To the rescue

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer May 20, 2011 08:23 pm
Wallowa River serves as classroom for swift water training MINAM — Spring run-off on the Wallowa River provided challenging conditions for Wallowa County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue swift water training this past weekend.

Search and rescue training officer Mike Hansen said the water level was safe enough Saturday for the self-rescue exercise, but Sunday the training concentrated on rope work when the water level increased with overnight rains.

“It was good for us to be in that water and to experience what it’s like to read that kind of hydrology,” Hansen said of the self-rescue portion. “You need to swim out of a mid-channel flow in a fairly good rapid.”

Students of the certification class swam the “Minam Roller,” a popular rapid near Minam State Park on Saturday. Training instructor Ryan Murphy of Spokane River Rescue said the water on Sunday was approaching an unsafe level.

“Once the river got high enough that there were no clean, safe eddies, we worked on rigging rope systems and how to adapt them to different situations,” Murphy said.

Murphy is a commercial river guide and recreational kayaker who offers a suite of swift water rescue and ropes classes to search and rescue units, firefighters and river guides. Murphy grew up in Spokane on a swim team, was a lifeguard and studied water and geography in college, he said. Training rescue courses was a natural fit as a career choice.

In addition to members of the search and rescue unit, fisheries biologists who work on the Imnaha River and local river guides took the certification class. Hansen said the biologists who work on the river a lot doing salmon and steelhead monitoring have safety gear with them at the fish traps.

Every couple of years someone in the unit uses this skill, Hansen said. Unfortunately it is often to recover a body as in the case of last spring’s car crash into the Imnaha River.

“You have to be right there on the spot to be able to save a life,” he said.

Hansen said by law the sheriff’s office is responsible for all search and rescue facilities and personnel training. However, they don’t have a staff to do it themselves. All the search and rescue members are volunteers.

“We have a group of community-minded volunteers who are all trained in basic first aid, wilderness first aid, and some are emergency medical technician-trained,” Hansen said.

In a county surrounded by water, Hansen said the training is applicable in the case of localized flooding and could come in handy during high water conditions.

“You have to have reverence for these rivers. They are very powerful and things can happen quickly,” he said.