a 4 week stint in the arctic (geology/exploration stuff). My wife's raft will be here when I get back, and then we'll go play on some mellow water.

Ryan W
(mwilks) - F
Re: Vid on 03/07/2012 17:37:33 MST Print View

Wow, man. Almost speechless! I don't post here a ton, but I've been lurking for a few years and really enjoyed your presence on the forums. I am really glad it turned out OK.

First off, really commendable of you to post this on a forum looking for input. We are all learning and you opened yourself up with a really approachable attitude. Awesome example.

I'm not going to offer you a "what I would have done/what you should have done" because as you and I both know, every backcountry situation is different and decisions like these are made instantaneously. Plus I don't want it to come off as somehow I think I have all the answers.

I used to do a fair bit of white water paddling, guiding, instruction, swift water rescue so I have a few thoughts.

Paddling by yourself is inherently more dangerous, way moreso than most other means of backcountry travel. I've done, do it, and will continue to do it, but the risk calculation needs to be very different. Risks encountered while paddling usually have a window of only seconds between life vs death. I've seen enough near deaths saved by paddling companions that I really believe in this. If you are out by yourself you have to be a ton more cautious, no room for error or surprise.

A pretty common accepted tenet in the WW community is that if you are paddling a river by yourself, (without intimate and recent knowledge of what lays ahead), then you must be confident in your ability to avoid any danger within your site line either by eddying out or by altering course. So if the flow is high enough or the river is curvy enough that you are not going to have the time/ability to do this then you need to get out and scout. Yup, can be time consuming but there really is no other safe choice. I mention "ability" because hardshells, canoes and different crafts that you may be used to have very different speed capabilities than what you are going to find with a packraft. Getting to shore in a kayak is always faster than swimming. but may or may not be in a packraft depending on the conditions. Worth experimenting.

As you mentioned, something that almost nobody realizes until they try it (hopefully simulated) is that it is pretty much impossible to hang onto or climb over a strainer with any minimal river flow going on. It just can't be done! If you are alone, that means that if you hit one, you are going under, and there is a very high probability you are not coming out the other side. Really, very, very high probability you will be snared. I can't tell you how relived I am you beat the odds. If you are already in the water then as a very last resort, best to flip onto your belly and swim headfirst at it with everything you've got.

I've practiced riding a hardshell up to a simulated strainer, crouching, and then diving over the obstacle as a drill. It can work as a hail mary option, but realistically only in mellow water and if you are in mellow water, then you really should be able to eddy out in the first place. If you try to ride in your boat all the way to the strainer/obstacle, grab, and ditch out on top, the tricky thing is that your boat will hit before you can grab, you then flip and essentially get pinned, making a bad situation even worse. If you need to bail, probably best to bail early.

If you are in the front country, I'd also make a strong argument for carrying a real PFD and helmet. (By the way, I want to see some updated pictures of the PFD project :)! I love it for backcountry lakes.

Toasting a beer to you tonight and your close call!


Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Sweepers on 03/07/2012 17:39:19 MST Print View


A back ferry at 45 degrees to the current, not the shore, would have moved you sideways to the opposite bank away from the strainer. Prior to the addition of the big butt stern in 2011, I had to use an upstream ferry to avoid submarineing my stern.

Edited by richard295 on 03/07/2012 18:07:54 MST.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: sweepers on 03/07/2012 19:36:00 MST Print View

I'll add another vote to the glad you're alive camp. That log jam looks nasty.

On one occasion have I been swept towards a log in the river without time to get out. I jumped out of the boat and over the log with my paddle, and the raft washed over it. This was a simple log with no branches and at river level, on a small stream, and I had removed the deck early in the float because the creek was blown out at flood stage with no eddies.

I've since gotten a lot more careful about paddling those little creeks which are only doable at high water. They usually never have enough flow to flush debris well, and thus have lots of wood. I bailed (through a really nasty bushwack) on a few "first descents" last summer because the log jam roulette just got too egregious. Sometimes scouting, slow though it is, is the only responsible option.

Not to be pedantic and ask an obvious question, but were you ferrying when you tried to paddle to shore? I've been in what from your photos I assume to be a comparable position on many occasions. I would have spun around, bow 45 degrees to current facing upstream, and paddled like hell. Reach the shore, time it for a likely (solid) bit of rock bar, then do a final left paddle stroke to spin around facing downstream, huck the paddle on to solid ground, rip the skirt and jump/roll out right hand first. Hold on to your boat with the stern loop in the left hand. Scrabble as needed to hold position as rocks roll.

