Mammoth Cave National Park has put together a new river response team to aid national park visitors if they find themselves in emergency situations while on the Green River.
The team is composed of national park employees who have expertise in a variety of areas.
“We're calling it a river response team because in addition to search and rescue, we are having folks who work in other divisions to help us out with jobs like cutting trees out of the river and working on the ramps and things like that at the canoe put-ins and take-outs throughout the park,” said Josh Clemmons, an operations supervisor at Mammoth Cave who oversees law enforcement, emergency medical, search and rescue and fire.
Mammoth Cave has always had a search and rescue program, but with visitation to the Green River increasing over the past few years, the national park has had more emergency calls.
“It's not that it's a new thing,” Clemmons said. “It's just that the problems we run into have sort of multiplied.”
River rescues have increased on the Green River since the removal of lock and dam No. 6.
The lock and dam were dismantled in May 2017 due to deterioration that created a safety hazard. The dam partially breached in November 2017, and federal legislation authorized the removal for the purposes of river recreation and environmental restoration was approved by Congress in December 2017.
The removal of lock and dam No. 6 caused the level of the Green River that passes through the national park to drop.
Some of the rescues that are being performed on the Green River could be related to the river's water level.
“It seems like the river flow may be a little bit faster than it did before the removal of lock and dam No. 6. The water level has dropped, but it seems the water that is there runs a little bit faster, so we think that could be part of it as well,” Clemmons said.
The eight national park employees who are a part of the river response team, which includes all of the national park's law enforcement rangers, went through a swift water technician course in March and June.
During the training, the national park employees learned how to organize a water rescue, how to rescue swim and how to use ropes and technical systems to help free victims from trouble spots. They also learned how to do various in-water and on-water rescues.
“We did about a week's worth of training in addition to the swift water rescue class,” Clemmons said. “We did a week's worth of training just on technical rescue, so it's all rope rescue stuff. Some of that was high angle rescue and some of it was low angle rescue. But those are combined into the swift water discipline.”
Since receiving the training, the river response team has had to put their new skills to use several times.
“The weekend of July 31 we pulled six people out of the water just on that one weekend,” Clemmons said, adding that the six people rescued were part of two separate incidents but they occurred in the same general area of the river.
There were two incidents over the Labor Day Holiday weekend, both occurring on Sept. 2.
"Our work mainly consisted of assessments of visitors after the accident and then transport to their vehicles," said Molly Schroer, management assistant at MCNP.
The first incident involved four people, two adults and two children, who struck a log and overturned their canoe. The second incident was encountered by rangers as they were transporting a visitor from the first incident to the Green River Ferry where another canoe with two adults and two children had capsized after being unable to avoid a log along the riverbank. They were initially pinned to the log and one child was trapped under the canoe, but was retrieved by an adult in the group, she said.
The national park has new regulations in place to ensure visitors' safety while on the river. One such regulation requires anyone, including children, to wear a life jacket while on the river. The other regulation is the outlaw of alcohol use while on the river.
“A lot of the calls that were search and rescue calls were alcohol related,” Clemmons said. “We have prohibited the use of alcohol down there.”
He recommends anyone who is planning a trip on the Green River to create a float plan.
“In other words, they need to let a responsible party who is not part of their trip know where they are going and how many people they are going to be with with,” Clemmons said.
They also need to let that person know when and where they plan to exit the river, so that if they don't return on time help can be sent, he said.
“It's important, especially in the park, for you to have a good plan, especially on the river but even on the back country trails because the cell service is so limited that a lot of times you can't get a signal for help if you need it,” he said. “But also, if you think about it, if you are in a boat that capsizes, the chances are your phone is going to be wet. Just taking steps to be prepared for that kind of thing is what we recommend.”
In addition to creating the river response team, the national park has also installed a new water gauge at the base of the landing of the Green River Ferry Crossing that now matches real time river level data tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey. Boaters can access the USGS data through the park's website at www.nps.gov/maca/planyourvisit/boating.htm to see current water level conditions for planning a safe river trip.