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» Danger Dredging Below the Chute

BY MARCY STUMPF/FOLEY

 

Dredging below the chute

Bill Stumpf keeps a careful eye on dredging equipment while son David dredges 24 feet beneath a fast-water chute on the Yuba, River. The chute is out of sight to the left of current which can be seen at center-left of above photo. Bubbles at lower-left are from David’s hookah air supply, as he makes his way to the bottom of their hole.

As I sat in the sun on the bank of the North Fork of the Yuba River in California’s Mother Lode country, I basked in the warmth as I watched my 19-year-old son David swiftly cross the river on top of a small dam of rocks that someone had left below where we were dredging. Followed by his dog, Kona, he urged her on as she slipped and slithered her way across the slippery rocks. I didn’t know how he did it. I cursed and fell every time I ventured more than a few feet from the bank!

David was warming himself up by playing with Kona, preparing for the first dive of the day. My husband, Bill, gassed-up the dredge and made sure all was in running order.

We were working a “chute” where the river narrowed between bedrock dikes, pushing the water with tremendous force through the narrow opening, then dropping it into a large pool. We were set up in the pool, and had every inch of hose we owned on our 5-inch dredge to reach the bottom.

Bill began working in 18 feet of water, adding as much weight as he could to his weight belt to stay down. They had even fastened a chain to a piece of bedrock on the bank so Bill could “walk” down into the hole each day. They chopped, pried and levered their way through several feet of extremely hard hard-pack; and when they reached the bottom, they found a natural channel had been cut into the bedrock, about four feet across, and they weren’t sure how deep. Bill began suffering from nosebleeds at about 22 feet down, so David was continuing the dives on his own. We were giving him a couple of days to satisfy his curiosity as to what was at the bottom.

David and Kona ran back up to where I was sitting, and David laughed as Kona shook herself, spraying me with water and rubbing against me as I protested. He began adding all his gear for diving. This was a cold river, and he already had an acrylic bodysuit made for diving under his 1/4-inch wet suit.

David was thin and had a hard time staying warm any time of year in the Yuba, but this was springtime-the water was very cold. He wore boat shoes over his dive booties, work gloves on top of wetsuit gloves, and finally a hot water line to bring warm water inside his suit.

At last, he was ready, and I opened my mouth to complain about his weight belts, but could see that he could hardly move and decided to keep quiet. I had an ongoing thing about the weight belts. Being so thin, it was very difficult for him to keep the quick- release buckles in front; and wearing two belts compounded the problem. I knew from the past, that even if he had them on straight when he went down, he worked so fast and furious below that within 15 minutes, they would be working their way around his body. We’d “discussed” it often.

David adjusted his mask and descended; Bill went out to the dredge; and I settled back. It wasn’t often I had time to relax, and this was the last day we would be working here. We’d decided to pull out tonight. David was now diving at 24 feet; and as he started dredging, the dredge hose pulled the dredge out into the river a bit more–stretching to reach the entire length. Soon, material began flowing through the sluice box.

David finished the first dive, we had lunch, and he went down again. I was about to doze off when suddenly, a loud noise startled me. As I jumped up, I saw that David’s airline had blown off the air compressor. With a huge “whooshing” noise, it rapidly snaked across the river as air from the reserve tank rushed out of the open end.

I began to panic immediately. Bill did not have his wetsuit jacket or weight belt, and the swift current would force him downriver if he attempted to cross the current to David.

We waited for long moments on the bank for David to appear but, he didn’t.

Underwater, David gasped as he drew water instead of air into his mouth and quickly began fumbling through two pair of gloves for the quick-releases on his belts. He finally found one and dropped it but lost more precious moments looking for the other. He was fast running out of time and couldn’t find it!

He finally decided to force himself to the surface wearing one belt. But as he stepped out of the first weight belt, he stumbled and his boat shoe became entangled in the metal crate which he used to carry rocks out of the dredge hole! Now he had to fight panic as he worked quickly to extricate himself. It was dark and murky down there as he struggled to remove his foot from the shoe which was still caught in the metal crate. At last, he was free, but did he have enough air left after his struggles to make it to the top?

Up on top, I was already in tears. It seemed we’d waited hours, and Bill was rapidly descending the chain to see what he could do. He had to try something, even if it was wrong!

Just then, in a roar of water, air, coughing and shouting, David burst through the surface of the water and Bill dove for him, helping him out of the current and to the bank, where he lay a long time, coughing and spitting water.

We felt very lucky, and we were a sober and wiser group when we left that day. We’d learned several good lessons, and would like to re-emphasis them because they are important ones:

1) Always make sure your weight belt is tight and you can reach your quick-release buckle (and make sure it’s in good working order).

2) Make sure that any line connected to your air compressor is a “HEAT RESISTANT” line (usually red or black). Air coming out of the compressor is hot, and regular airline will NOT stand up to that heat. Remember: your life depends on the air from that line!

3) And, finally, we learned that curiosity that leads you into danger is best left to cats.

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