Sunday, February 22, 2009

Landlubbing Law Enforcement to Determine Class III Whitewater

The Oregon State Legislature is considering a bill (HB 2079) that would require all boaters to wear life jackets in Class III whitewater. Great idea but they don’t say who will determine what particular stretch of water is Class III versus Class II.

David Molina, the administrator of the House Veterans and Emergency Committee, stated that law enforcement on the ground will determine if it’s a Class II versus Class III at a given water level. This is unacceptable. Most Oregonians don’t trust government employees to determine areas within their expertise and will be hard pressed to trust them outside of their range of experience. Unless a law enforcement officer has been on the river as a decision-maker (not a passenger in a commercial trip) in a paddle- or oar-powered boat, he is not qualified to classify a given rapid.

Sure, there are rapids around the state where there is agreement on a rapid's classification. However, there are plenty of rivers and creeks that do not have much exposure or general agreement on their classification. A prudent boater would wear a life jacket on many of those waterways during the rainy season but would feel comfortable floating them in the summer without one. As water levels change, so does a rapids’ class.

The Illinois River in southern Oregon is a great example. At different water levels during the rainy season there are stretches that vary between Class III and IV. However, that same river in the summer is a trickle where you might find backpackers in inflatable kayaks next to swimmers. The vagueness of this legislation does nothing to protect river users from capricious implementation.

Even experienced river guides will have different opinions about how to classify a given stretch of the river. I have heard hardened whitewater guides debate what class a given rapid is at a given water level. If you put four experienced whitewater guides together (commercial or private), you’ll get five different opinions, ranging from 2+ clear to 4- given varied water conditions.

That’s because rating whitewater is largely in the eye of the beholder. Despite this, the State Legislature wants to put that determination in the hands of local law enforcement with questionable whitewater rafting or kayaking experience.
Keep in mind that the Oregon State Marine Board did NOT propose this legislation and it’s questionable if this bill would even save lives. A large percentage of fatalities in Oregon occur in flat water and less scary river sections where folks are lulled into a false sense of safety. If the legislature is serious about saving lives they should consider a requirement of life jackets on all moving water.

It is truly rare to ever see a rafter or kayaker without a PFD in Class III whitewater. Occasionally, you’ll see fishermen in private drift boats without them, but even them usually put them on when running Class III. Personally I would like everyone to wear a life jacket, because not wearing one puts experienced boaters in other boats at risk when they may need to save the careless.

For photographic evidence of the legislature attempting to legislate a solution to a non-problem, take a look at rafters at the McKenzie’s most popular Class III rapid. You will hardly ever see a photograph of someone not wearing a life jacket here:

The photo to right
is an example of Class III whitewater on the Siuslaw River after a June storm. A life jacket is necessary after a downpour. However, in the summer it's a trickle where it is perfectly safe to lounge around in an inflatable raft without needing the government to tell you to wear a PFD. As some of my more cynical Libertarian whitewater friends have said, "Let personal responsibility and Darwin work this out."

Here's video of the author guiding R2 down Husum Falls (Class V) on the White Salmon River in Washington:

Yes, life jackets should be required on Class IV/V. I require them in my boat without the help of the government.

1 comment:

  1. We don't trust government to set the standards? Well we certainly don't want lawyers to do it either!
    How about maybe the participants getting involved with it?

    So how do we (or should we) protect the idiots from harming themselves and creating the expense on us to fish them out and provide medical care. I guess that's why this came about. Maybe you have a suggestion?

    What about using the standards that recreational boaters have agreed on.

    Its fairly easy for anyone including government employees to follow. Maybe thats why we have judges to determine the final outcome if someone disagrees with what the officer says.

    I know that there is a big discussion with the marine officers of how this will be enforced and there will most certainly be some leniency when deciding what a rapid is currently classed taking into consideration the standards and what the current water conditions are.
    We will most likely use that standard.
    Yep i'm a water cop and I am concerned with this issue.