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Groups join forces to teach veterans swiftwater rescue skills

Top photo, Aramita Ray, center, and Bill Finger with Team River Runner rush to secure a line during a rescue class. Above, Linda Johnson celebrates after a successful class. (Contributed photos)

By Richard Rourk

A joint effort by Team River Runner’s (TRR) Southeast Region and the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI) has provided several veterans with an extraordinary opportunity.

TRR and NOLI held classes last month to provide whitewater safety and rescue training to veterans from Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Veterans from across the southeastern U.S. came together to learn Swiftwater Rescue skills as part of a program to help veterans tackle a new skill and enjoy the outdoors.

Class convened on the Nolichucky River in Erwin on Sept. 26-27 and on the Ocoee River in Ocoee, Tennessee on Sept. 29-30.

This unique opportunity was the hard work of TRR Assistant National Program Director Bill Finger and NOLI Founder Scott Fisher. Also, thanks to the generosity of donors, the training was provided at no cost to the participants.

“The process of learning a new skill in the outdoors can be very empowering anytime, but it takes on a special significance during the time of COVID,” Fisher said. “Parks and rivers are seeing record numbers of new enthusiasts as COVID takes a toll on our collective psyche and limits our opportunities for interpersonal connection. We are excited to offer safety and rescue training that will open up the world to this important group of new paddlers during a difficult time.”

With an appreciation for safety in all its forms, each class was limited to seven participants as part of a comprehensive plan to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure. TRR has developed extensive screening and safety protocols to allow veterans to return to the outdoors and physical activity while mitigating risk to the greatest extent possible.

“We are so appreciative that Scott and NOLI are lending their expertise to our veterans,” Finger said. “We’ve been helping veterans build their whitewater skills to conquer this new territory, but there is nothing quite so empowering to new paddlers as walking them through rescue scenarios in controlled conditions to help them build the skills and confidence they will need to safely explore more advanced whitewater adventures. Swiftwater Rescue is a crucial next step in their training, and allows them an opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways to the mission of Team River Runner.”

Fisher founded NOLI as a passion project to help people enjoy the outdoors and recreate responsibly. NOLI is Tennessee’s only comprehensive outdoor school. Fisher brings more to this initiative to train veterans than his knowledge, skills and goodwill; Fisher is a veteran himself. A graduate of the Citadel, a former U.S. Army Infantry officer, and a graduate of both Airborne and Ranger schools, Fisher served for six years, three of those with the 101st Airborne Division.

He then went on to a successful corporate career before deciding to combine his passion for the outdoors with his love of teaching to found NOLI. Fisher is an ACA and ITRA certified Whitewater Kayaking and Swiftwater Rescue instructor and also trains new instructors in his role as an ACA Level Instructor Trainer for River Safety and Rescue. Over his 15-year tenure as an outdoor instructor, he has taught hundreds of adults, youth and rescue professionals. Additionally, he teaches wilderness survival, wilderness navigation and Leaves No Trace.

Finger started the Johnson City Team River Runner chapter in 2009, and has served as the Southeast Region Coordinator since 2012, and he has recently taken on the role as Assistant National Program Director. Over the years, he has worked with more than 500 veterans and coordinated or assisted in nearly 700 local, regional and national events.

Finger is an ACA Level 4 Whitewater Kayaking instructor with the endorsement to teach adaptive paddling and is also trained in guiding visually-impaired whitewater kayakers. Finger is also an American Heart Association CPR and first aid instructor and holds certifications in Wilderness First Aid and Swiftwater Rescue. Finger has worked diligently to revitalize Team River Runner chapters across the Southeast and to coordinate regional paddling and training opportunities that leverage the amazing waterways in North Carolina and Tennessee to help veterans reconnect, conquer new skills, and live their best lives.

TRR believes that every wounded and disabled veteran deserves the opportunity to embrace new challenges, invoke leadership, and promote camaraderie. Team River Runner provides an outlet to fulfill these beliefs – inviting wounded and disabled war veterans to participate in adaptive paddling programs. It’s an opportunity to enjoy nature and realize its social, physical, and emotional benefits, whether it’s tackling whitewater rapids or paddling on peaceful flatwater. It’s an environment that facilitates connection, allowing veterans to reunite with their families and forge relationships with those who have endured similar pain.

TRR provides all boats, outfitting, safety gear, instruction, transportation, food and lodging for veteran participants through the generosity of their donors and the subsidies from providers like the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute.

According to Finger, TRR chapters:

• Hold regular pool or open water sessions of approximately 2-3 hours each. Some sites offer multiple sessions per week;

• Have regular local trips, family days, movie nights, and pot-luck gatherings;

• Work together to develop and host regional events;

• Encourage qualified paddlers from any site to participate in the national trips offered to Colorado, Idaho and the Caribbean.

At each event, a paddler gets a chance, in a safe environment, too:

• Get physical exercise outside the boredom of the hospital;

• Learn a potentially brand new skill, rather than struggle with a skill in which s/he used to be an expert;

• Overcome emotional roadblocks left by post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury;

• Practice basic cognitive sequencing by following small sets of instructions;

• Bring his/her family into a new recreational hobby;

• Have fun.

Swiftwater Rescue should be considered mandatory training for anyone who spends time in and around moving water. The intensive 2-day ACA Level 4 Basic Swiftwater Rescue course covers a wide range of topics that help paddlers learn the skills necessary to conduct and lead a rescue on moving water. In this class, the emphasis is placed on personal safety and simple, commonly used skills. No previous rescue experience is required.

Participants learn about accident prevention, non-technical and technical rescues, scene management and a variety of other techniques to keep paddlers safe. Then the class practices techniques for dealing with strainers, entrapments and pins as well as several rescue vest applications. By tackling these skills in practical scenarios the veterans will get a chance to practice their skills both individually and within a team/group context.

Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI): Located on the banks of the Nolichucky River in the mountains of northeast Tennessee, the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI) offers year-round instruction in a wide variety of outdoor activities for everyone from the beginner to the advanced student including kayaking, canoeing, wilderness medicine, water safety/rescue, survival, map/compass, hiking/camping, conservation/stewardship, and team building. Our outstanding instructors are committed to providing a fun, safe environment to help you learn and grow, all in one of the nation’s truly spectacular playgrounds! Learn more at www.NOLILearn.org.

Team River Runner: Founded in 2004 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Team River Runner (TRR) is a national 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to providing on a river, recreational therapy for veterans, active-duty military, first responders, and their family members. Team River Runner’s 60-plus chapters are run by local volunteers, and all funding comes from donations and grants. The organization provides training for outdoor skills, organizes kayaking and rafting trips, and offers the use of kayaks and rafts, as well as protective, adaptive, and safety gear. All gear, training and experiences are offered at no cost. Our veterans and first responders are on the river to recovery. You can learn more about TRR, find a local chapter, and find a way to get involved or donate at www.TeamRiverRunner.org

American Canoe Association (ACA): Founded in 1880, The American Canoe Association (ACA) is a national nonprofit organization serving the broader paddling public by providing education related to all aspects of paddling, stewardship support to help protect paddling environments, and sanctioning of programs and events to promote paddlesport competition, exploration, and recreation. ACA Tennessee is a chapter of this membership organization. The State Director is an elected, volunteer position voted on by Tennessee members.