5280 associate editor Patrick Doyle chatted with Dombey about his near-death experience.

It was late spring, 2008. Five of us were paddling kayaks on the Spencer Heights stretch of the Poudre River. Near the bottom, my friend Nick and I decided to read and run the river, which is pretty common for us in that kind of water. I was following right behind him, so my view was obstructed. He charged up over a log, but I couldn’t see it, and my bow went under the log, pinning me.

I knew immediately I was in trouble. I tried to slide out of the boat, but the current was pinning my legs. I was holding onto the log to keep my head above the water. The guys threw me some ropes, but I still couldn’t get out. My energy was quickly being sapped because the water was so cold. I was losing my strength and starting to lose hope.

I could see the fear in Nick’s eyes. He got the guys to pick up the log enough that I could get under it. I freed myself from the boat, but I missed the ropes they threw out. I was floating next to the log, just exhausted. I finally caught a rope with one hand. It took all my strength to hold onto it, and they swung me onto shore and I just collapsed.

Then we realized we were on the wrong side of the river from the road, so I had to get back in a boat and paddle across the river. One guy went to flag down a car. The driver and my friends stripped me, cranked up the heat in the car, and fed me. My legs were pretty bruised up, but otherwise I was fine. It’s a testament to being with a well-trained group. If I had been with an inexperienced crew, I wouldn’t have survived.

Nick Wigston, of Downstream Edge, a paddling and river safety school, looks back on the kayakers’ rescue tactics.

What they did right

  • This was a skilled and experienced group–they got to him quickly, communicated with him, and were prepared to pull him out of the river once he was free of the log.
  • After assessing the situation, they immediately redistributed the crew so they had people on both sides of the river.
  • The rescuers kept it simple. They didn’t try to use complicated rope systems to pull him upstream from the log, which would have wasted time and most likely never would have worked.

What they did wrong

  • The lesson is not how they could have done a better rescue, but rather how they could have avoided this situation and not needed the rescue. It’s common for some members of a group to run the drop without scouting because they “know the line.” Usually there is no incident, but rapids can change overnight. A log can get jammed in a channel that was clear the day before.
  • Even if you are coming to a familiar rapid, at least one person should get a good look at it to be sure there are no new hazards. If the lead boater cannot see the rapid from an eddy above, it’s best to hop out and take a quick look from shore.
  • Good communication and simple scouting tactics can prevent a huge percentage of river accidents. It’s when we get complacent that things go wrong.