Pierce Countys rivers can be rough, even for those tasked with saving people from unpredictable waters.
Rescues ramped up this summer, making it the busiest year in recent memory for the Sheriffs Departments Swiftwater Rescue Team. Searchers plucked 23 people from the frigid waters of the Puyallup, Nisqually and Carbon rivers in eight incidents this year.
This has been the busiest summer by far, said sheriffs Sgt. Trent Stephens, who oversees the 26-member team.
They dont know why their calls for help jumped this year, but theyve noticed subtle changes in the types of incidents.
More groups of people are getting stranded rather than the usual one or two. More people are taking advantage of the water for recreation, which means more people underestimating the current and their own abilities. Nighttime rescues made up half of their callouts this year, compared with two over the last several years.
These differences forced changes in the teams annual training, which includes two days of brushing up on rescue basics and one day of special skills.
"Its causing us to be more aggressive in our training and teaching us new tricks, said deputy Dan Hudson, the swiftwater instructor. Its not easy to understand the power and dynamics of moving water, and these are learned skills.
In the spring, searchers spent two days practicing survival skills, such as how to swim in the current, how to cross a river in shallow water, how to safely swim over logs and how to navigate a raft in and out of eddies.
Earlier this month, about half of the team gathered in Central Washington to raft 11 miles of the swift-moving Tieton River. The focus was oar frame rowing, which requires navigating the water alone with two handheld oars instead of a long row in conjunction with others on-board.
It wasnt a necessary skill until two years ago, when the team was called to the Nisqually River in the dark of night to save four Army Rangers stranded in a remote area of the river.
Only two rescuers knew how to oar-row, which is more efficient because other searchers can watch for hazards in the water or scout for clues as to where the victims are. It also means fewer rescuers are assigned to each raft, leaving more room to put those pulled from the water.
It allows me to put less people downstream in harms way and better use resources, Hudson said.
This is the second year the sheriffs swiftwater team met on the Tieton to practice oar frame rowing. Last year, the trip was tempered because three of the four rafts flipped over, spilling the occupants into the cold water.
They came more prepared this year.
Stephens organized the trip in early September, soon after the gates to Rimrock Dam are opened and the water level rises. Part of last years trouble was the water was low and rock outcroppings snagged the rafts.
Eleven team members shrugged on wet suits, helmets and life jackets before wading into the 50-degree water and shoving off from the riverbank. Hudson had issued safety instructions keep 100 feet between the rafts, always keep an eye on your partners, listen for the whistle and hold up your hand if you need help.
The rescuers took turns holding the oars, using them to steer around river bends, floating logs and rocks protruding beneath the surface. Sometimes they oared fast, anticipating a change in the current. Sometimes they sat idle, saving their energy and letting the river carry them downstream.
Stephens said training on the Tieton is necessary because the rapids are a higher class than Pierce Countys rivers and it forces the team to figure out how to read the water.
When things change out there, you need to be able to read the river as youre going instead of knowing the rivers were usually on, he said.
No rafts flipped this year. All but one searcher logged hours with oars in hand.
Deputy Nate Condreay, who has been with swiftwater rescue for about three years, said the training helped him feel more comfortable controlling the raft. It also will come in handy because the river is more volatile than the Pierce County waters they perform rescues on.
Now when we get in more stressful situations, we can do better, Condreay said.