KEEP CALM AND FLOAT ON

Every year oodles of stoodles head to Woodson Bridge to float their biscuits and their beers in some inner tubes, forming flotillas of debauchery and (inevitably for some) doom. In response to reports of escalated alcohol-related issues, including the tragic death of Brett Olson in 2012, Glenn County has issued an alcohol ban on the river during the popular Labor Day weekend. In spite of the outcryings about nanny states and personal responsibility, let’s assume that nobody’s missing the point, and let’s talk instead about what a responsible Labor Day float could look like. I believe that we can put the fun back into fundamentals. And for that, I need my old pal and river-fun guru, Jeff Horn.

Jeff (I can call him Jeff because he’s my BFF; you can call him Mr. Horn) is the lead Outdoor Recreation Planner with the Bureau of Land Management’s Motherlode Field Office, and he’s been in charge of their whitewater-rafting program for the better part of 20 years. He has 30-plus years of river expervience, having worked most of the commercial rivers in the western United States, and internationally in Costa Rica. He’s swiftwater-rescue trained, has taught and instructed, and is an all-around badass. He’s the perfect person to help all you party animals out with a rocking safe Labor Day float.

Jeff, we’ve got a booze ban on our Labor Day float!

Yeah, we had a similar situation down here on the American River in Sacramento, and “no more alcohol” is a reasonable response. The stats on people who have drowned while intoxicated are staggering. And if you’re in an inner tube, you can’t really do a float safely. You have very limited control over your direction and you’re at the mercy of the river. The safest way to do any inner tube float really is with a life jacket on. Because if you lose your tube—you lose your flotation.

And inner tubes give you armpit rashes. Is there a safe way to tube?

The safest thing you can do, if you’re gonna inner tube, is to wear a life jacket, plan ahead, wear proper footwear, and wear a hat so you’re not overly taxed by the sun. It’s much safer to be in a raft because if you’re in a raft, odds are you have paddles and you can control your direction. In an inner tube, you flail around with your arms and kick with your legs and it’s tough. The best thing you can do is try to maintain a downstream orientation, where your feet are facing downstream. And never tie yourself to anything or tie anything to your body. That could kill you.

Don’t tie your rafts together or tie things to your rafts that float. If there’s an obstacle, the raft goes one way around an obstacle and the floating thing may go the other way around the obstacle and you’ll get stuck. When something obstructs your way in a calm current, what generally happens is it’ll drag you down.

What does Jefe’s fun float prep look like?

I’d get a raft big enough to accommodate the group that I intend on going with, so it’s not overcrowded. My ice chest would be secured to the raft (ie: tied to the floor). Cold drinks in plastic bottles (no glass on the river!), good food that’s iced down, sunscreen, a hat, and some kind of footwear that isn’t going to rip off. (No flip-flops!) I’d still recommend a life jacket; life jackets save people’s lives. I wear a life jacket every time I’m on the river.

I always bring a small first-aid kit in a dry bag, sunscreen… a cell phone is a great thing to have in a dry compartment, as well as additional trash bags to pack away your garbage. You put your garbage in the trash bags (Jefe will Chuck Norris roundhouse kick your face if you sink your beer bottles into the river, or leave your trash behind, so don’t be an ingrate) and then tuck them back in your dry bag, so if your raft flips over, your trash won’t go everywhere. Even a whistle is a great thing to have—I always have a whistle on me. The river can be loud, and if you start yelling on the river nobody will hear you—but if you start blowing a whistle, they’ll hear.

What are some river navigation tips?

From a basic river standpoint, a rule of thumb is that if the river turns, you want to be on the inside of the turn. You have more time to react to things and to obstacles that end up on the outside of a river turn.

River directions are always associated with going downstream, so if you’re facing downstream, “river left” is your left side. When you point in the direction of river left, make sure you’re pointing with your correct hand; if you see an obstacle and you want to warn somebody, point in the direction of the safe route, not at the obstacle.

Touching the top of your head repeatedly is the signal for asking if somebody is ok, and if the signal is returned then that person is ok. Waving your arms back and forth and crossing your arms is the sign for trouble, and can be followed with a directional signal like “go right” or “go left.”

What about floating down the river on air mattresses?

It’s all the same consideration as inner tubes. If you get separated from it, you have no flotation and you’re at the mercy of the river. They’re completely unsuitable for that activity. They are made out of extremely thin vinyl, and vinyl is not an appropriate material to use on the river. Air mattresses are for pools. Keep them in the pool.

Trying to get out at the washout can sometimes be a challenge—any tips?

Flip-flops can get pulled off in the mud of a washout, and I’d wash that mud off fairly soon because if you have cuts or scrapes, there’s a good chance of them getting infected. (EW!!) You might want to bring extra water in your takeout vehicle specifically for washing off.

