June 22, 2017
Weekend water enthusiast David Criswell decided he'd try his hand at paddling the West Fork of the Stones River one late April day after spring rains pushed it to flood stage. The new terrain looked like too much fun to ignore.
“I probably didn’t know enough to know I should have been more fearful than I was,” said Criswell, who doing a few things right when he went into the water, like wearing synthetic clothing and personal flotation device.
The fun soon turned to fear.
Katie Criswell watched in horror as Facebook Live captured the moment her husband's kayak tipped him into the frigid, rushing river as he tried to cross a fork in the waterway.
Criswell managed to drag himself, and his sinking kayak, to shore where a bystander pulled him from the water. Those terrifying moments in the river went viral and caught the attention of Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association board member Andrea White, who offered some free instruction for this summer's boating season.
“It’s not that people are stupid. But they’re uninformed,” said White, a Hook1 Paddling Pro and Level 2 American Canoe Association-certified river kayaking instructor. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Flood stage waters in Middle Tennessee have far more hazards than many recreational boaters realize, White said.
“When the water gets into the trees and onto the banks, there’s no place for anybody to get down to help them with a rescue, so it inherently increases the danger level beyond what you can see,” White said.
Those unseen objects are termed “strainers” because the water goes through, but boaters do not, White said.
The “squirrelly eddy line” also created a problem for Criswell as he approached the fork in the river that April day. The fast-moving water on one side met the slow-moving current on the other, causing instability. So when Criswell hit a limb, he went for a swim.
“Between the tree limb and the eddy line, he was doomed. He was going over,” White said.
Most recreational boaters won’t take on the challenge of a flood-stage river. The lake or a seemingly calm river doesn’t seem so daunting, said swift water rescue instructor Jonathan Ryan. Even in calm waters, it pays to know how to stay safe.
More than ever, recreational boating has become much more accessible to the average citizen, which has changed the face of boating, Ryan said. Twenty years ago, beginner kayaking would require $2,000 to $4,000 — a costly commitment that ensured boaters wouldn’t show up unprepared.
“Now you can buy a boat with paddle for $149, no commitment required, no prior knowledge, there’s nobody to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. You can go buy a boat and throw it on the river,” said Ryan, an American Canoe Association Level 4 Swift Water Rescue instructor and Level 3 Kayaking instructor.
Those weekend warriors are the ones Ryan worries about most.
“We’re seeing three to five recreational paddlers die every year in what is essentially calm, flat water," Ryan said. “Something is very, very wrong.”
Andrea White discusses the difference between sit-on-top and traditional kayaks when choosing a kayak.
HELEN COMER AND NANCY DEGENNARO/ DNJ
Just a week after Criswell’s dip in the flood waters of the Stones River, Christina Esparza drowned while kayaking on Dale Hollow Lake with her 17-year-old son, who survived. High winds may have contributed to her demise, something the average rec boater may not realize, Ryan said.
The most important safety tip in boating may seem obvious — wear your life jacket. “Life jackets prevent 85 percent of drownings,” Ryan said.
But like seat belts, people don’t think they’ll need one because they’re “good swimmers” or the water is calm.
The mother who drowned on Dale Hollow Lake still had her life jacket tied to her inflatable kayak, Ryan said.
Three weeks ago, Cocke County mother Anna Last died trying to save her children stuck in a raft on a low-head dam in East Tennessee. She wasn't wearing a life jacket. As she struggled to free the raft from the the boiling current caused by the 4-foot-high dam, she was sucked under.
But just because you’re wearing a PFD doesn’t ensure you won’t drown, especially if you hit unseen objects termed "strainers."
“Currents tend to pull you under, depending on the speed of the river. If a current pulls you under, you’re in real danger. The amount of flotation (in your PFD) and the speed of the river, there’s a scientific relationship there that might not be in your favor,” White said.
That’s why it’s important to travel in groups, especially if you’re inexperienced.
“Go boating with other trained boaters so you have a backup system and support network. … And you’ve got to be in a group that’s got your back because literally your life may depend on it,” White said.
Even with a group, White said knowing how to rescue yourself is important, too, in case you get separated from your group.
As the rec boater population continues to grow, the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association board realized a need for more intensified instruction for beginners. White and Ryan will both be among several instructors teaching this summer around the state.
Although you "don't have to" take a paddling class in order to get on the river, Ryan highly advises doing so.
"Paddling is a wonderful pastime and recreation. It's relaxing when you want it to be relaxing and exciting when you want excitement. You're in nature and on water and it's beautiful," Ryan said. "We just want to educate people .. so they are aware of hazards and can have fun."
And having fun was what Criswell was trying to do, although he didn't understand the dangers at the time.
"Prior to entering the water, I felt like I was in control of the situation. However, after experiencing it, I can tell you that you are at the mercy of Mother Nature," Criswell said. "I'm happy this is a scenario where we can laugh about it, as opposed to one where you are interviewing my widow, Katie."
Reach reporter Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter @NanDeGennaro.
People can register for any/all classes at paddletsra.org:
►July 22: TSRA Intro to Paddling, Jefferson Springs Recreation Area, Smyrna,
►July 29-30: TSRA Rescue for Recreational Boaters, Jefferson Springs Recreational Area, Smyrna, and Harpeth River in Bellevue.
►July 14-16: TSRA Basic River Rescue (whitewater), Hiwassee River, Reliance,
►August 18-20: TSRA Swift Water Rescue (whitewater), Ocoee River,