Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I love rocks more than EVER now!

Little Wolf River rapids, downstream of where we were
I should warn you, this is a LONG post...tried to shorten it, but you all know I'm long-winded, so here we go:

Well, here's a bit of humble pie and downright thankfulness to my Higher Power/Guardian Angel that I have to share:  I went kayaking on Monday evening with Carl, Joel and Ann.  We decided on Sunday night to go back up to the Little Wolf on Monday after the three of them were done with work to run the river.

I had an uneasy feeling about it all day, though, and even asked Joel to stop and pick me up a helmet as I was leery of the water being so high.  No, it wasn't at flood stage, but it was much higher than we had ever seen it before. 

We arrived at the river around 6PM and put in without incident.  Ann, Joel and I were in kayaks, Carl was in the canoe.  The first stretch of this run is rather slow which always fools newcomers; they think they are in for a mild float trip, but it becomes a wilder river after the first section, generally very bumpy, with lots and lots of rocks.  The only rocks exposed that night were the really big ones, everything else was submerged, and the current was unbelievably swift.    

Maybe it's my age, maybe it's the experience we've gained after having canoed for so many years, but I told Carl I would be glad to see the takeout point as soon we put in.  It just didn't feel 'right' to me.  He asked me if I wanted to jump in the canoe with him instead of kayak and I said, nah, I'll be ok--Mistake #2.  (Mistake #1 was getting in the river at all!)

 We have had record rainfall here, and the local rivers are doing their best to siphon off the overflow.  To have water this high in late July is very unusual and both Carl and I remarked that the river didn't even look familiar really.  This is one we have canoed every year for decades, and you get used to certain landmarks over time and know what to look for.  Yesterday, nothing looked all that familiar because the water was so high.

We did ok at first-- I was worried about Ann because she had only been in a kayak once or twice before on a much easier river (turned out I needn't have been worried as she is a true river runner!)  Entering the first set of rapids was good, we all made it, no problem, but the second set was not as easy.  There was a tree down.

In the canoe/kayak world, downed trees are called 'strainers' because they strain everything that goes through them and sometimes hold on to what doesn't fit through.  The major problem with strainers is they are usually right across a river and when the river is narrow, they often do not leave much (or any) room to navigate around them.

Carl entered into the rapids at a bad angle with the 17' canoe and hit the log sideways.  Normally this wouldn't be a horrible problem, but the current was far from normal, being ultra-pushy and it tipped the canoe and swamped him immediately.  The canoe filled up with water and sank, but it was still floating enough to spin around, putting Carl very much in harm's way-- for the canoe now weighed in excess of 1000 pounds and he was on the downstream side of it.  I've mentioned before, you NEVER want to be on the downstream side of a swamped canoe!  What often happens is the canoe will pin a person between a rock or a strainer and the consequences of this are serious injury or drowning. 

Joel went to Carl's rescue in his whitewater kayak and was yelling for Carl to get out of the way of the canoe.  Easier said than done, because the current was so strong and deep and Carl couldn't get his footing.  Ann & I had managed to beach our kayaks and were watching from a distance.  I felt so helpless just sitting there; but was elated when I saw Carl finally gain the purchase of a foothold on a big, granite boulder and get out of the water a bit.  By the time Joel reached him he was already trying to dump the water out of the boat.  Ann and I were catching flotsam and jetsam from his canoe as it came down to us.  Carl got back in the canoe, unhurt, but shaken up.  Remember, he's a fan of 'Dry Canoeing' and after decades has only been dumped out of the boat two or three times before.

I wish I had more pictures to share, but bear with we went on from here and Joel wanted to scout out the next set of rapids before we ran them.  This next section of river is the worst for its steep gradient and rocks, even in lower water it's a challenge.  We waited while he kayaked down.

After looking, Joel waved at us to come on through, but as we got close enough, he yelled to stay river right to avoid a downed cedar tree.   So Carl went first and negotiated the downed tree and the huge waves and was safely through.

Then it was my turn to go.  This is where everything went bad for me.   I'm not sure what exactly caused it, all I know is I was almost around the end of the cedar tree when I found myself suddenly sideways in the river; a definite no-no........I tried to correct it, but the current was unbelievably pushy and, faster than lightning, the boat tipped over facing downstream and I was now one with the water in the worst of the rapids.  . 

