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SWR Conference Speakers - 2013
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The following are the best of the best in regards to swiftwater rescue, and they presented at the 2013 SWR Conference.



Les BechdelLes Bechdel

Les began paddling whitewater with the Boy Scouts in Central Pennsylvania in 1960. His Explorer Post built the first decked canoe in America, and developed many whitewater paddling techniques during those early years of the sport. For several summers, Les worked as a "tripping counselor" for a summer camp in the Adirondacks. Many of these trips involved canoeing whitewater in Northern New York and in Canada. Les has represented the United States in five World Championships. At the age of 15, Les was the youngest person to ever race in a World Championship. His last "Worlds" was in 1977 in Spittal, Austria, placing 13th. During those years, Les was four times National Champion and has more seconds and thirds than he cares to remember. Following his decked boat career, Les garnered several other national titles in open canoe competition. Les has worked professionally in the whitewater field since 1971. For two years he was sales manager for High Performance Products, a Boston-based kayak manufacturer. During that time, he traveled throughout the United States teaching whitewater kayaking to outdoor sports store owners and employees. In 1973, Les co-founded Phoenix Products in Kentucky where he managed the production of kayaks and related accessories. From 1976 to 1985, Les worked for the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. His first three years he was the manager of the Chattooga River operations. He then became the Vice-President, and oversaw rafting operations, construction projects, as well as actively guiding rafts and teaching canoeing and kayaking. Les was a certified Instructor Trainer with the American Canoe Association. Les has participated in wilderness river expeditions all over the world. He spent four seasons in Chile leading commercial whitewater trips on the Rio Bio Bio (1979 - 1982). In 1981 Les was the assistant leader of the American Himalayan Kayak Team that did the first descent of the Wong Chu and other rivers in Bhutan. While with the Nantahala Outdoor Center, Les played an instrumental role in developing many of the rescue techniques and safety practices in use today. In 1985 he coauthored RIVER RESCUE, the first definitive book on the subject. RIVER RESCUE has sold over 90,000 copies and is now in its third edition. In 1988, Les co-produced the instructional video, RIVER RESCUE, with Anne Ford. In 1993, he played a role in the American Canoe Association safety awareness video, HEADS UP! Les is the recipient of the American Red Cross Certificate of Merit for saving the life of a victim of near drowning. He has taught rescue courses throughout the world and is considered to be one of the leading authorities on whitewater safety and rescue. He was featured in the March 1992 issue of OUTSIDE magazine as the "MAN WHO IS WHITEWATER".  Respected by his peers, Les has been asked to teach many risk management seminars for river outfitters as well as conducting safety reviews for outdoors programs for the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School. He has been a lecturer for a variety of organizations ranging from the Wilderness Medical Society to America Outdoors. He served six years as the Vice President of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. During that tenure, he also served as the Safety Committee Chairman. In 1985, Les and his wife, Susan, founded Canyons Incorporated which runs wilderness river trips on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon River in Central Idaho. They sold their business in 2010. Les now works summers as a Forest Service river ranger on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.


Slim RaySlim Ray

Slim is an internationally-recognized authority on flood, swiftwater and whitewater safety and rescue with twenty years of experience in swiftwater rescue, including course development and instruction with Rescue 3, Canyonlands Field Institute, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject. An active recreational kayaker, he has worked as a raft guide and canoe and kayak instructor both in the US and abroad. He has been the American representative in several international river safety conferences and organized the International Safety Symposium (ISS '90) in the US. He is currently the owner/CEO of CFS Press.


