By Andy Dappen
“Smart” and “tubing” border on being mutually exclusive words— inner tubes were designed to inflate tires, not float rivers. If you want a smart craft, look to rafts, kayaks, canoes, maybe even logs. Nonetheless, ‘tubing down a river is one of those rites of summer that go along with fishing on summer mornings or riding a rope swing out over a deep swimming hole…people, especially teenagers and young adults, are going to do it. That being the case, here are some tips for being wisely unwise:
1) Don’t ‘tube unless you’re a strong swimmer. This makes ‘tubing doubly questionable for kids who are not yet teenagers and just aren’t very strong yet.
2) Wear a life jacket even when floating “easy” rivers. It takes surprisingly little current to suck you under the surface, ensnare you in the bushes and branches overhanging a river, or pin you to a bridge abutment.
3) Despite our jokes, some stretches of river are fairly obstacle free and are slow enough to be fairly safe for ‘tubers wearing life jackets. The Upper Wenatchee from Braeburn Road to the bridges at Plain, and the 2.1 miles of the Wenatchee between the Icicle Road Bridge and Waterfront Park are such examples (see attached map). Meanwhile, Tumwater Canyon and the Wenatchee River east of Leavenworth to Cashmere are the domain of kayaks, rafts, and skilled boaters. Even the Lower Wenatchee River from Monitor to Wenatchee, which seems relatively tame, has some logjams and fallen logs in the river that make this run riskier than most people imagine–in 2007 two innertubers who were pinned by the current to woody debris drowned downstream of Monitor. A safer section of the Lower Wenatchee is from Sleepy Hollow to Confluence Park on the Columbia (this is still not as safe as the flatwater section of the river at Leavenworth–see link above).
4) Before venturing into strong river currents, learn how to paddle your inner tube with hands and feet through slack water.
5) If you’ve never floated a particular stretch of river before, do it first with someone who knows what hazards – fallen logs in the river, logjams, rapids, bridge abutments, fish traps – lie downstream.
6) If the water will be less than 65 degrees F, wear a wet suit. Even when the weather is hot, cold water can make you hypothermic fast.
7) Wear a helmet if the river has rapids. Armor yourself in the same way that a kayaker would equip himself for that same stretch of water.
8) Protect your feet: Wear sneakers or strap-on sandals. If you need to exit the river quickly, fend off rocks, or push away from logs, you don’t want to be barefooted.
9) Don’t do this alone. Tube with others for greater safety, but don’t lash your inner tubes together.
10) Keep your eyes well downstream and give yourself plenty of time to stroke away from logjams, fallen trees, and thick bushes flanking a river’s edge. These are all severe drowning hazards if the current ensnares you in a branch.
11) If you are jostled out of your inner tube, your life jacket will keep you afloat. Grab hold of your inner tube and keep it downstream of you where it can cushion you from any obstacles coming your way. Keep your feet on the surface of the water and kick back onto the tube or over to the river’s edge where you can safely stand up.
12) If you’re separated from the inner tube, float with your feet on the surface and downstream of you. Unless you’re really hardheaded you’ll want to fend off oncoming rocks and logs with your feet rather than your noggin. Maneuver yourself to the river’s edge where you can safely stand.
13) In a swift current it is dangerous to stand up in water that is more than knee-deep. People who have gotten their foot trapped between rocks in thigh-deep water have been pushed over by the current and, unable to free their foot, have drowned.
14) Get out of the water if you hear thunder.
15) Everything kayakers and canoeists must know about reading rivers applies to inner tubes. Check out whitewater kayaking or canoeing books at the library.
16) If you’re uneasy and believe you might be getting in over your head (a bad thing when it comes to water), take your first ‘tubing outing with a commercial group. Locally, you can float part of the Wenatchee River with Tube Leavenworth (509-548-8823).
- If you wear glasses, make sure to wear a tight retainer strap.
- If your float will last a few hours or will take you away from a road for an hour or two, consider bringing this equipment in a waterproof bag: sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, patch kit, pump, first aid kit, energy bars, water, lighter and fire starter.
- A few safety tips for ‘tubers are stressed in this YouTube video.