Now this wasn't like you sometimes see on TV, when they show people rafting, say, the mighty Colorado River and how they fall out of the raft sometimes and are getting alternately tossed around, sucked under and bashed on rocks and need to be rescued by people on the shore with ropes and be helicoptered out to the, it's not that dramatic.......but I tell you this, I felt every bit as terrified as anyone else who has had the bad luck to have to swim for it in heavy whitewater even though this is a small river.

First off, my swimming ability is so-so, even in a swimming pool, which doesn't have a current---but I did have my life jacket securely fastened, something we ALWAYS wear, even in a foot of water on a rookie river---because stuff happens and you never know.  And boy, was I glad I had my new helmet on, because this was a bumpy ride.

My head went underwater immediately and I remember seeing nothing but murky water; luckily I held my breath going in which must be a reflex, because I did not have the time to think about it.  When I surfaced, I was facing downstream, another NO-NO--you don't want to go downstream headfirst because you can ram into rocks and you don't want to use your head for a battering ram.  The kayak had slipped free from me and the last I saw of it, was charging downstream at a much more rapid pace than I was.  I was still clinging foolishly to my paddle, as if that was going to save me.  I saw a big rock coming and tried to grab on, losing my hold on the paddle, but the current was too strong and I couldn't hang on.  I went under again, but popped up just in time to see a strainer, a newly fallen ash tree, dead ahead. 

(As I'm writing this, it's nearing 1AM, and there's a fierce thunderstorm approaching outside-oh, boy, more water!) but back to my dilemma, I realize this is not good at all, I really, really REALLY did not want to go through this big tree, but had no choice.  Another thing that happens to many people in these situations is the almost incurable need to want to grab on to something and hold on for dear life,  so what do you think I did?  Yup, I grabbed onto one of the downed tree's branches as I was going through the strainer.  Unfortunately, the branch bent down lower in the water and the next thing I know, I'm underwater again and somehow or other, I am stuck in the tree.

It was at this point I guess my life should have passed before my eyes, I had already swallowed way more river water than I should have and things weren't looking very good.  All I remembered thinking was, 'So this is how I'm going to die- how stupid of me!' and making a weird moaning, gargling sound. 

Then a miracle from God above happened, the tree branch I had been hanging on to broke and whatever I was caught on set me free.  I was back up on the surface, able to breathe and rapidly approaching a granite boulder again.  This time I was able to hang on and hauled myself out of the water. 

I was SO thankful to that rock!  I mentioned in an earlier post how I love tractors, well yes, I do, but my love affair with rocks goes even deeper and crawling onto the rock was the luckiest thing to happen in the last ten years!  I sat there coughing up water and vaguely remember Joel flying past in his kayak, yelling to me, "Are you ok?!"

I must have waved at him to keep going (I don't really remember) and he sailed on downstream; it wasn't possible to stop very easily where I was perched and he wanted to get down river to see if Ann and Carl were alright.   He also managed to retrieve my wandering kayak which he said was near the shore, jammed under another fallen tree a very long way downstream.   
Not THE rock, but this is very like  the situation I found myself in next.

I sat there for quite a while....time seemed to go so slowly.  Once the shock began to wear off, I realized I wasn't out of trouble yet, since I was still in the rapids, albeit about halfway to the right shore.  In order to actually get to shore, I had to leave the rock I was perched on and I found myself actually wanting to cry (such a wimp, I know) because I was now more scared than ever.  I took a quick physical left shoe was gone and my foot was bleeding a little; my shin hurt, as did my left hand, my rib cage, and my hip, but nothing was broken.  Another miracle!

And get this, without my glasses, I am nearly legally in, when the optometrist asks me to read the eye chart from the top with the big E, I say, "There's an eye chart around here somewhere?  I don't even see a wall."  Somehow or other, my glasses were still with me.  I could barely see out of them, but they were there. 

I shakily tried to stand up but had to wait awhile, since I was as wobbly as a newborn calf.  I wasn't cold, but I think it was the adrenaline rush and shock causing it. I tried to fight the rising panic, because once I realized I had to actually leave my rock to get to terra firma, the thought of being back in the water terrified me.  But the more I thought about everybody waiting downstream, worrying or at least wondering what the heck happened to me, I managed to crawl off my precarious perch.

Once more I was dismayed to find the water very deep there, with no bottom again; so I was swimming again, shoved downstream a bit more before I got to the next rock.  I sat there, gathering my strength and mapped out a hopscotch pattern of nearby rocks to actually step from until I was about two feet from shore.  Oh, when I finally stepped into that mud on shore, the tears started to flow then!   It was SO GOOD to get back on my feet on solid ground, mud or no mud, poison ivy? who cares!

