For many young people, there’s nothing like a relaxing float down the Red Deer River with a bunch of friends on a scorching-hot summer day, flimsy blow-up rafts well-stocked with ice-cold beer.
Dressed for the heat in shorts and T-shirts or bathing suits, but no life-jackets or extra clothing to protect against the searing sunrays or fickle nature, they are courting disaster.
Red Deer County senior patrol officer Bob Dixon told the Advocate recently he’s “seen it all” on these river floats when it comes to lack of common sense. Belting back the beers (thus impairing their judgment), no life-jackets or paddles — and the list goes on with reckless rafters breaking just about every rule in water safety.
“There are a dozen recipes for disaster,” he said. “People have no idea.”
Dixon once encountered a group of revellers set out to launch on a float while seated around the sides of a round rubber dinghy, its centre loaded with ice and beer cans.
Recently, lack of common sense played a key role in the disappearance of five 12-to-14-year-old girls who got lost while floating down the river near Red Lodge Provincial Park near Bowden.
Innisfail RCMP, the county fire department and a technical rescue team were involved in the search. Eight hours later, the girls had hiked back to the park after losing directions. They carried no emergency supplies — in fact, they didn’t even have shoes.
Such an activity, it would seem, requires an adult escort. A river is not to be toyed with.
Advocate outdoors columnist Bob Scammell, in more than one column, has warned that while a float down the Red Deer River provides sights to behold, nature can be cruel and unforgiving if one is not prepared for the unpredictable elements.
Scammell and a pal witnessed such a scenario while floating down the river, fly casting for brown trout, and a storm brewing with a chilling upstream wind blowing. They encountered an anxious crew of three young men and two females, floating in what Scammell calls a “rubber ducky,” an unsuitable dollar-store inflatable, meant for a family pool or a day at the lake.
“How much longer to Red Deer … below Three Mile Bend?” Scammell reported they asked, in a column three years ago. They were looking at nine to 13 hours from their Penhold Bridge launch site — a 27-km float — but had been told by a pal that it would take only two hours.
A while later, Scammell and his friend witnessed the three young men in T-shirts and shorts seeking help from a shoreline residence while the two females in bikinis were showing severe signs of hypothermia.
Dixon says inexperienced river rafters seriously underestimate the time it takes to get from point A to point B on the river. If the flow is low, rafters are travelling at a snail’s pace. “If you need to go down the river three or four miles, and you’re going only two to three miles an hour, it will take you two to three hours to get there.”
And the twists and turns in a river can easily cause disorientation.
Booze on river floats has been a constant concern for county officials, as is spending hours in a scorching sun unprotected — thus courting heat stroke. Even prior to a raft launch, county authorities have found would-be-rafters stewed to the gills.
“You’re not making good decisions if you have consumed alcohol or have heat stroke,” said Dixon.
Education and preparedness are the keys to river rafting. They can make the difference between a memorable outing and one that courts disaster. Packing life-jackets, sun screen, drinking lots of water to avoid dehydration, and carrying extra clothing to protect yourself against a scorching sun and potential hypothermia (or sudden storms) are among the points county peace officers emphasize.
A rafting outing at its best is about taking in the summer sun and admiring the natural beauties along the Red Deer River valley.
But nature dictates that it won’t always turn out so idyllic.
And for floaters on the Red Deer River, there is no turning back.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor