I went out yesterday for my debut packrafting voyage.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.