In the broader context, I think you got a bit too far in too soon. Getting to know how the boat reacts, how to bail and do a wet re-entry, and getting to know how your rivers work is best done a bit slowly. It looks like the combination of the current direction in that particular bend and your dense forest will create ideal conditions for big sweepers. I'd expect to find more in similar circumstances. There are creeks here that flow through similar soft soiled bottomlands with mature forest, and on the outside of big meanders those creeks almost without exception have big log jams. On a map they look like good paddling, when in reality you portage every other apex.

You also became acquainted with the limitations of raingear. It lowers the safety margin vastly.

Don Meredith
(donmeredith) - F

Locale: SouthEast
Sweeper - white water respect on 03/07/2012 19:42:47 MST Print View

Dan, so glad to hear that you came out of that one OK. Even though I knew you made it (as you were posting the details) it still freaked me out. I've been in a few sketchy situations in WW here in the SE and understand how it can go from OK to really bad news in the blink of an eye. Its really hard to say what you could have done differently after coming around the bend to more safely handle the situation.

Prior to getting there you were already nervous about the conditions... not scared but nervous. Listen to your gut. The speed and temperature of the water had you on edge. If you're alone like that, listen to your instinct and pull out and play another day. Its better to be conservative than dead!

I've ignored that 'little voice' a time or two and regretted it both on water and on the mountain bike. Thanks so much for posting your experience. Moving water is really powerful and can be underestimated so easily. Have fun on your trip and let us know how the next adventure goes.

BTW, how did you like the Shuna on the water?


Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Sweepers on 03/07/2012 21:01:26 MST Print View

"Not to be pedantic and ask an obvious question, but were you ferrying when you tried to paddle to shore?"

Yeah. To provide a little more detail, when I saw the trouble I spun around (now facing upstream) and paddled/ferried toward the rocky shore (on the left in the pic) at an ~45 degree angle as recommending in Packrafting!. I successfully got there quickly, while still also moving downstream pretty quickly. I decided to grab for a big boulder on the shore to anchor myself. This didn't work as the rock pulled out and into the water. Since I had stopped paddling to grab the rock, the water spun me around and pulled me back into the current. By the time I was paddling again it was too late. I was in that rough water stretch in the 40' or so before the log. I then bailed out, but it was too late to get to shore.

Had I not grabbed for the rock and just continued to paddle, I perhaps could have slowed/halted my downstream movement and had a little more time to execute a bail out onto the shore. Even if I couldn't, an earlier bail instead of grabbing for the rock would have been better it seems.

"A pretty common accepted tenet in the WW community is that if you are paddling a river by yourself, (without intimate and recent knowledge of what lays ahead), then you must be confident in your ability to avoid any danger within your site line either by eddying out or by altering course. So if the flow is high enough or the river is curvy enough that you are not going to have the time/ability to do this then you need to get out and scout."

Sounds like a wise strategy. I'll keep this in mind. Thanks.

"Prior to getting there you were already nervous about the conditions... not scared but nervous. Listen to your gut."
Yeah I need to listen and develop this sense more. The cold and fast water was intimidating, but then I kept thinking how the guide book said this was an 'excellent run for novices' which made me trust my feelings less. I had also let my guard down a bit thinking I had already made it through the toughest part.

How did you like the Shuna on the water?"
It's awesome. I felt right at home with this paddle. Feels very strong.

In summary, I think the two main mistakes I made were not scouting something I couldn't see, AND not bailing onto shore right away. I was picturing that boulder holding and me making a nice calm exit onto shore. When the boulder pulled into the water (as I now realize they do very easily) I was in a bad spot.

Edited by dandydan on 03/07/2012 21:18:50 MST.

