Over the last 5 years, I’ve attended Mike Mather’s swiftwater rescue workshop in various formats. The first 2 years I took the full-on 2 day course offered by the Northeast PA Kayak School. The next 3 years, I accompanied the Jim Thorpe River Adventure guides in a custom-tailored course specifically with the raft guide in mind. My trepidation was high on that first weekend. Yes, my kayak had all the right stuff – throw bag, webbing, an assortment of carabiners, etc. But, in about 2 hours of taking the class, I realized there was way more to this rescue stuff than met the eye. Having the right gear required me to “really” learn how to use it. Oh yeah! I also had the little diagram of the Z-drag in my dry bag forever. Terrified one day I would really need to throw one together and have to follow the illustrations! Yikes!

We circled up. Discussed what we might want to get out of the class. Then, he proceeded to open my mind.

Mike was funny and engaging. He was really into this swiftwater rescue stuff. It made me want to learn the material. Mike shared a bunch of stories about the reality of knowing these skills. The endings to his stories were varied and the seriousness of having this “sh&t” down became clear. Because, you never really know when you might need it especially if you are on the water a lot! Now, I knew a little about the rescue “mind” but I had no idea. The first day laid down a tremendous amount of ground work. Thank goodness he was fond of little stick figure drawings, funny stories and acronyms to help me remember, and of course, loads of dry-land practice!

My throw-bag accuracy was challenged to say the least but I gave it my best. That skill still remains on my practice list at the beginning of each season along with knots and rolling. He talked about using the equipment your group has and how to assemble the group for a scenarios. How to look out for yourself, equipment, environment and others. He broke it all down. I was one of the annoying students who asked a bunch of questions. Mike was awesome! He is intense and passionate about all things whitewater. So, expect a thorough answer when you ask him anything. So, day 1 laid the groundwork. I still was not sure if I had what it took to actually do this stuff but that changed on day 2 when we hit the water.

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That’s me learning how to start a whitewater swim correctly!

Now, I’m not a girlie-girl! But, this second day was not a dress rehearsal. As much as I would love to tell you everything that happened, I resist. You’ll thank me if you attend. This second day is spent in scenarios. I threw myself into it like I was playing rugby. I tried on the scenario and acted like it was really happening. As a woman, it took a little time to find my voice and be confident in solving things but it eventually happened. The most precious gift I took away from Mike’s class is “I can do this”. Swiftwater rescue courses to me are right up there with current first aid and CPR. I’m a busy person with a blessedly full life. Repetition is the master when it comes to all these topics.

Don’t get me wrong! Whitewater is the most cool, most fun, most extraordinary thing I have in my life aside from my labrador retrievers. But, spending the time and money to learn the skills you need to lay a solid foundation to play at the game hard is priceless to me! There are no guarantees. However, with a little creativity and willingness you can settle into knowing you took the time to get your foundation in place. Now, go after it, try ferrying into that huge wave and learn how carve it up surfing!

Sonya Fellows