By Burt Kornegay
I’ve been running a wilderness guiding business called Slickrock Expeditions since 1985. I’m based in Cullowhee, NC, but lead backpacking and canoeing trips across the country. On Nov. 5, when guiding a group on an 8-day canoe trip through the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, Texas, two of my clients capsized in Hot Springs Rapid, a rocky Class III. The clients were okay but their canoe pinned against a rock in the lower part of the rapid. My partner and I ferried over to the nearest bank, then I swam across to the pinned boat with a haul rope. This wasn’t the usual poly throw-rope used for swimmers but a tough spectra rope made for z-dragging canoes off rocks.
I attached the rope to the pinned boat and intended to swim back to the near shore, where the group could help me pull. Not knowing if the client who was my canoe partner could catch the rope if I threw it to her, I decided to carry it with me back across the channel. This was a near-fatal mistake. When I jumped in and began swimming, the strong current quickly ripped the remainder of the 75-foot-long rope out of its throw-bag, and before I knew it, started wrapping it around my life jacket and my left foot. I was struggling to get loose when the current suddenly brought me, literally, to the end of my rope. The rope came tight around my ankle (in a kind of river-tied clove hitch), and the force of the current then stretched me out, pulled me under and held me there, with my foot upstream. In essence, I was a victim of foot entrapment, though my foot was entrapped in the rope (fastened at the other end to the pinned canoe), rather than between two rocks.
I’d been running wilderness trips for 30 years, and this was the 465th and final Slickrock Expedition (I’m retiring the business). And in all that time, the only thing I’d ever used my Gerber Shorty River Knife for was to spread peanut butter. But when the rope came tight, that easily accessible, easy-to-hold, and very sharp knife allowed me to do with it what it is meant to do: save a life in an emergency. In this case, the life saves was my own. With one hand I grabbed the knife and pulled it out of the sheath attached to the front of my vest, and with the other hand I began to pull/curl myself back upstream against the current. I was able to bend upstream far enough to reach above my foot with the blade. And in three desperate strokes I cut the rope. Suddenly freed, I came immediately to the surface, able to breathe again! When I got to shore, just before re-sheathing the knife, I gave it a big kiss.
I know that many whitewater paddlers today prefer to use a folding river knife that fits in a lifevest pocket, rather than a fixed-blade knife like the Shorty that attaches to the front of the vest. I have always believed that to be a mistake, and my near-drowning experience on the Rio Grande is evidence for it. It would have taken me longer to get a folding knife out of a pocket, and I would have probably needed both hands to open it ready for use. Both of these actions would have required more time and also made it more likely that I would have dropped the knife in the strong current. With the Shorty I could simply grab it one-handedly by its wide grippy handle and it was ready to go.
Field-Proven is an occasional feature on CanoeKayak.com, in which our readers share stories about gear that works when it has to. All Field-Proven stories are unsolicited and are edited only for grammar.