‘Smooth sailing’ for firefighters in kayak training

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Photo gallery (some good, some not)
* Related coverage
^ Aug. 25 – Kayakers’ mishap puts focus on safety, training
^ Aug. 21 – 2 kayakers rescued from creek
* Hitchcock Creek map

ROCKINGHAM — Sunday’s trip down Hitchcock Creek showed firefighters with the Rockingham Fire Department just how quickly the situation can change.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Engineer Joe Brown, of the Rockingham Fire Department, finishes up the 3.67-mile segment from Roberdel to Steele Street in Rockingham. He and the group continued on another 5.8 miles to the Cordova access point.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Engineer Joe Brown, of the Rockingham Fire Department, finishes up the 3.67-mile segment from Roberdel to Steele Street in Rockingham. He and the group continued on another 5.8 miles to the Cordova access point.

The day before, the scenario was entirely different — a low water level meant there were multiple places for the bottom of a kayak to hit rocks and a couple of places along the 3.67-mile stretch between Roberdel and Steele Street in Rockingham that you couldn’t help but walk.

It rained a fair amount on Saturday afternoon and overnight. On Sunday, the water level was an inch or two above the pole at the Roberdel access point. The water was fast.

It was perfection conditions, said engineer Joe Brown, for “smooth sailing.”

Brown, with the department for nearly three years, had never before paddled Hitchcock Creek. In fact, he’d been in a kayak only in a swimming pool, in which conditions generally remain the same. On an open waterway, even the same section of a creek or river can be very different one day to the next. Nightfall also offers a radically different experience.

Eight firefighters joined Lt. Michael Mabe, an avid kayaker and leader on the department’s water rescue team. Mabe had led a similar-sized group on the same segment on Saturday.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Lt. Michael Mabe, the more experienced paddler, led eight other Rockingham Fire Department firefighters through a course familiarization trip along Hitchcock Creek, one each Saturday and Sunday.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Lt. Michael Mabe, the more experienced paddler, led eight other Rockingham Fire Department firefighters through a course familiarization trip along Hitchcock Creek, one each Saturday and Sunday.

“I enjoyed it,” Brown said upon arrival to the Steele Street access point. The group started at Roberdel at 8:47 a.m. and arrived at 9:39 a.m. — the 52-minute lapse indicating how swift the current flowed on Sunday. “It was real fun. It was a different experience.”

Fire Chief Harold Isler, who relocated from Goldsboro to take over for the retired Charles Gardner in August, said the idea of the weekend training sessions was meant to get each firefighter acquainted with the equipment — helmet, kayak, personal floatation device and accessories — and the creek.

The Rockingham Fire Department is responsible for emergency issues along the creek from Roberdel, Mile 0, to Midway Road. However, there is no takeout point there; the nearest access point is in Cordova at Mile 9.32.

The issue was brought to the forefront hours before Isler officially started his first day as chief. That Wednesday night, two kayakers were rescued late Wednesday night after darkness fell on their journey down Hitchcock Creek in what turned out to be a real-life — and expensive — lesson on water safety. Firefighters from Rockingham and Cordova Fire and Rescue executed the search.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The water was higher than usual thanks to heavy rains Saturday and overnight into Sunday morning.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The water was higher than usual thanks to heavy rains Saturday and overnight into Sunday morning.

Michael Parker and John Mullins were rescued at 11:19 p.m., nearly two and one-half hours after the original emergency call for help was received. The two individuals started from the Roberdel access point too close to dark. In addition, they were unfamiliar with the terrain. No one was injured during the incident. What’s worse, the only cellphone between the two young men had run out of battery power; they hadn’t been heard from in several hours. They also had no food or water with them.

That experience caught Isler that his crew needed to become familiar with Hitchcock Creek. Isler said despite all the available information online or with fellow paddlers, no one can prevent inexperienced people from using the creek for outdoor recreation.

“The only thing we can do is be prepared” if and when something goes wrong, Isler said.

Isler seemed surprised that the department had several kayaks on hand but “this is the first time that we’ve used it.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Isler and Assistant Chief David Mullis also deployed TR-1, the department ATV, on the Hitchcock Creek Greenway. The footpath is approximately 1.8 miles but Isler hadn’t yet traveled the distance. On the TR-1, they also explored an emergency access point to the trail.

Through a partnership with Richmond Community College, Isler said his firefighters will undergo a variety of formal instruction to enhance the creek familiarization sessions executed Saturday and Sunday.

Filed in: Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Outdoors, Public safety

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