Emergency personnel made the first river rescue of the season in Wilkes County on Saturday, but it won’t be the last if the next several weeks are anything like last year’s busy spring and summer.
The Wilkes Communications Center dispatched the Roaring River Fire Department, Wilkes Rescue Squad and Wilkes Emergency Medical Services about 4:20 p.m. Saturday after receiving a 911 call about two people in the Yadkin River after flipping their canoe between Roaring River and Ronda.
Wilkes Rescue Squad Chief Cole Wyatt and squad members Josh Bounds and Emily Lentz shoved off from the river access site near N.C. 268 East and the Wilkes County landfill in Roaring River in the squad’s Zodiac inflatable boat.
About a mile downstream, they found a man on a fallen tree holding a canoe and a woman standing nearby, also in the Yadkin. Wyatt said squad members were told that the canoe was overturned during a reaction to spiders that fell from overhanging brush into the boat.
Wyatt said the man and woman, in their late 20s, weren’t able to climb back into the canoe and the riverbanks were steep and covered in briars and other brush.
Plus, he said, they were tired from flipping the canoe three times since starting at the access site near the landfill. They were wearing life jackets.
Wyatt said he entered the river and was trying to help the two get back in their canoe so they could reach a nearby sandbar when the canoe flipped again and all three were swept downstream to another fallen tree.
“We ended up at a big strainer (swift current against the tree) and all I could do was hang onto the girl and the canoe,” he said.
Just after Wyatt, Bounds and Lentz got the man into the Zodiac and then the woman, more of a challenge to rescue than the man, the strong current pulled Wyatt underwater beneath the tree.
“I was just sucked under the tree,” said Wyatt, adding that he tried to keep his head upstream to avoid injury.
Wyatt, wearing a helmet, avoided getting hung up on limbs or anything else underwater and returned to the surface downstream on the other side. Lentz was also in the water part of the time.
Wyatt said that among dozens of river rescues he has been part of, including most of the 19 last year involving the squad, the experience Saturday was the most dangerous for him personally.
Wyatt said the man and woman rescued from the river, and another man and women with them and nearby in a canoe, were transported in the squad boat downstream to the Ronda Park. Wilkes Emergency Medical Services examined the rescued couple and took all four back to their vehicles.
The canoes were rented from Roaring River Canoe Rentals on Cotton Mill Road in Roaring River.
Squad members Chris Minton and John Coleman reached the scene in a squad ATV. Roaring River Fire Department members also responded, including Chief Dale Pierce in a small airboat he personally bought last year.
Wyatt said the squad is interested in getting an airboat because of its functionality in shallow water and over debris, as well as maneuverability. He said the squad’s inflatable boat is too easily damaged in the Yadkin.
Airboats are also known as fanboats because of the large, caged propellers that propel them.
Wyatt and Pierce commented on the large number of downed trees and other debris in the Yadkin River as a result of heavy rain in 2018. Wyatt said these obstacles, as well as the river’s varying depths and current strength, make it more dangerous than people generally realize.
Wyatt said the squad plans to cut up some of these downed trees, as it did last year, to help prevent incidents resulting in river rescues.
Pierce said there are large piles of debris against the Yadkin River bridge piers in Ronda.