Partially flattened floatie

Partially flattened, this floatie was no match for the Trinity River.

If our dog hadn’t kept barking, there is no way we’d have heard the screams from the river. We were beyond exhausted, and the air conditioner was on.

Combined assaults on our extensive garden by the deer and bears forced my husband Steph and me to enlarge and fortify its fence. It was a lot of work to remove the first fence and the temperature was well over 100 degrees. As the light waned, we’d have preferred to put the new fence up the next day, but the deer would wipe out half of the garden in the night, so we persevered well into evening.

Steph dragged in and put together some salads for dinner while I secured the last few wire sections. It was so dark I’d have needed a flashlight had it not been for the light cast from the kitchen window. Filthy dirty and bathed in sweat, sunscreen and bug spray, I was anxious to eat before a very welcome shower and drop into bed. I walked inside our cabin and saw Steph shared my utter exhaustion. He announced, “I am done.” We both were. It was 10 p.m.

Just as we sat down to eat, our dog started barking. We live very close to the Trinity River, and my first thought was maybe there were partiers over at the Bucktail put-in across the river. She stood at the slider and looked frantically at us, then the door. Steph opened it, and we heard loud voices.

“What do you want?” he yelled. Several voices called out, “Help! Please, help us!”

Steph got a flashlight while I made my way to the river in the very dark night. I could just make out people flailing on a large object in the middle of the river. They continued to yell for help.

“Paddle over here; I’ll get you out,” I called.

“We can’t!” one of them replied, “we don’t have paddles!”

“You have hands,” I said in my best drill sergeant voice, “use them!” As they neared the bank, I saw four people; a man and three women. The man pushed the others out of the way and clambered up the grass. By then, Steph had joined us with a flashlight. We could see the man was shivering uncontrollably.

“Can you drive us to Steel Bridge?” one of the women asked. “That’s where we were headed; our RV is there.”

They’d launched upriver in Lewiston and floated about three miles, but their intended destination was many more miles — and hours — away. As I pulled the floatie to a better extraction spot, I said, “We’ve had a really long, hard workday. We’re done in. Can we call someone for you?” No.

Steph shepherded the rescuees up to our cabin while I lashed their watercraft to an alder. Watercraft is a stretch; it was a huge, half-collapsed pool toy, the kind one lounges on while sipping margaritas. Four adults don’t ship out on something like this. When I stated the obvious, one said, “We had another one, a smaller ring, but it popped on a branch in the water.” So they all floated along on the larger toy. Somewhere along the way, a chamber on it was popped as well.

We wrapped the people in towels and blankets as they stood in growing pools of water. I made them hot cocoa and put our dinner in the refrigerator. All four repeatedly said our dog saved their lives; they’d done a dumb thing and were paying for it. None acknowledged what their poor decisions cost us. There was no alternative; once the party was sufficiently warmed, Steph drove them to their RV. He returned just before midnight.

“That’s time in my life I will never get back,” he sighed as we numbly ate our salads.

Having worked on the ocean for decades, we have taken part in many rescues. Not all of those rescued made bad decisions; maybe they planned well, but conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Rivers are easily accessed and can be much more dangerous. Although the most recent party topped everything prior for poor planning — wrong craft, no life jackets, ridiculously distant destination — we see accidents waiting to happen almost daily and have averted a large number of them.

Potential disasters include happy vacationers hopping on cheap floatie toys with no life jackets, but at least their planned trip is a short one, and there is some safety in numbers. Then there are inflatable kayaks. These boats are forgiving, but they don’t track well. Day after day, we see paddlers with no ability put on the river by an outfitter whose Drop and Go approach is legion. We see paddlers spinning in circles as they head for dangerous, low-hanging strainers along the shore. I wish I weren’t the person who calls out instructions to strangers on how to paddle and save themselves, but I am.

When an unexpected hazard such as a branch underwater appears, two paddlers can be better than one. Just a few days ago, I watched an outfitter launch a large party in inflatable kayaks with no instruction, which is his norm. A couple in a double kayak was powered by a guy in the back; the woman forward had no paddle. Instead, she held a baby. There is no excuse for putting such a young kid on the water, especially without a life jacket with a grab loop in case the unimaginable happens.

Both California law and common sense dictate that people on the river have a PFD — personal flotation device — on their craft. Every child under 13 years of age on a moving recreational vessel of any length must wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD, but infant-sized PFDs don’t exist. That’s because the Coast Guard doesn’t believe babies can safely be out there.

We love the Trinity River and seeing people enjoy their time on it. To make sure adventurers have a fabulous and safe experience, they might consider these options:

Wear the PFD; by the time you know you need it, it may be too late.

Practice paddling, steering and avoiding objects before you head out.

Remember to bring water, sunscreen and a snack, especially for longer runs.

File a float plan: let someone know where you’re going, when you expect to get there and what to do if you’re late.

Heidi Tiura is a Coast Guard licensed vessel master. She and her husband Steph Dutton own Trinity River Adventure Cabins. They’ve professionally run kayak and raft trips on the Trinity since 2005 but are taking a break due to COVID and a major remodel on their cabin.

They can frequently be spotted kayaking and stand-up paddling on the river and lakes or riding their motorcycles with their River Safety Dog, Bufant, who now has four notches on her collar.

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