Hells Canyon and River Surgery

by TJ Hanson

Last weekend was Mike Moses’ annual post-permit-season Snake River float. With 6 boats and 10 people we launched at Hells Canyon dam on Saturday, September 13th and pulled out at Pittsburg Landing on Monday, September 15th.

I decided to take my 12.5-foot SOTAR cataraft, outfitted for overnight trips. This was a big river for a small cat, but I thought I could make the float without too many problems. The flow was varying between 10,000 cfs and 20,000 cfs depending on how many air conditioners got turned on down in Boise.

Our first challenge was Wild Sheep Rapids. The small cat proved to be easily maneuverable, so I was able to pull over to river right in front of those big standing waves and scoot around the side. Any one of those waves could have flipped me. I kept my helmet on since Granite Rapids was only a few minutes ahead. As usual, we scouted Granite on river right, discussing the standing lateral waves, the “Green Room” and the slot to aim for when running the rapids. Mike Moses mentioned that he had seen an 18-foot raft get eaten by the standing waves on the right. This did not exactly give me confidence.

I was the first boat to cast off. I aimed for the slot, but (as people told me later) I was too far to the right. I went over a ledge — at least I think that is what happened. My right oar hit something and the handle slammed into my forehead. The next thing I knew I was in the river, bobbing up and down in my life vest. I have no memory of how I got into the river. Later, Mike Moses said that I took a fairly severe hit from the oar handle, then the boat went up on a wave and I just rolled off the back. Apparently, the blow from the oar rendered me semiconscious, or dazed, and the cold river water helped to wake me up.

When I realized that I was in the water, I could see my boat about 10 feet away so I started swimming for the tip of the nearest tube. I have loops at each tip for a swimmer to grab onto. I reached for the loop and my fingertips were only 6 inches away when the boat went up on a swell and I went down into a trough, separating me from the boat by about 6 feet. I repeated this effort 3 or 4 times before I finally got a grip on the loop. By that time I was completely exhausted, panting like I had just run a 500 meter dash. I worked my way around to the back of the cat but did not have enough upper body strength left to boost myself in. This is a task that I can normally do with ease. So I decided to maintain my death grip on the cat until my strength returned. I pointed my feet downstream and tried to see what was ahead. Just then Mike Moses pulled up in his cat.

“You okay?”

“Just tired,” I replied. At least I think that’s what I said. I was still a little dazed. I tried again to get into my cat but failed. Mike coaxed me around to the back of his cat where he could grab the shoulders of my life jacket and hoist me into his cat. It was good to get out of the water.

I remember Mike saying something about a cut on my face, but I was more concerned about getting to my boat. Like swallows returning to Capistrano, I needed to return to my boat. When I sat down, I noticed that the front of my life vest was covered with blood. I glanced around my boat and it too was covered in blood. In fact, it looked as if someone had spilled a cherry coke over the floor, tubes, and saddlebags. There was even blood on my water jug up front. How it got way up there I’ll never know. Maybe this was more than a minor cut.

A call was put out for Eric Ball, a member of our small rafting group. Dr. Eric Ball is a practicing physician in Walla Walla, specializing in Internal Medicine. I pulled over to the shore and waited for Eric to join me. He soon arrived, and with a medical kit considerably more complete than the kit that I carry. 

Eric walked up to where I was standing on shore and took a look at my face. He switched positions to view the damage from another angle, then said, “You’ll need a few stitches.”

That statement really came as a relief since I was not sure how to continue. It was very comforting to have Dr. Ball along on our trip. Eric’s passenger was Mike Stevenson, who is currently attending nursing school. Another plus since he could assist Eric in the procedure.

We were now below Granite Rapids on the Idaho side. A boulder strewn shoreline served as Eric’s operating theater, while a flat rock between two boulders sufficed for a gurney. The pillow was a life jacket. Under these field conditions, OWA’s M*A*S*H unit was ready for business. After cleaning the wound to see what he had to work with, Eric inserted two 4-0 monofilament nylon interrupted sutures in the cut over my right eye. For the cut on the bridge of my nose, he used a steri-strip with some Mastisol adhesive. The non-sterile field conditions required some additional antibiotics — topical during the procedure and internal (prescription medication) later that evening in camp.

While in camp that evening I still had a slight trauma headache. Aspirin could thin the blood and start the bleeding again, so Eric provided me with some ibuprofen, along with the antibiotic. I took the same dosage the following evening.

The next two days saw my eye take on a fairly good “shiner”. The area beneath the eye swelled enough for me to be able to see my right cheek; and the bloody nose that I acquired during the mishap continued to bleed slightly for the remainder of the trip. I suspect there was a deep bruise that just needed more time.

We pulled out at Pittsburg Landing on Monday morning. Dr. Ball checked his work while Mike Stevenson applied more antibiotics and a fresh bandage. Everything looked good and I was on the mend.

And so ends our annual Snake River excursion. Next year I think I’ll take my 16-foot cat!

I would like to publicly thank Dr. Eric Ball for his medical skills and getting me back on my feet. He’s a great guy to have along on any trip. I would also like to thank Mike Moses for pulling me out of the river, and Mike Stevenson for assisting Eric.

I know I’ve said this before, but it deserves repeating. Make sure you have a top-of-the-line life jacket. A life jacket is safety gear, not  a fashion statement. For those people who only wear a life vest with 16 pounds of flotation and claim it’s okay since they know how to swim; my question is this, “What happens if you’re unconscious when you get thrown from your boat?” When I came to I was floating upright and breathing oxygen — just what a life jacket should do.