Town of Collierville
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Collierville Fire Department: Wolf River Rescue Incident Reminds Boaters to Know Terrain and Be Safe

collierville fire wolf river water rescue training optThe Collierville Fire Department (CFD)’s Search and Rescue team train constantly for every sort of situation imaginable. They would just as soon not see any Collierville resident in the sort of accident that would stretch their rescue muscles to new lengths, but sometimes it happens. (Pictured: routine CFD search and rescue training in the Wolf River.)

The heavy rains that resulted from Hurricane Harvey had the Wolf River’s water level sitting particularly high. On Sunday, September 3, the CFD got a call that some canoers were in trouble at the Collierville-Arlington Road entry point of the river. They had entered the river in Rossville, but lost their canoe as the current grew stronger. One of the canoers was able to climb onto the bank, but her friend was unable to do so and was hanging onto a tree limb and bobbing up and down when the 911 call was made. On a normal day, the spot where she was trapped would appear to be easy to reach, but on this day the water was high and strong, and the rescuers were unable to reach her on foot. They brought out a rubber rescue boat, still keeping in mind that the unusually high water and the submerged undergrowth at this particular spot could overwhelm or interfere with the boat. Thankfully, they were able to complete the rescue and everyone involved made it home safely. 

Scott Sumner, CFD’s Chief of Fire Prevention, said several things about the Collierville-Arlington Road entry point make it a particularly dangerous place to navigate a canoe.

“There are lots of trees growing up through the water at this entry point, and when the water is high, these obstructions are hidden by the water. Plus, when the river narrows as it does at Collierville-Arlington, the water runs more quickly.”

The Wolf River is a 105 mile-long stream in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi that runs next to Collierville. It is estimated to be about 12,000 years old and takes its name from the Indian Mahican word “Les Loups” or “The Wolves.” The Wolf River is important for helping to recharge our drinking water aquifer as well as providing educational and recreational opportunities. The Town of Collierville currently controls approximately 500 acres in the Wolf River Wildlife Corridor, a joint co-op developed to preserve the Wolf River flood way and natural areas; the corridor is located from the Collierville-Arlington Road Bridge to the Houston Levee Road Bridge.

Floods can occur in all rivers and stream channels, no matter how small the stream appears. Due to recent rains the Wolf River was swollen beyond normal levels. The rains intensified currents, created undertows, pulled additional debris into the water and submerged normally visible hazards. Any river trip including one on the Wolf River involves an element of risk; it is necessary to be prepared for emergencies.

The Wolf River Conservancy is a non-profit organization headquartered in Memphis whose mission is to conserve and enhance sections of the Wolf River as a natural resource for public education and low-impact recreational activities such as paddling in a canoe or kayak. Their website provides a helpful list of rules and recommendations for planning a river trip.

These include:
1. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard Approved life jacket that has been properly fitted and sized to the person wearing it.
2. Know basic boating safety rules. Read Tennessee Wildlife Resource’s Agency’s Safety Checklist for Canoeing and Paddle Sports.
3. Assess your skill level. Consider your physical condition, prior training and experience. If in doubt about your skills or need appropriate training, contact a local outfitter, a paddling retailer or the American Canoe Association. Beginners should seek out some type of formal training before paddling; afterwards, paddle with highly experienced guides for the first few trips.
4. Always travel with a buddy.
5. Take plenty of drinking water.
6. Bring emergency supplies such as a cell phone, allergy medications and a first aid kit. Additional emergency supplies to consider include a flashlight, whistle, rain gear, sunscreen, insect repellant, snacks, etc. and a waterproof bag to contain these items.
7. Share your float plan with someone on shore. The landside contact should know where you are going and when you expect to return.
8. Check the weather and river level. Do not attempt a trip if the forecast indicates severe weather such as a thunderstorm; do not attempt a trip during flood conditions. Do not paddle the Wolf River if the USGS River Level Gauge reads 8 feet or above. The gauge at Collierville can be checked here.
9. Wear clothes and shoes suitable for conditions. During cold weather, bring a set of rain gear and at least one change of clothes in a dry bag in the craft to prevent possible hypothermia.

Before navigating a river such as the Wolf River the CFD recommends that beginners learn floating skills on still waters. One such source is Shelby Farms Park which has several lakes to explore. During spring and summer months, canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are available for rent. Life jackets are provided. (Life jackets for four-legged friends are also available.) In addition, they have a boat launch ramp available for launching your own watercraft (motorized watercraft are not permitted). Training, forethought and planning are essential ingredients of any water experience. The Wolf River is a natural treasure that is conveniently located just outside of Collierville; however, to enjoy it its recreational and educational opportunities, the CFD encourages potential canoers, kayakers and even hikers to invest in the advanced education and preparation required to make their trips safe.

Chief Sumner confirmed that the rescue teams were ready for what happened on September 3, but that proper education about what could happen under various circumstances can save lives.

"I consider the Wolf River a 'lazy' river under normal circumstances,” said Sumner. “But these weren’t normal circumstances. The people in distress were not experienced, and the water was still high from the hurricane rains runoff.”

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