The final, and biggest, rapid of the day. Class III. I’m feeling confident, because all the other rapids (class II to II+) have gone well (not swimmingly). Max is anxious. At the top of the rapid, we stay right of a big rock, as I’d read we should do. But I quickly realize that I’d been looking at the wrong big rock, and we are way too far river right. The front of the kayak gets wedged between two rocks, and we paddle hard to get un-stuck. The boat swings around and we enter the next section backwards. We stop momentarily on a large rock with a hole below it. I don’t have enough time to assess before we drop into the hole. We are held upright and steady in the hole for just long enough to make me think we can still pull out of it. As I’m about to command, “back-paddle HARD!”, we are flipped toward the rock creating the hole.
My paddle is yanked from my unsuspecting hands.
Kick. Swim. Must find air. The world is only water…
Air. GASP. Bobbing, afloat thanks to my life jacket. I don’t know how long I was underwater.
My whitewater safety training kicks in. Position your feet downstream.
Where’s Max? The boat? My padd-
Sucked under again. Didn’t see it coming. I was too busy trying to breathe.
Water, kick, swim, GASP…my sunglasses are still on my face?!
Above water again, I spot Max in the wave train below me.
“We’re okay!,” I gasp. He disagrees, but is able to swim to shore.
I must have swallowed a bunch of water. It’s hard to breathe. My life jacket now feels restricting. Can’t expand my lungs enough. The water doesn’t taste bad…
I see that the boat has been pulled to shore by an eddy, and is staying there.
The current is strong, and I have decisions to make. I need to get to my paddle, and to the boat, which is on the opposite shore of where Max swam.
I almost swim toward Max, then decide to push back into the current to get to the other side. On the way, I turn upstream to reach my paddle, floating toward me.
Swimming as hard as I can, I’m still being pulled downstream. But I manage to slow my speed enough to snatch the paddle. Then I swim full force to get to shore, paddle in hand.
I consider myself a pretty good swimmer. But this current thought so little of my full-bore effort that it wouldn’t have even bothered laughing at me if it could.
But I make it to shore, thankful for something solid on which to place my feet.
More gasping, this time with a little relief. But there’s still a lot of work to do.
I call to Max to check on him. He is standing on the opposite shore, and gives me an un-convinced thumbs-up.
I am not far downstream from the eddied-out kayak, but the shore is full of bushes and there’s no clear path, so I stumble, knee- to waist-deep, over the slippery river rocks (as someone with many years of whitewater experience, I DO NOT recommend this, if at all possible; it is extremely dangerous).
I finally reach the kayak. It’s hanging out in the eddy as if nothing has happened. The only evidence that it’s been overturned is the dry bag, strapped to the boat, is hanging outside the boat.
Sigh of relief. Somehow, we hadn’t lost anything. Even Max’s waterproof speaker is still clipped in and playing music.
I take the time for a few deep breaths to prepare myself for the next task: power-paddling across the river to Max. He’s not far downstream, so I’m going to have to push myself hard to reach him before the current pulls me away.
I prepare a throw strap just in case, hop in the rear seat, and paddle with all my might, before I have the chance to psych myself out.
I actually make it across to him. He’s not exactly thrilled, but he’s okay.
I don’t know how this sounds to my readers. Terrifying, I hope, because that’s how it should feel. But here’s the thing.
I was not terrified.
Not once did I panic, did I fear for Max’s life, or my own. Does that make me a sociopath or something? I hope not, but I also doubt it.
I get more anxiety from answering the phone at work.
I think I reacted the way I did because the river is where I belong.
I was deeply affected later, only after I slept on it. Once everything had calmed down and I had a chance to press the replay button in my head over and over, the weight set in on me.
We were in a potentially life-threatening situation and made it out almost entirely unscathed. The river gave us a break and I am thankful.
Now to figure out what I’ve learned about myself through this experience.