Charlie WalbridgeCharlie Walbridge

Charlie is a nationally-known whitewater safety expert with almost 40 years of river running experience.  He started canoeing at summer camp in the early 60's and began paddling whitewater seriously in college. He was an active C-1 slalom and wildwater racer and worked part-time as a river guide in the 70's. He has paddled rivers throughout the US and Canada, including several first descents, but now spends most of his time in West Virginia. He ran a mail order company, Wildwater Designs, for 22 years. There he developed the HiFloat life vest and adapted the throw-line rescue bag for whitewater use. He's been the Safety Chair for both the American Canoe Association (ACA) and American Whitewater (AW) and is well known for articles in American Whitewater that report on U.S. whitewater fatalities. A member of the ACA Instruction Committee since 1977, he helped develop the ACA programs in both canoeing and swiftwater rescue and continues to serve as an instructor-trainer. He's written many magazine articles and produced or contributed to numerous books, including The Boat Builder's Manual, Wildwater West Virginia, The Whitewater Rescue Manual, and several editions of the River Safety Report. He is on the board of Friends of the Cheat River, a West Virginia watershed group, and Mowglis, a New Hampshire summer camp where he first learned to paddle. He currently works as an independent sales rep and does consultations on canoeing safety for outfitters, organizations and attorneys. Charlie lives with his wife Sandy in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia and is active in Cheat and Upper Yough river access issues.


Jim CoffeyJim Coffey

Jim is the mastermind behind the extremely popular and informative Rescue for River Runners video series. He is the founder of Espirit Whitewater Worldwide.  Since 1984, Jim has been leading expeditions, training guides, and teaching kayaking, first aid, river rescue and ecological awareness throughout Canada, Mexico, South American, Central America, India, Italy, Africa, Asia and Australia.  In addition, he competed in the World Cup in both C-1 and C-2 and is a four-time captain of Canada's World Rafting Championship team.  He's also been known to huck 30 and 40 footers in his open canoe! 



Mike MatherMike Mather

Mike is an ACA Safety & Rescue ITE, Rescue 3 Rope & Water IT. With more than 20 years of bad judgment on and in the water, Mike Mather is one of the more experienced and entertaining rescue professionals in the industry. Having taught courses all over the U.S. and in Europe, Mike has an unconventional approach to this topic. Mike excels at keeping topics clear, accessible and applicable for rescue professionals, experienced boaters and novices alike. Kent Ford described Mike as a "highly skilled person, with a valuable set of skills, including guiding, guide training and broad national experience in swiftwater rescue. His experience level is truly unique on a national level.” A few of the teams Mike has trained to date include: USN Seals, USAF PJs, San Diego lifeguards, Los Angeles lifeguards, Eagle County Colorado FD, etc. Mike worked with Horst Fürsattel, the inventor of the rescue PFD in Germany, and tested the rescue harness by having the class haul him up an 8-foot ledge. Mike played the role of the entrapped victim in the film "Heads Up” multiple times and in one instance the rope snagged on the river bottom entrapping him for real. The "Houdini” of swiftwater rescue!


Photo courtesy of Landmark LearningJustin S. Padgett, M.S., NREMT-Paramedic, WEMT

Justin has spent the last 20+ years of his life paddling canoes, kayaks and rafts throughout North and South America. He is an Instructor trainer in Swiftwater Rescue and Whitewater Kayak and sits on the ACA national curriculum boards for each. As a senior instructor and Executive Director of Landmark Learning, Justin spends approximately 100 + days per year teaching a combination of emergency medicine and rescue skills to folks who live and play outdoors. Justin's humor and creativity in curriculum delivery make him a popular conference speaker.


Aaron PeelerAaron Peeler

Aaron, Owner of H2O Rescue Gear & Outdoor School Manager at the US National Whitewater Center, started his river career before even being born. Growing up with a dad that was a river guide and taking his first rafting trip while still in his mother's womb, he had paddling in his blood. Aaron started his professional career as a guide in the late 90's on the Ocoee and Nantahala rivers. Over the past 17 years he has had the opportunity to guide on many different rivers including the Gauley River, multiple sections of the Colorado river, including Grand Canyon and Arkansas river. During this time Aaron trained and supervised over 1,000 guides and guide instructors. Aaron has overseen the development of training programs for different outfitters, written river protocols, and managed day to day business. In 2006, after seeing many incidents on the river that could have been avoided, Aaron became a SWR instructor and received his ACA Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor Certification. Since then Aaron has dedicated his time to helping whitewater enthusiasts and rescue professionals become more proactive in their river rescue skills. In 2011 Aaron completed his ACA Instructor Trainer certification for Swiftwater Rescue. In 2007 Aaron developed the USNWC Swiftwater Rescue Program for Rescue Professionals and Military Personnel which offers a wide selection of courses focused to departments' needs. Since the USNWC SWR Program's inception, Aaron has trained over 400 rescue professionals including elite military special operations members stationed throughout the world. Aaron also tests (and reports on) river gear for many different manufacturers and the Department of Homeland Security.  Aaron resides in Charlotte, NC with his wife and 3 kids where he manages the Outdoor School at the US National Whitewater Center and runs H2O Rescue Gear - the leading throw bag design manufacturer. In his free time, you can find Aaron paddling on local rivers (kayak, raft, SUP, and open canoe), paddle boarding at the coast, skiing in the Rockies, and just enjoying time with his family.


