On May 14, 2016 a group of 13 Scouts and 6 adults ran a 16 mile stretch of the Dead River in Maine, stated to include Class III to Class IV+ (some say Class V) rapids. The Dead River reportedly offers nearly continuous whitewater—the most in the East.
On this particular day, a scheduled dam release increased the water flow from 600 cfs to over 7000 cfs, an event which the local rafting companies take advantage of. The river temperature during April-May is estimated to be 45 degrees F. (There are only 8 dam releases each year, during April-May, and September-October, limiting unit choices as to time periods for high water rafting)
During this trip, while traversing one set of rapids, all of the Scout unit participants were reportedly ejected from a raft, and one adult died, reportedly by drowning, possibly related to the water’s cold spring temperature.
The story recites no facts that would suggest that this tragedy was anything other than the result of a potential risk that might be foreseeable given the circumstances (rafting on the Dead River during its highest peak flow rate due to the spring dam release with the river temperature being chillingly cold). Indeed, the rafting company provides a waiver for each participant. (Dead River rafting photo)
However, a followup review of procedures adopted by rafting companies offering trips on the Dead River confirms that not all rafting vendors follow the same guidelines for the trips they offer.
For instance, based on a review of rafting company websites, the minimum age for rafting on the Dead River at peak flow appears to range from 12 to 15 (depending on the rafting company), with the minimum age dropping to as low as 8 yrs old in the summer (a period of low flow). While a Maine rafting association recommends a minimum age of 15 yrs for the Dead River at peak flow, this guideline has apparently not been adopted by all rafting companies.
Also, the use of wet suits is mandatory by some vendors depending on the trip, and otherwise made available for rental by others.
What is the takeaway for adult leaders?
First, this incident is believed to be the 6th reported adult white water rafting death during a Scouting activity since 2005 of which the author is aware, each on different rivers, most of which having seemingly occurred at peak flow rates (there has also been one reported Scout white water rafting death during that period, and an additional adult leader white water canoeing death in 2015). Note: There may be more unreported tragedies of which the author is unaware.
This is not an insignificant number, particularly for the families involved. Obviously, the exercise of good judgment with regard to matching the anticipated conditions to the group is an important part of activity planning.
See, for instance, this article, examining the significant number of rafting deaths which have recently occurred during white water rafting in Colorado, where the important point is made that it is critical to match age and maturity to the anticipated challenge of the river (both youth and adult). The article also makes the point that odds of tragedies occurring while white water rafting are also related to the flow rate of the river.
One of the above-mentioned adult tragedies (on an Idaho river) was alleged to have resulted from the rafting vendor attempting to run a Class IV-V set of rapids during a higher than recommended flow rate, resulting in a pending law suit against the vendor.
Another rafting vendor was sued for allegedly subjecting inexperienced rafters to “extraordinarily high river flow conditions”. See the story.
Indeed, well-meaning adults can be particularly at risk during such events for a variety of reasons. http://www.riskmanagementinscouting.com/assumption-of-risk-and-adult-volunteers/
Second, it is important to recognize that not all outdoor vendors are created equal, and that each may employ different guidelines (such as minimum participant ages). Units should make their own determination as to what age of Scout should be able to participate in such an event, and not rely solely on a vendor’s judgment, as the recommended minimum age may be younger than believed appropriate by the unit under the anticipated conditions. Remember, the vendor has no prior knowledge of the skill or maturity level of any of the unit’s members.
Unit leaders should also be cognizant of the potential hazard of cold water temperature should one or more participants unexpectedly enter the water, not to mention challenging water flow rate!
- “As river difficulty increases, the danger to swimming paddlers becomes more severe.”
- “As rapids become longer and more continuous, the challenge increases.”
- “There is a difference between running an occasional class IV rapid, and dealing with an entire river of this category.”
- “Allow an extra margin of safety between skills and river ratings when the water is cold or if the river is itself remote and inaccessible.”