I haven’t written a trip report for a while and this one demanded to be put to pen. The weekend before Turkey Day Tommy Price and I decided it was time for Jason Schnurr to take his first trip on Section IV. Will woke-up that morning puking his guts out; we’d miss his tender tutelage, but two experienced kayakers, Ed Green and Dave, decided to join us.
Well, the river was running about 1.4, it was a perfect day, and I was having a perfect run. I mean perfect. Dropped into Surfing Hole sideways, side-surfed, back-surfed, and endered out with nary a flip. Woodall was likewise perfect, albeit a bit bony. Then came Seven Foot. I made an incredible boof running almost the entire length of the river right rock. Raven’s Chute constituted a textbook line left to right across the face. I hadn’t flipped once, and I’d made every line. Well, when things are going really well they can only get worse.
The situation changed dramatically at Entrance Rapid. Tommy and Jason went down to the eddy just above the drop then Jason ran it. I came through the approach a tad too much to the left (about 10′). I started digging for the river right eddy and almost made it but lost the stern and was committed to running the middle chute backwards. I dropped right down the slot, hit the pot-hole rock at the bottom, and cartwheeled backwards. I mashed something really hard and felt one of those all encompassing blows on my left side and arm.
I knew immediately that something major had transpired. Rolling was out of the question because somehow I had lost all control of my left side, so I unassed my boat. I surfaced only to encounter a disembodied left arm and hand and floating up by my ear. The fingers were moving and the arm was writhing around like eel grass.
Whoa! It was my left arm and hand! I grabbed the left hand and pulled it on in. Cool, my arm was still attached at the shoulder. Jason flipped me a line and pulled me in to shore. As he pulled I watched my left arm and hand perform anatomically impossible feats floating all on their own in my wake.
So, now what? I couldn’t do squat and obviously had broken my arm somewhere in the humerus. I was reduced to intense La Masse style breathing trying to fight off the pain and impending shock. In spite of the fact it was only an arm, I could not function. It required total concentration just to crawl up on shore and walking out was not an option. Text book rescue scenario.
Ed and Dave had kayaks so they booked on out to Jason’s truck. First, we discussed where the keys were hidden, what was to be done with the victim, what my injuries appeared to entail, and agreed they would call Clayton Rescue. Then Tommy and Jason did what they could to get their victim (The Hawk — now a patient) stabilized and comfortable.
Fire had highest priority. They used the folding-saw in my survival kit to cut wood and had a roaring fire reflecting off the rocks in no time. It was 18:00 and getting dark, but we also had a head lamp in the kit for use later in the evening. We pooled our accumulated dry clothes (one bag per boat) and they covered me up with them. My arm was still hurting like stink so we fashioned a splint of sticks (my air splint didn’t do the job) and used one of our ace bandages to hold it on. We also had a stock of ibuprofen to cut a little of the edge from the pain.
Then came the wait for help from outside. Tommy and Jason kept contact with me, kept me covered and kept the fire going. Still things really sucked! Time drags (especially for the patient) when you’re waiting for the extraction team to arrive. The only thing I could do to reduce the pain was stand leaning against a rock, my back to the fire, and my throbbing left arm dangling.
Then at 22:30 we saw lights. Tommy flashed our light at the rescuers and Jason blasted on his whistle. The first team coming down from Water Gauge had made contact and the second team soon came in from Camp Creek. A major axiom in wilderness rescue is to let things stabilize. About six hours had passed since the accident and even though I still hurt I could now walk. Good thing, because walking is the only way to get out of the upper Five Falls area at night.
Although Five Falls is in a narrow gorge with steep sides, the Georgia side is laced with old logging roads, and Camp Creek is a large landmark. It took about two hours to get to Water Gauge road and the rescue truck. Take it from me, the ride out hurt worse than the walk, but at the end was a warm comfortable ambulance.
There are several options for definitive medical care and I opted for Habersham Hospital. I highly recommend it and the Clayton Fire Chief’s husband is one of the orthopedic surgeons. Surprise! The arm wasn’t broken it was merely wrenched asunder (i.e., dislocated) and had self-reduced during the six hour wait. Well nothing is quite that simple, the shoulder self-reduced but the subscapularis muscle was ripped off its insertion on my humerus and will require surgical repair. We’re going to try and film the operation and use selected footage in one of Will’s crash and burn videos.
The Clayton Search and Rescue Team was superb. They mounted an excellent, efficient, and professional search and extraction operation. They had established a forward command post at the farthest point accessible by four wheel drive vehicle and deployed two search teams from there. Team members include certified emergency medical and swift water rescue technicians. The overall mission was coordinated by a central command post with ambulance and other vehicles located at the distal end of the paved road.
So, what are the SOCCOS from this little adventure? No sense going through all that pain if we can’t learn something.
First, no matter how good things appear, they can quickly get worse. Always think rescue; we had a boat at the top and another at the bottom of the drop. It would not have been fun to flush through Corkscrew in a major world of hurt.
Second, we (I) would have been less than happy if our group had been much smaller. It was nice to have two people to paddle out (through the rest of Five Falls) and two to stay with the patient.
Third, know the area you’re boating. Section IV is relatively isolated; it takes about two hours to paddle out and about three hours to walk to Hwy. 441. How many of you routinely read topo maps before a trip or know the routes out from Five Falls?
Fourth, stabilize the victim, and guess what — you only have what you brought with you. We had first aid (too bad the victim was the doctor), survival gear (folding saw, fire starting materials, 550 cord, all weather blanket, head lamp, tin cup to heat water), and extra clothing. What’s in your boat? Can you light a fire in the rain, or make a shelter?
Fifth, once you’ve operationalized a plan, don’t change it willy nilly. I literally could do nothing other than suffer for the first three hours. By 20:00 or so I was relatively stable, we were getting pretty bored, and Tommy or Jason could have walked to Camp Creek. But, our plan was to wait in a secure camp site and we waited.
Finally, choose your victim carefully. It is pretty easy to freak when: a] you’re really hurting and can’t get comfortable, b] the sun went down a long time ago, c] the temperature has dropped to the 40’s, d] it’s starting to rain or snow, and e] your cigars are at the put-in.
Oh yes, once you’re out, remember to have someone call your honey back at home. Significant others have an even rougher time than the adventurers when its early morning and no one has come home yet.
by William Reeves (The Hawk)
From The Eddy Line, February, 1997