Walter FeltonWalter Felton

Walter calls South Arkansas home, while his profession is not boating related his passion is. Walter is an avid open boater and oarsman with experience on rivers around the US. While canoeing is his passion he loves rafting as well. Walter typically rows gear boats on multi-day trips including the trips down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in AZ, the Middle Fork and Main Salmon, and the Selway in Idaho. The pinnacle of his rowing career was rowing the Futaleufu in Southern Chile. Walter is a Level 5 Advanced Whitewater Canoe instructor and a Level 4 Whitewater Canoe Instructor Trainer. His love for teaching boating was fostered through the Arkansas Canoe Club. The ACC has a very active skills development program with ACA instructors leading the workshops. These workshops teach 100's of people to paddle each year and provide a very high level of instruction to outdoor enthusiast from Arkansas and surrounding states. Walter is extremely involved in teaching Swiftwater Rescue both for the Arkansas Canoe Club and other organizations around the country. He is a Level 5 Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor Trainer Educator and has helped develop several new rescue techniques that are gaining acceptance in the rescue community. His dedication to staying on the cutting edge of rescue technique is driven not only by a desire to help the boating community but also by the need to support the groups that he paddles with, using the best tools and information available. Known as a "go to man” on the scene of a rescue, whether it be technical rigging or on big water rivers, Walter's "take no prisoners attitude” gets the job done.


Will LeveretteWill Leverette

Will has been an active, professional member of the outdoor education/recreation community for over 30 years. He was an Instructor Trainer with the American Canoe Association for 15 years and has been a whitewater river paddler for over 35 years working as a guide and instructor in the intermountain west and the southeast. He was a Professional Ski Instructors Association Nordic instructor and was a water safety, advanced first aid, CPR, and canoeing instructor with the American Red Cross for 10 years. He has worked as a risk manager and a claims consultant to the liability insurance industry since 1988 with the Worldwide Outfitter and Guide Association. Will is a sought after speaker on many aspects of outdoor sports risk management. He also assists with the Warren Wilson College paddling club and Team River Runner in Asheville, North Carolina. Will used his experience and family history to write a history of whitewater paddling in western North Carolina from 1923 to 1980. The History Press of Charleston, South Carolina published his book. This presentation is beautifully illustrated by over 50 photographs of wood and canvas and aluminum canoes on most of western North Carolina's rivers. It includes an interesting treatment of river rescue in the formative years prior to any formal rescue techniques.


Robin PopeRobin Pope

Robin is past president of the ACA’s Board of Directors and past chair of the ACA’s Safety Education and Instruction Council.  For more than two decades, Robin has taught paddling for a wide range of Southeastern clubs and paddling programs.  He is an ACA level 5 ITE in Swiftwater Rescue and Whitewater Kayaking, and helped develop the curriculum for both programs.  He also is an active volunteer for Boy Scouts, where he serves in many roles, including scoutmaster and aquatics instructor.  Professionally, Robin is a physician assistant specializing in orthopedics and sports medicine, and has particular interests in wilderness medicine and injury prevention.    .


