Laura Jo Welter, The Triplicate

Upriver from Walker Road on Wednesday afternoon, swift-water rescuers-in-training became human chains to ford a shallow riffle; they moved laterally and in single file, their hands anchored to each others' life vests.

But a safe crossing isn't guaranteed.

Having reached the island on the other side and gone through a number of drills involving tethered rope and whistles, they may have expected their instructor to follow unharmed.

Instructor Zach Byars was down before they knew it, though, the water rushing over him as he motioned for help. The trainees were thrown into action, left to figure out for themselves how best to rescue him.

This three-day training facilitated by Sierra Rescue's "Rescue 3 West" team and hosted by Redwood National Park will come to a close this afternoon, and the participants - who work for the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office, Del Norte Search and Rescue and Redwood National Park - will be certified "operation-level swift-water technicians," meaning they'll be comfortable using ropes and able to assess what the water is doing, making them useful additions to a rescue team.

It took maybe 10 minutes for the team to make hands-on contact with Byars where he lay horizontally mid-river. He was able to breathe, he said, because water will move fast enough over a victim'shead that it often creates an air pocket.

"Everything was fine. We were just safely transporting the reporter across the river," Byars said to the group, to debrief the rescue operation - one that he'd planned but gave no warning of to his pupils. "But then someone loses their ground, and you've got one panicked victim heading downriver and another one with his foot trapped."

Byars left this statement hanging for a moment, as if to imply the question: "What are you going to do?"

He told the trainees they wouldn't ever have warning, and being able to think calmly and assess the water to make a plan of action is an important part of the rescuing process. Important, too, he said, is seeing what isn't working and then trying something else.

After several attempts at throwing Byars a rope that would not quite reach him, a few would-be rescuers moved downstream, one to wait in the calmer waters should the victim be freed and heading that way, the other two to cross the river then ford back to Byars, where a little tug enabled him to free his trapped foot.

Albeit a successful operation that could have been faster, Byars said it was fast enough to save him.

"We organized this training because we want to be able to respond to any water-related (incident)," said park Ranger Joel Leachman, who organized the event. He was happy, he added, that the Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue were also able to be involved. "You know, visitors come to our park, and they swim across the river, and they get tired, and they can't get back. That's usually what happens."

Over the proceeding day, Byars said he'd be running the crew through more exercises, gradually adding a hazard here, a hazard there - a tree down across the river, for example - to make the rescues more strategically challenging.

Since the rescuer would not often find herself in a situation as ideal as the bottom of Walker Road, where a deep tranquil hole sits beneath the rapid that caused havoc, he said, she needs to be ready to respond to the circumstances at hand.

Reach Laura Jo Welter at lwelter@triplicate.com.

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