What kinds of common injuries do you see that could be easily avoided?

Most of the injuries we see are related to the shore; that’s why footwear is important. You could step on something sharp with bare feet, or slip on a rock. But if you do fall in the river and you’re away from your boat, float on your back with your feet pointed downstream and as high up out of the water as you can get them. Never, ever try to walk in moving water. Foot entrapments are the second-leading cause of river death. Don’t even stand in moving water that’s above your knee.

If your foot gets caught underwater, you will more than likely die. The amount of weight pushing against you is phenomenal. Still water weighs 8 pounds per gallon; imagine how many gallons will be pushing your body. It’s like trying to stop an elephant, and you won’t; you’ll lose. Every foot entrapment I’ve ever seen has been a body recovery. I’ve seen bodies on the American, the Tuolumne and the Merced rivers, and foot entrapment deaths can happen on rivers anywhere.

Strainers (branches and trees) are typically found on the outside bend of the river, and if you do find yourself approaching or caught in a strainer, it’s a self-rescue sort of situation. Try to get up and over it—not down and under it. If you see you’re floating up on a branch, try to hop your way up and over it. You never know what’s underneath; it could be a whole mess.

And as for law enforcement officers and additional safety personnel on the river: they’re trying to do a job. Respect them and keep in mind that they can absolutely ruin your day if they want to. And keep in mind that if somebody gets into trouble, they have to go get them. It’s not fun—they have to go get them, deal with parents, crying people on the shore—and when it comes to performing mouth-to-mouth on a drowning victim, the victim always vomits. They do.

If you don’t want increased draconian measures, then be proactive and plan ahead to avoid any issues.

I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that vomit-in-the-mouth thing.

How do you feel about canoes? My ideal float is a river full of old-timey bathing suits and women holding parasols.

Canoes are fine if people are qualified to handle them. They’re unforgiving if you don’t know what you’re doing. If they go underwater, you won’t be able to get them out; they’re hard to remove. On a river like the Sac, you can certainly do a canoe trip if you know what you’re doing. You have to know how to do proper canoe strokes to manage the craft, and know how to “eddy turn”: lean slightly downstream, paddle hard and let the current catch the bottom of the boat to push you downstream, rather than letting it roll you over. With a canoe you need to start early—if you see a bend in the river, start paddling to gain the advantage of being on the inside of a turn.

How would you plan your trip?

I’d start early, and plan my trip well. Make sure that people know where I’m going and when I expect to get off the river. Bring plenty of water to keep hydrated, and a good hat to keep from getting overly exposed to the sun.

You could bring water toys, water cannons and such, that you can shoot at friends. And I’d wait until after the river to party, crack a cold one and talk about what a fun day we had on the river.

Sometimes things get a little rapey at Beercan Beach.

You always need to be respectful; being a jerk usually doesn’t get you what you want anyway. Alcohol and the river is just a bad mix. I would never drink or do “anything else” on the river, ever. Being on a river trip is about enjoying the experience of free-floating on the river. Every river is different; enjoy your surroundings and the circumstances, and enjoy your friends and party later. Be respectful—to the river and to the others enjoying it.

So, what have we learned?

That floating the river isn’t the same as floating around your backyard paddle pool with a Pale Ale in one hand and a hoagie in the other. Doing an ounce of prep ahead of time can ensure that you’re going to have a great time safely, and you’ll be prepared in case something unexpected goes down. I’m sure you’re thinking, “But Sara, YOLO! Chives are on and stuff!” Hey, I get it you guys, I do. But I don’t want this to be your last hurrah; I want you to have so many hurrahs that you’ll have a hard time looking your own kids in the eye when they ask you about your funtimes in college.  This ain’t your mum’s house anyway. You should know how to clean up after yourselves; you should get by now that the world isn’t your garbage can, that you don’t have to be a wastoid to have fun, and if you do have to drink your face off to have fun, then you’ve got a problem that might need some attention.

If you decide that you’re too cool for school and you’re going to show up anyway to make a statement about the man, or socialism, or the nanny state, I hope you’ve got the checking account to back up your insolence, because the fines can get expensive! We’ve included a chart, glommed from the Chico State website, outlining the fines for various violations of the ban. Good luck out there and remember: Labor Day is supposed to be about honoring the societal contributions of workers (people with jobs) and that there will be people on the river doing their jobs to keep you safe, and potentially saving lives. Respect the situation—don’t make their jobs any harder on a holiday dedicated to honoring people doing jobs!

WHAT IT CAN COST

Violating Alcohol Ban—$380

Minor In Possession—$370

Open Container—$125

Public Intoxication—$250

Urinating In Public—$480

Littering—$1,000

Driving Under the Influence—$1,600

Grand Total—$4, 175

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Sara makes the words happen.