This spring Wilson has taught three swiftwater rescue courses to more than 40 local river runners on the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. Students who voluntarily submerged themselves in the freezing Rocky Mountain runoff had signed up for one of Wilson’s courses, which are designed to teach private boaters and commercial river guides the necessary tools to know how to act when an incident occurs on the river.
As a lifelong river runner and owner/operator of the Telluride Kayak School, Wilson believes in the importance of swiftwater rescue. “As a whitewater professional, you see a lot of private boaters on the water who are totally unaware of all the hazards on the river,” said Wilson. “I want to help people become an asset instead of a liability on the river.”
According to local San Miguel River Ranger Leigh Sullivan there are more people on the river this season than she has seen in the past 14 years. She thinks it’s due to the above average spring-runoff that the region experienced. Sullivan has already encountered a number of river accidents this year, including flipped boats, boats wrapped on river obstacles, lost boats, and a near drowning. “Swiftwater rescue is very important knowledge,” said Sullivan. “If you get in trouble on the river, you want to have the proper training so you know what to do.”
San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team Leader Brian Beckham has also responded to an accident on the river this year, which resulted in a formal rescue. “People need to prepare themselves for self-rescue,” said Beckham. “By the time a search and rescue team can get to the scene of the accident, the victim might be hung up on a rock, stranded on the wrong side of the river, or, in the worst case scenario, dead.”
According to Wilson, self-rescue is by far the most important aspect of swiftwater rescue. Unlike ocean surfers who are always swimming in the water, river runners primarily remain on top of their crafts, and rarely take a purposeful swim. According to Wilson, the best way to teach self-rescue is to set up a swimming obstacle course on the river where students are crossing eddy-lines, ferrying in big current, getting themselves over and around natural obstacles, and climbing onto flipped rafts.
Local river runner Susan Kees recently took a swiftwater course with Wilson and his fellow swiftwater rescue instructor Brian Fletcher on the Dolores River below Bedrock.
“We did lots of swimming in the course,” said Kees. “I’m not a swimmer, but having to swim some of those rapids was incredible. It inspired me to learn more and to practice.”
Wilson spends a full day teaching students self-rescue. Once they have drilled this all-important skill, students move on to learning how to rescue another victim. The most simple and effective way to save a victim is with a device called a throw bag (a strong, water-friendly rope that is stored in a mesh or nylon bag, ranging in lengths from 50 to 75 feet).
Students in Wilson’s course spend hours throwing their bags at stationary targets on land before graduating to the river, where they take turns floating down a small rapid while their classmates try to rescue them from shore. Practicing in the water is more difficult because they are trying to hit a moving target and timing is of the essence.
Bill Kees, a longtime local who has been running rivers for the past 32 years took Wilson’s course, emphasized that it is hard to get a rope to a swimming victim in the river.
“Everyone takes the throw-bag for granted,” said Kees, but “not many people know how to use it. It is extremely important to familiarize yourself with it and to practice throwing it.”
Although Wilson’s swiftwater rescue courses hammer away at the importance of self-rescue and the proper use of throw bags, there is more information that comes with the territory. Foot entrapment, flipping rafts, rescuing unconscious swimmers, and knot-tying are also part of the curriculum.
“The course was very educational and very helpful,” said Bill Kees. “I would definitely recommend this course,” he said, going on to praise Wilson and Fletcher as being “extremely knowledgeable, patient, and professional.”
Wilson’s career in swiftwater rescue began in 2001 on the Futalefu River, in Chile, where he worked with lead guide and swiftwater rescue expert Mitch Sasser. For the Futalefu, a class V river, Sasser required all of his guides to become Swiftwater Rescue Technicians, where that Wilson discovered his love and natural inclination for the rigors of swiftwater rescue.
After three seasons in Chile, Wilson returned to the U.S. and in 2004 completed an instructor-training course in Sonoma, Calif., through International Rescue Instructor Authority (IRIA). He has been teaching swiftwater rescue for four years.
“As instructors we are always learning and developing because swiftwater rescue is so young and there is still innovation to be had,” said Wilson. “We are constantly developing and improving on the curriculum that is in place.”
Wilson offers three-day swiftwater courses for $250 through the Telluride Kayak School. He can accomodate12 students per course with two instructors. He offers Level II and Level III courses, both certified through IRIA. Wilson is available to teach swiftwater courses throughout the summer. He can be contacted at 970/729-0147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.