This past Saturday, a Keremeos man lost his life on the Similkameen River. I was, fortunately, luckier, but I have respect for the river – I, too, was tossed from my tube when my tube and I met a huge boulder, but I survived. As a result, I never let my friends go out on the Similkameen without a life jacket. I had tried in vain for three minutes to steer my tube around the oncoming boulder: I could see it coming but the river has her way. When I hit the boulder I was tossed over backward. My tube left me and I swam to an island. I was not wearing a life jacket and was half-way between the local Red Bridge and the White Bridge.
Even in 28-degree heat standing on an island in the middle of the Similkameen River I realized my core body temperature was dropping due to the air currents and humidity around me. I peeled off some wet clothes (yes, I had “clothing”, not just a swimsuit) and laid out my clothing to dry. It was late afternoon in August and the sun had just dropped behind the mountain. The difference in temperature without direct sunlight was profound: I decided I would not survive on the island if I stayed the night – I would have died from exposure.
I wandered around the small island looking for a way off. The rapids surrounding the island ranged from 24 inches deep to five feet deep with tons of boulders. I tried wading some of the shallowest rapids but couldn’t get footing: the riverbed rocks were very slippery and the current was strong. The rapids were too strong for my body weight (I couldn’t stand up) and my swimming skills were not sufficient to survive the fast and boulder-laden rapids downstream and upstream from where I was.
I started looking around for “people” and noticed a guy fishing a hundred yards downstream. I started yelling, “help!” over and over and succeeded in getting his attention. I was able to communicate my dilemma over a period of ten minutes by yelling over the roar of the rapids. I don’t think he realized at first that my situation was critical: I looked “fine”, just wet! But getting off the island was paramount to my survival.
He called “911” on his cell phone. There was a sense of urgency because it would be the Search and Rescue who would likely retrieve me, not the RCMP. He yelled back to me that Search and Rescue had been dispatched from Penticton. I figured it would be close to dark by the time they got there and figured no-one was going to come out on the river to fetch me in the dark. I figured, “Maybe they’ll have to use a helicopter and lower down a ladder or something!” I felt silly because a lot of fuss was taking place.
A young man came by with his wife and new baby a few minutes later: they were out for a walk. He knew the river really well, was well-built (muscle and body mass) and had tubed the river many times. He waded across the shallowest rapids where I was stranded and I used him as a brace to get back to shore at the same spot. It took us a full 10 minutes to make our way across 100 feet of rapids (that’s ten feet per minute) because we had to regroup each time he moved his feet: he would move one foot, I would brace against that foot. He would move another foot, and I would brace against that foot. A couple of times he had lost his balance when a river rock moved under his foot but fortunately regained it (for his benefit and mine). I got a ride home in a nice police car.
Please be careful, and don’t do what I did: don’t tube alone because no-one will know you in trouble, and wear a life jacket. I had “told” a family member where I was going and what I was doing, but when I ran into trouble I wasn’t overdue at my rendezvous. When I was stuck on the river island, no other tubers happened by that could have alerted anyone to my dilemma. Had I not found help when I did the help might not have found “me” in time.
Arlene Arlow – FACTOS