Sam FowlkesSam Fowlkes

Sam has been a leader in paddlesports for over 30 years. His involvement with the American Canoe Association began in 1977 when certified as a whitewater kayak instructor while working at Nantahala Outdoor Center as a guide and instructor. He has been an ACA whitewater canoe Instructor Trainer since 1981. He is presently an Instructor Trainer Educator in Advanced Swiftwater Rescue and Whitewater Canoe for the ACA. In addition, Sam is an Instructor Trainer for Rescue 3 International. He is certified as a NOLS Wilderness E.M.T. Educated at ECU, UNC-CH and WCU, he holds B.S and M.A.Ed degrees. Sam has been on the teaching faculty of Western Carolina University for the past fourteen years schooling students in water-based sports education. His other ACA leadership positions include: 12 years as Dixie Division Divisional Instruction Facilitator, 4 years as SEIC Vice Chair, 4 years as SEIC Chair. He received the ACA Joe Pena Volunteer Award in 2002, voted David Mason volunteer of the year in 2004 from the Dixie Division and received the ACA Instructor of the Year Award in 2005. He is currently serving a third term on the Board Of Directors of the ACA. The lead swiftwater rescue IT for the whitewater symposiums 2004 and 2005, he has been described as a "contemporary leader in swiftwater rescue education and program development.” Sam maintains his website: whitewater- as a resource for ACA instructors and trainers. Favorite rivers: Chattooga, Middle Fork, Main Salmon and the Selway.



Virgil ChambersVirgil Chambers

Virgil is the Executive Director for the National Safe Boating Council, Inc. (1996-present). As the Executive Director, he serves as the technical content advisor in direct support of the National Safe Boating Council's (NSBC) education, training and outreach programs. He is directly responsible for the planning and development of the national boating safety awareness campaign conducted by the Council and administrated by the United States Coast Guard. Mr. Chambers also serves as a representative of the Council to national and international organizations. He has served on the Education Committee, Training Committee and Marketing Committee of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). Mr. Chambers is retired (1995) from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where he was the Chief of the Boating Safety and Education Division for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. He developed and started the Pennsylvania Public School Boating and Water Safety Program, he also established the Pennsylvania Water Rescue Program, one of the first recognized water rescue training programs for fire and rescue service personnel. He is the founder of the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) water rescue training program and was the director of this national program for 10 years (1987-1997). He has been recognized by many different local, state and national organizations for his work in boating safety and training. He is in the Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame for his development of boating and water safety education programs (inducted 1988). In 2010 he was inducted into the NSBC Boating Safety Hall of Fame. He was awarded the National Water Safety Congress' highest national award for accomplishments and contributions to water safety (2008). The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) presented Mr. Chambers with the prestigious National Leadership Award in 2008 and the Boating Safety Award in 1994, in addition to a lifetime achievement award in 2008. While in the Navy he was stationed at the U.S. Naval Amphibious School, Inshore Patrol Boat Division, at Coronado, California where he trained boat operators. Later he was assigned to a Coastal and Inshore Division aboard a patrol craft in the Republic of Vietnam where he was decorated for his actions in combat situations.


Pam DillonPam Dillon

Pam is a career-long boating professional, retiring in May 2011 as Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Watercraft. Through her 30-year career with the Division, she was instrumental in advancing Ohio's education and public safety program to a level recognized as a national leader. Within the ODNR Division of Watercraft, she held positions as a commissioned State Watercraft Officer, Special Programs Administrator overseeing the state's Marine Patrol and River Rescue programs, Public Information and Education Manager, and Deputy Chief overseeing statewide field operations. She was appointed Chief in 2007, serving as the State Boating Law Administrator. During her term as Chief, she was instrumental in saving Ohio's Scenic River program, moving the program targeted for potential elimination under the state budget; to funding already provided by the state's canoe and kayak community. During a 5-year break in service from the state of Ohio, Ms. Dillon served as Executive Director of American Canoe Association (2002-2007), working to develop strategic alliances with boating, outdoor recreation, and paddlesport education and conservation programs across the U.S. and Canada. Ms. Dillon served two terms as a public member of the National Boating Safety Advisory Council to the United States Coast Guard (2005-2011), participating as an Objective Leader for development of the Strategic Plan of the National Recreational Boating Safety Program. Additional national level service includes Founding Member of the Board of Governors for the International Whitewater Hall of Fame and past Chair of the National Safe Boating Council. She is currently employed as the Education Director of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators where she works to establish national training standards for boating education and training. Ms. Dillon is recipient of numerous national awards including the National Safe Boating Council's Hall of Fame, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrator's Lifetime Achievement Award, three US Coast Guard Public Service awards, the United Safe Boating Institute's Silver Schooner Award, and American Canoe Association's Outstanding Instructor, President's, and Commodore's Awards, and the Micheal Freeman Conservation Award from the United States Canoe Association.

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