The Joy of Rafting

Joe Elkins rafting in Grand Canyon

UNC Professor Joe Elkins rafts the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He spends his summers as a rafting guide on the Poudre.

UNC Professor Joe Elkins, a wilderness EMT expert who serves as a whitewater rafting guide during the summer, offers tips for staying safe when venturing out into the rapids.

Above-average snowpack in the mountains coupled with rising temperatures has rafting enthusiasts amped about expected river conditions this season. Elkins, who conquered the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon over 16 days last summer, begins his fourth summer as a professionally trained guide working with a rafting company along the Poudre River. He’s as excited as anyone to get onto the water.

“It’s going to be one of biggest whitewater years in recent memory,” he said. “We’ll experience something that we’re not likely see again in a really long time.”

Before setting out for a fun-filled river adventure, the certified Whitewater Rescue Technician advises proper planning and the following safety precautions that can make a life-saving difference.

Flotation devices
Use a personal flotation device (PFD, commonly referred to as a life vest) approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Inner tubes, pool toys and inflatable kayaks from department stores are unacceptable. Elkins notes that there have been some deaths associated with inner tubing on fast-moving rivers over the years.

Dress appropriately
The ambient temperature may be in the 80s, but the water temperature may be in the 30s or 40s. “It’s easy to get hypothermic in minutes of exposure,” Elkins said. On the river, he layers up with a neoprene wetsuit on top of Gore-Tex long underwear, boots, and a fleece hat under his helmet. “I’m dressed more for skiing,” he said.

Go with licensed guides
They’re skilled and know how to read the water. They’ve also completed professional training, know how to navigate the river and can respond appropriately when the unexpected happens. “It’s not a time to be out there without someone who knows what they’re doing,” Elkins said.

Don’t wade, jump or swim in the river – even if you have a life vest.
Swift-moving water can carry you away.

Don’t wade, jump or swim in the river, Part II.
“Strainers” are clogged spots in the river that form from floating debris, such as tangled tree branches and loose logs, that accumulates. The entanglements are often concealed below fast-moving water that can make the river murky. Elkins knows how hard it is to get out of a strainer — a training requirement of a swift-water class he took for whitewater rescue certification. The former Army Scout calls it one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

More about Elkins
Elkins recently earned a grant from the Provost Fund for Scholarship and Professional Development to complete wilderness EMT training at the National Outdoor Leadership School in July and August. He’s certified by the Wilderness Medical Institute as a wilderness first responder and by Rescue 3 International as a Whitewater Rescue Technician. The professor of Earth Sciences will begin teaching a class this fall around an interdisciplinary theme of natural disasters. The class will incorporate geology, lab work and CPR/first aid this year and add meteorology and media portrayal of natural disasters in the coming years. Over spring break each year, Elkins takes students in his Physical Geology class for fieldwork along diverse terrain in Texas and New Mexico. At Bowling Green State University, he earned the Geological Society of America’s top teaching award for developing a nine-week fieldwork program using an interdisciplinary approach to teaching geology, Native American cultures and environmental studies.

Related: 2010-11 Faculty Awards from the Provost Fund for Scholarship and Professional Development