Lives at risk on river

By Laurel Stowell

2 comments
KEEPING WATCH: Richard Steele has pulled off a number of rescues on the Whanganui River.
KEEPING WATCH: Richard Steele has pulled off a number of rescues on the Whanganui River.

Eight people had to be rescued from a flooded Whanganui River - four of them suffering moderate hypothermia - one day in November.

Whakahoro resident Richard Steele came to their aid in his jetboat, and so far this year he has been called on for nine rescues from the middle reaches of the river. Last year he made 13.

The rescues range from minor - taking someone who's become ill off the water - to major and potentially life-threatening such as people suffering from hypothermia.

On Christmas night Mr Steele went out after dark to rescue a party whose canoe had hit a log and broken in half. They were stranded on the riverbank in a deep gorge five kilometres upriver from John Coull Hut, and would have waited out the night. He said they wouldn't have lasted.

They were rescued without their gear, in "just the clothes they were standing up in".

Another time he made a party of Chinese people stranded on the riverbank toward nightfall light a fire to keep warm - despite fires being banned.

They were safer staying there than continuing on the river after dark, when they could easily paddle past huts and campsites without seeing them.

Taumarunui Department of Conservation (DoC) staff checked on them the following day.

Most people canoe on the river without mishap. For those who come to grief, the most common accident is hitting a log and tipping out, losing their luggage. Or they can get caught in a pressure wave.

The Steeles keep emergency kits and thermal blankets in their two jetboats. They've taken many a party home for a shower, warm clothes, hot meal and bed for the night. Some pay for the rescue - jetboats use a litre of fuel a minute and cost $300 an hour to run.

Some send grateful lettters and boxes of chocolates. Others don't believe they were really in trouble. Some leave with the Steeles' thermal blankets and don't return them.

One party was faced with sitting in the river for more than six hours, in water frigid from snow-melt.

Mr Steele and son Dan live at Whakahoro and have farming and tourist businesses there, where many begin their canoe journeys. They're ready to rescue people at a moment's notice.

"If someone rang up now I would drop everything and go."

The call usually comes from DoC staff in Whanganui. Paddlers who see someone in trouble report the problem to wardens at the mid-journey John Coull Hut. Hut wardens ring a DoC staffer, on-call 24/7, who rings the Steeles.

They handle problems in the mid-river. Joe Adam at the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge near Pipiriki makes jetboat rescues from that end and DoC staff at Taumarunui handle the top reaches. The three work well together, Mr Steele said.

It's been a busy summer season, and there were still good numbers paddling on the Anzac long weekend.

Mr Steele recommends that canoeists get a thorough briefing from the tour operators who put them on the water.

They should also pay close attention to the weather and get started on the river by 10am. That way they can finish paddling by 4pm, with time to set up a good campsite and cook a nice meal.

Some of the operators who hire out gear and put people on the river are "bloody brilliant", he said. Others could do better.

"Some people doing the briefings have never done the river trip."

Mr Steele is in the process of writing his third novel, about life in the valley and on the river.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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