Richard Fischel
dude - first the avi incident and now this on 03/09/2012 09:36:01 MST Print View

you need to be extra careful. this kinda s#!t comes in 3's.

stay safe

Rob E

Locale: Canada
Re: What you would do? - Sweeper Q / Initial Trip Report on 03/09/2012 10:33:42 MST Print View

Hi Dan,

Glad you made it out with just a couple of bruises and a tiny bit of lost gear. Good on you for being open about it and using it as a learning experience, stay safe,

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: What you would do? - Sweeper Q / Initial Trip Report on 03/09/2012 10:34:03 MST Print View

Dan, I'm glad I read your post instead of "BC Packrafter Drowns"

To be honest I would have gone out on my own just like you (overly excited with your new boat, some of us are just like that). You read the available information and made an educated decision. The hard part of the ride was over. Luckily the rest is enjoyable history.

This is a great example of what can go wrong regardless of the research, (kind of like Roger C's- when things go wrong article). Your prior experience did pay off, and a lot of luck.

I have learned from you experience. Also, thank you to those how have added what to do and not do in the future. I've been contemplating getting a packraft also, so this has been helpful information.

Dan thanks for still being here.

Edited by bestbuilder on 03/09/2012 10:35:33 MST.

Ben Crocker
(alexdrewreed) - M

Locale: Kentucky
WW safety on 03/09/2012 10:36:03 MST Print View

I agree that you shouldn't whitewater paddle alone. I never go alone. Then again, this was supposed to be class I-II water. If possible, its good to know what the water level is and what that means for your river.
Also, if you have a strainer that is impassible, its probably best to bail out early and try to get to shore. I usually assume that there will be a route to cheat the strainer though, especially in class II water.
Nothing like a little danger and icy water to get the adrenaline moving.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Sweeper on 03/09/2012 18:26:00 MST Print View

Thanks for the kind word guys. It has been a great learning experience.

This particular strainer/sweeper was impassible (short of leaping over), so the best option would be have been to ferry to the left shore (easy to do) and then make an exit/bail onto shore (somewhat hard to do). The water really dropped off quickly, so a good exit would be needed to land on or very close to the shore and out of the deeper channel.

I think one small part of the mistakes I made here, was not appreciating the seriousness of the situation immediately. It looked like the log was down all the way across, but it was hard to see for sure, and in the back of my mind I was thinking 'this can't really be happening....a way out will present itself'. Had I realized the seriousness of the sweeper/strainer right away, I think I would have made a panicked bail out as soon as I ferried to the shore instead of just grabbing at the shoreline boulders in an attempt to secure the raft and make a nice tidy exit.

The water flow this day was 80 cm's, with 50cm's being a medium flow and 100cms being a high flow for this river. I think the main problems here though was an unlucky fresh log down completely across the channel, combined with someone who isn't used to such rapid decision making on the water. My previous water experience is decent, but never in such a fast paced environment.

Regarding paddling alone, this is a skill I want to develop by improving my knowledge and skills, and heeding advice from others such as R Wilks 'tenet' mentioned previously. I would like to paddle with others in the front country to expand my skills and made me safer when I am alone. Ultimately I'd like to be doing class III-IV front country water, so that I feel comfortable on class II-III when I'm solo in the backcountry and far from help. This particular incident would have sucked a lot more in the backcountry, since instead of walking 40 minutes to a warm car, I would have had to walk hard for hours to get my layers somewhat dry.

TAD: Get yourself a raft. I know a great little river we can hit up. Supposedly it's 'excellent for novices'.

Edited by dandydan on 03/09/2012 18:28:21 MST.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Mamquam on 04/15/2012 19:59:01 MDT Print View

Got out for a nice class II raft ride today with my wife and her new raft. Nothing super wild but it was good to get out and practice. My wife found it a bit intimidating a first, but she did a nice job. We got out and scouted a lot of stuff....time consuming but nice to know what's coming. There was one spot with a bunch of trees along the outside bend that was nice to portage around.

Mamquam 1

Mamquam 2

Mamquam 3

Edited by dandydan on 04/15/2012 20:00:41 MDT.

sean neves
(Seanneves) - M

Locale: City of Salt
Excellent post. on 04/18/2012 11:20:46 MDT Print View

I am glad you are okay. My palms were sweating while reading this! I have had many near-misses on the water and I know for a fact they made me a better, more cautious boater. I am always happy (well, happy is not the word here) to see when somebody posts an adventure that does not go as planned and post it in all its glory for all to see. I think it helps us all. For what its worth, I have a few hard won rules from some scary mistakes on the water: travel in twos on whitewater, stay the h*** away form strainers at all costs including equipment loss, stay with the flow and away from holes in an inflatable craft and when in doubt, scout.

