2012-05-24 / Front Page

Water-rescue professionals urge Merced River caution

Experts in swift-water rescue showed off their skills in Yosemite National Park to prevent injuries--and worse--as folks head to the Merced River this season.

"When you get warm days, people are excited to be near the water," said Moose Mutlow, a swift-water trainer for Yosemite's search-and-rescue team. "But then people fall in and go down. You get swept away and you hit rocks, bam, bam, bam. After 30 seconds of that you're in big trouble."

The attached video shows Mutlow assessing the Merced River's water temperature.

Each season, rescue teams in Yosemite and the lower Merced River around Briceburg respond to multiple water-rescue incidents. The danger is especially high in the spring, when snowmelt creates frigid temperatures that can quickly immobilize even strong swimmers.

"It takes your breath away, and you suck water," Mutlow said.

River Patrol Ranger Aaron Fouch of the Bureau of Land Management has seen it all. People fall out of inner tubes, hit their head and drown. Drivers travel too fast, lose control and end up in the water. People buy "K-Mart coffins"--cheap plastic inflatables that they try to maneuver through Class III rapids.

"That's what we're out there trying to prevent," says Fouch, who works from Briceburg most weekends. "The most important gear you can have is a lifejacket and a helmet. If you fall out and hit your head (without those), you're in big trouble."

Given last winter's below-par snowfall, the Merced and other Sierra rivers are running a below normal for this time of year. Still, the water can be treacherous, and deserves respect. In recent years, Yosemite has experienced several fatalities involving hikers who slip on the Mist Trail and roll into the river.

No one stands a chance in the boiling water and boulders of that stretch. But hazards exist above and below Briceburg as well.

Last summer, one visitor fell from an inner tube, hit his head and drowned, Fouch said.

Young children need extra supervision when around water. Earlier this month, a child drowned in Lushmeadows' Dawn Lake when the six-year-old slipped from a raft into murky water.

When children are present, at least one adult should be charged with watching them at all times, experts caution. Other safety measures to keep in mind are properly-fitted life vests and helmets for floating and boating trips.

Residents and visitors can consider a professionally-guided raft trip. Zephyr Whitewater runs trips on the Merced, and will likely be operating through the end of June, the service's Jimmy Gado said.

Residents and visitors can obtain information about safe river activity at the BLM visitor center at Briceburg and the Yosemite National Park visitor center at Yosemite Village.

The photo with this story shows GAZETTE reporter Erik Skindrud at Yosemite National Park's water safety day on May 24.

Photo credit: Scott Gediman/NPS photo.Photo credit: Scott Gediman/NPS photo.

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Hope it is a quiet season for

Hope it is a quiet season for the swift water rescue squads. Thank you for all the training you do to get ready for the next call.

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