From the bridge the little boats look like sharks, eating up the BASE jumpers who end up in the river. They are the river rescue boats crewed by a seasoned group of professional swift water rescue teams. Many of those boats are jetboats—crafts well suited for moving water rescue because they don’t have propellors that can be damaged by rocks.
The Bridge Day river rescue teams have worked together for decades, patrolling the eddy below Fayette Station rapid for BASE jumpers who—some intentionally, some by accident—end up taking the softer landing. We figured they would have some good stories to tell, so we called them with some questions:
Q: What does the job of river rescue on Bridge Day entail?
A: We assist jumpers who make water landings. We pick up about 25% of the jumpers.
—Tom Dragan, Bridge Day River Rescue team member for 33 years
A: Waking up too wickedly early (crews meet at 5am) and wearing really really warm clothes. Also, I have yet to figure out how to take care of my neck from looking up all day long.
—Kathy Zerkle, NPS River Ranger
A: Looking up all day. It’s a guessing game. Who’s going to land where and where do you need to be? —Mike Mather, Bridge Day River Rescue team member for 20 years
Q: What special skills are required in the job?
A: Awareness, timing. You need to be close enough to assist but not too close or you’ll be in the way. Our job is getting the jumpers into the boat safely and quickly. Not hitting the rocks is important, too. — Mather
A: Our team has to be able to work together as a unit, set our egos aside. We have 4 boats and 8 people. Our focus all day is on the person who is in the air or in the water and needs assistance. —Dragan
Q: What is the closest call you have witnessed?
A: I had a jumper land 10 inches from my boat. He was coming in hot as we were picking up another jumper, and splash, he was right there. —Zerkle
A: One year, a jumper was spinning out of control. He was over the rocks, then over the water. Over the rocks, then over the water. [We were trying to figure out] where he was going to land to be in the best position to react. He landed in the water, and we got him. —Mather
Q: What hazards come with the job?
A: Items have been thrown off the bridge. It’s a real problem. [Items that fall] sound like a huge blast hitting the river. One year a rock took a huge divot out of one of the oars. —Mather
Q: What is the worst part about the job?
A: The possibility of a chute not opening. The scariest part is being directly under the bridge and being in the line of falling debris—water bottles, hats, cameras, sunglasses—from the bridge. It’s helmets on and eyes in the sky.
—Matt McQueen, NPS River Ranger
A: What is the best part of doing river rescue during Bridge Day?
The view of the jumpers. You are right there and it’s the best seat in the Gorge. —McQueen
Q: The jumpers keep going all day long. So…how do you answer the call of nature?
A: We love trains. Jumping stops for trains so jumpers don’t risk a train collision if they land on the tracks. That’s when rescuers get bathroom breaks and snacks. —Mather
Q: What is the most memorable landing you witnessed?
A: A jumper came into the LZ so fast and so hot they smacked right into the side of the ambulance.
A: An amazing woman jumper just ever so lightly hit the landing. And then a guy raced in, hitting her and breaking her leg.
A: The wheelchair base jumper last year. He just nailed the landing. It was perfect, a very empowering moment. —Dragan
What was the funniest thing a jumper ever said to you when you pulled them out of the water?
A: A jumper kissed me and said, ‘That was awesome!’ I assume he meant the jumping, not the kissing. —Zerkle
A: Have you seen my leg? Our answer was, ‘Yeah we saw it fly through the air.’ It was a jumper who lost his prosthetic leg in the air. —Mather
Q: What is the best part about doing river rescue on Bridge Day?
A: Three o’clock, when the day ends with no major injuries, and everyone is safe. —Dragan
Top photo by Krauss