I am brand new to packrafting and I have an unusual craft that is very different from the Alpackas (about which I will post soon) but I have may miles in whitewater, mostly in IK's on multi-day trips. I have some hard-shell experience, but mostly rafts and IK's. I think Alpackas walk a fine line between the hard shell experience in maneuverability, but display the terrible hole-punching of ability of IK's. I have a main concern: I am very hesitant to use one with a spray deck. They require a hand to bail (you need two once you're over, one for the paddle and one for the boat) and precious seconds to enact. With thigh straps, you straighten you legs and you're out. I know they are an entanglement hazard, but all of my experience with thigh strap issues have been user error, usually with them being too loose. I hope Alpacka strongly considers a self-bailing with-thigh straps option. The Baylee from Feathercraft looks awesome but heavy. My craft is a very lightweight pontoon made for a short time by Dave Scadden. I have been on light WW only so far and am in the process of making it a worthy craft and will post on my progress soon.

To be clear, I have not used an Alpacka and any input is welcome.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: spray deck and rolling on 04/18/2012 18:17:16 MDT Print View

I found the stock velcro on my '10 Alpacka deck was gentle enough that it ripped open under bodyweight when I filled. I beefed up the waist velcro because it would come open a bit while boofing, and it now takes a bit more force to open when flipped. A worthwhile tradeoff for me.

Regardless, go practice wet exits! Find a baby surf wave, the type kayakers wouldn't bother with, and spend hours following around, learning the limits of the boat, and practicing wet exits and wet reentries without going to shore and in moving water over your head.

Brian Hall
strainers on 04/21/2012 16:41:25 MDT Print View

I have been ww kayaking for about 6 years now and strainers can be deadly. You never want to be below water in a strainer. If your only option is running into a strainer, you want to lean into it and give everything you have to try and go over the top of it, even if its just you and not the boat. In a kayak, the reason for leaning into the strainer is to get your upstream edge out of the water to keep it from catching and rolling you. Not sure how that would work in a packraft since the edges are different, but I would assume that it'd be the same. Anyways, glad to hear you made it through alright! Looks like fun!

Gregory Topf
(notoriousGRT) - MLife

Locale: PNW / Switzerland
ditto the backferry, plus slow down your boat on 04/27/2012 03:43:53 MDT Print View

Dan - thanks for sharing that harrowing tale. It brought me back to an old, but still vivid memory.

When I was a fearless and indestructible 15 year old, I was fly fishing in the Oregon Cascdes wearing shorts and sneakers. While crossing a sweeper by foot, where there was actually water lapping over the semi-barkless log, I slipped over into the upstream side of the log, was partially sucked under, and instantly hanging on for dear life. The channel had narrowed, the current was strong, and directly downstream in the swift currect was a massive logjam/strainer. Eventually, I succumbed to my fate, and released myself to be sucked under. Even worse, I had let go of my fly rod that I had built myself during the previous Winter. While underwater, I thought about some things (separate book, still to be written). As only fate determined, that day was not my day to pass. I hit bottom with my feet, rocketed up, grabbed a branch, and hoisted my frame upward and out of the stream and onto a dry log. While recovering from the shock, I looked down into the water again and pondered what had just transpired. My peripheral vision picked up a pale orange loop of fly line around my shoe, which I slowly and carefully grasped, pulled, and proceeded to extricate my fly rod from well downstream after pulling all line and backing off of the reel. I couldn't believe that I was alive and still in possession of the precious (my rod), as well as my life.

Today, I live in Switzerland, and mainly travel alone on multiday packrafting/flyfishing expeditions in the western USA backcountry. For situations encountered such as the one faced by Dan, I would definitely confirm the backferrying technique recommended by Richard Nisley. It works when executed correctly. However, if you are trucking along in a fast current and suddenly too close too your obstacle you are still screwed in a packraft, even if you're a strong paddler. To mitigate this, I suggest to just slow down your boat in general. Usually one is not in a race. Anytime I sense or see uncertainty, I immediately do an easy backpaddle to buy time. It sounds really basic, but we don't always do it, and it helps a lot. For backcounrty trips it also helps to keep you dryer and warmer, because rapids will splash you less, the slower your going.

Edited by notoriousGRT on 04/27/2012 08:29:45 MDT.