YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK Every year, people underestimate the power of local waterways and overestimate their own abilities.
Cheap, flimsy rafts and lack of life jackets account for many of the water rescues on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers.
Weak swimming skills often mixed with too much alcohol and failure to consider undercurrent and near-freezing temperatures result in drownings at swimming holes, lakes and reservoirs.
In the Merced River, which runs through the heart of Yosemite National Park, many who drown aren't even in the water intentionally. They are hikers who take a break, crouch beside the river to splash cold water on their faces or fill their water bottles, but lose their footing.
Water search-and-rescue teams around the state trained this week in preparation for this Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer and a very busy time for rescue crews. Stanislaus area rescuers often use specialized boats that are capable of powering upstream at good speed and in as little as 6 inches of water.
Because of a below-average winter snowpack, many river flows are slower than normal. The Stanislaus River is running at about 200 to 250 cubic feet per second. During a good snowpack year, it averages about 1,500 cubic feet per second, according to Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Capt. Zack Gardner.
Still, the rivers can be dangerous. "A lot of people take (the rivers) for granted," Gardner said. "It takes just one gasp of water instead of air and you are done."
And even strong swimmers will quickly become crippled by the cold water. The Stanislaus is about 45 degrees this time of year.
"The shivers will start, then cramping with large muscle groups in the legs and arms; those are the things that help you swim," Gardner said.
Stanislaus Consolidated and Oakdale rural and city fire departments are preparing for the influx of visitors to the waterways by having rescue boats ready for launch on the Stanislaus River in Oakdale and Riverbank and at Woodward Reservoir. A roaming boat on a trailer will be available to respond to emergencies at Modesto Reservoir, Turlock Lake and in between on the Tuolumne River near Roberts Ferry Bridge.
Obstacles in Merced River
The Merced River has too many obstacles and runs too fast for boats, so rescuers often are in the water pulling the victims to safety. The Merced is running two or three times faster than local rivers, and several degrees colder.
"Two weeks ago, it was running at 1,600, 1,800 cubic feet per second," Yosemite search-and- rescue worker Moose Mutlow said during training Thursday. "We've seen this real spectacular drop-off because of a low snowpack, but that doesn't mean the danger has gone away, because the water is cold enough that within four or five minutes, your hands stop working effectively."
If a person is rescued from a fall into the river, most often it is because the victim is fortunate enough to grab onto a rock or other stationary object and hold on long enough to be saved. Ideally, rescuers can reach the victim or throw him a rope if he is well enough to hold on. Sometimes rescuers will use paddle boards and swimming flippers to get to a stranded person.
In both circumstances, Yosemite search-and- rescue crews will have "downstream containment" as backup in case the victim or the even a rescuer is swept away.
The containment team often uses a "baited swimmer" technique in which a rescuer is secured to a rope before entering the water to catch the victim as he comes downstream. Rescuers on the other end of the rope near the shore pull them back.
A containment team also is sent downstream at the onset of a search after a report that someone fell into the river. Depending on the speed of the water and grade of the river, the containment team would go from a half-mile to two miles down river while other search-and-rescue personnel start walking the river from the point where the person went in, said Yosemite ranger and rescue worker David Pope.
Time a factor in survival
If the person is not found during that preliminary search, his chances of survival are slim. A limb most likely became pinned under a rock, or he was sucked into an area where vegetation or a cluster of rocks acts like a colander, letting water through but trapping anything else.
After that, rescuers go into recovery mode. They know from experience where people are likely to go under, and in those areas erect a highline. The highline is a rope and pulley system strung across the river, attached to trees on either side, in which a harnessed rescuer is pulled over the river and lowered down to retrieve a body.
"The point is to keep the rescuer out of the water, and for the same reason, it is usually a recovery," said search-and-rescue worker Todd Bartlow.
Sometimes even that is too dangerous and the victim is not located, so rescuers must wait days for the water level to lower before a recovery mission can resume.
The best way to survive a fall in the river, according to Mutlow, is to get on your back and position your feet downstream. From there, your head and chest are better protected from blows by rocks and other debris. If you can swim to the shore from there, don't stand until your bottom touches the river bottom, so that you aren't knocked back in.
Slippery near waterways
The best technique, though, is a proactive one. Enter the water at calm locations away from waterfalls and strong rapids where the shore isn't smooth and slippery, said Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb.
Gardner said people who have plans to float down the Stanislaus River this weekend should wear life jackets, tell someone not participating in the float when you are going and when you are getting out, and keep a cell phone in a waterproof container so a 911 dispatcher can home in on your location through GPS.
All too often, Mutlow said, there are situations in which one person falls in and another will go after her, like the case in 2011 when a hiker fell into the river above Vernal Fall and was swept over, followed by two friends who tried to save her.
"The motivation to automatically go to help often creates a scenario, tragically, where more than one person is lost," Mutlow said.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209)578-2366. Follow her on Twitter @ModestoBeeCrime.
Life jackets can be borrowed at no cost from area fire departments. Just bring identification and all the people who will be wearing jackets, so that they can be properly fitted:
Modesto Regional Fire Authority: Station 1, 610 11th St.
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District: Station 32, 4845 Yosemite Blvd., Empire; Station 34, 321 E St., Waterford; Station 36, 3318 Topeka St., Riverbank
Oakdale Rural Fire: Knights Ferry station, 17700 Sonora Road