On an unusually warm, 70-degree spring day in early May, around 20 students clad in wetsuits and drysuits willingly submerged into the still freezing Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River. With waters already past flood stage at 20,000 cubic feet per second — a unit used to determine river flow — students enrolled in the Swiftwater Rescue Technician course had the perfect opportunity to learn river rescue skills at challenging water levels.
THE 24-HOUR Swiftwater Rescue Technician course offered through the Whitewater Rescue Institute (WRI) entails a half day of classroom instruction with two days of hands-on river training, focusing on river safety and rescue. Students learn how to read water, recognize and avoid hazards, quick rescue techniques, and other technical rescue systems and practice these skills with hands-on scenarios. “I took the class when I was 18, my father insisted that I take it,” instructor Paul Heffernan said. Although Heffernan, now 25, dreaded the thought of a rescue class, he ultimately loved it and immediately took the river guide school following the class. He’s been teaching it for five years now and travels all over Montana. “I love the river and I love sharing that with others,” he said. Heffernan says they teach students the technical skills to perform river rescues, but he emphasizes the importance of judgement. “I hope people come out of this class with a heightened level of awareness,” he says, “so they can recognize the hazards before they become the hazards.
STUDENTS COME from all different ability levels and background, and some have no prior whitewater experience. Many students travel from all over the country to take WRI’s course. Firefighters from Nebraska travelled to Alberton in May to learn the skills to form their own Swiftwater Team for the Sioux City Fire Department. The fire department responds to 50 miles of the Missouri River which borders Iowa. “We’ve had a lot of jumpers off the bridge,” Zach Daniels, who leads the Marine Division, said. “It would be better if out department had a river rescue team.” Daniels says flooding is also an issue on the Missouri River, especially after the high levels of water Nebraska has already seen this year. Experienced boaters also attended the course to recertify their Swiftwater Rescue training. Lorraine Adams, 25, has already been a river guide for three years on the Snake River in Jackson Hole, and she’s taking the course for a second time. Adams took the course when she was a first-year guide with little river experience, now she’s returned after being on the river for a few years. “I just think it’s very important to take classes like this,” she said. “It teaches prevention versus having to do it on the spot.”
Co-founder Mike Johnston has been teaching river rescue classes for 25 years and helped found WRI with Cody Harris ten years ago. Johnston also owns Montana River Guides, an Alberton Gorge-based raft company, which hosts the course. Johnston wasn’t able to attend the May class because his son’s college graduation fell on the same weekend. He says he’s only missed the class one other time in the 25 years he’s been teaching the class, which was due to his daughter’s graduation. “Teaching river rescue is one of my favorite things to do as a guide and river instructor,” Johnston says. Students are usually a combination of guides and private boaters with firefighters and other rescue professionals. “They are willing to jump into freezing Montana rivers over and over to practice and learn the rescue techniques we go over in class,” Johnston said.