Just as I got back on land, Joel came running up the same path.  He asked me again if I was OK and through my tears I told him I was, and I asked him how everybody else was.  I started walking downstream, limping from only having one shoe and Joel just followed along, encouraging me.  We got to where his kayak was beached, with mine alongside it.  The going got tougher on the shore, so he wanted me to get back in the kayak and finish out the next rapids.

I was thrown from a pony when I was a little kid and I know the old saying about once you've been thrown, you gotta get right back on the horse again, but for the first time in my life, I nearly had a full-blown panic attack.  I dutifully climbed back into my kayak, but when Joel was putting the skirt back on the boat, I looked him right in the eye and blubbered, "I just can't do this."

I was very ashamed of myself for saying it (and still am) but I couldn't help it at that point.  I just knew if I got back in the kayak I wouldn't be able to handle it.  I was too shaky yet.

Joel took pity on me and helped me back out of the boat and I continued on my way, walking the shoreline, climbing through the brush, which to me was preferable to getting back into the water.  Joel followed along, dragging my kayak. After a bit, I met a panicked Carl, running back upstream to help.  Joel handed my kayak off to Carl and went back for his own; and Carl and I proceeded to where Carl's canoe was parked.

Joel kayaked back down to where the three of us now were and announced we were going to have to portage the next obstacle, yet another tree down across the entire river.  In order to portage, we had to cross the rapids from river right to river left, meaning we had to go sideways through the river while keeping a very healthy distance from the strainer again.  I crawled into Carl's canoe and knelt down as low as I could go with my butt on the bottom of the boat.  We all managed to successfully cross the river ( Ann too---she is a trooper, let me tell you!!)  and portage.  I was of no help whatsoever in the portage, still shocky and hurting, kinda out of it.  All I wanted to be was out of it! I was ready to walk to the car even though the road was far away and it was nearing dusk.

Carl and I got back in the canoe and made it through the next rapids and managed to stop with some difficulty and wait for Ann and Joel.  We were in an eddy waiting and nobody was coming which scared both of us, and doubly so when Ann's paddle came sailing by.  We grabbed it and looked upstream to see Ann in my kayak flip over again.  Luckily, she was in water she could walk in somewhat and made it to the opposite shore from us again.  Carl and I then caught the second paddle she had lost when she went over and realized we needed to be back upstream to be of some assistance because we couldn't see Joel at all.  Ann yelled, "I'm up a creek without a paddle!" and something about Joel trying to get the kayak and then she took off to go help him. 

We turned the canoe around in the whitewater and gave it all we had to get back upstream as far as we could before another tree blocked forward progress.  Finally Joel appeared again with the kayak Ann was originally using and we both breathed a sigh of relief.  Joel came across the river and retrieved Ann's paddle from us.

Everyone got back in their kayaks, except for me---I was staying in the canoe with Carl come what may---I am a pretty darn good canoeist....but kayaking may not be my forte' (ya think?)

We tied my kayak to our canoe and followed Ann and Joel downstream, who by this time, had disappeared from our sight.  The next rapids was the Big Curve, I imagine there's a local name for it; a huge granite outcropping where people come to swim on warm days and the river makes a big bend there with standing whitewater which is fun, because there's no rocks in it until right at the end where it kicks you out.   Yesterday, there was no granite outcropping, no friendly swimmers, just rolling standing waves. 

Joel and Ann were on the shore there already because Joel wanted to do some surfing in the rollers, but Carl and I were both determined for this excerpt of 'Deliverance: The Sequel' to be over.  We plowed right on through the waves, took on at least 50 gallons (no exaggeration) over my head and still managed to hold her in the road and on downstream.  Another few minutes and we were at the takeout point, hallelujah!

That's when Carl said, "Oh, no! Your kayak is gone!  It must have come unhooked!"

I muttered, "Good, I hope it finds a nice new home,"  as I scrambled up the riverbank and onto the gravel parking lot.

So, long story, I apologize, but it's almost over......Joel and Ann came downstream towing my wayward kayak which Joel said came unhooked from our canoe when we took on the water entering the curve.  He said the kayak filled up immediately and got caught in the surfing hole, going around and around over four times before sinking totally out of sight and then after what seemed a long time, popping up some yards downstream.  Better the kayak than me doing any circling and popping up again, that's for sure.

I should have listened to my intuition and stayed the heck off this river; I was sorry I had ruined the trip for the others, though Carl was pretty shook up from his swamping, too.  Ann and Joel had a great time, which is good, but I know it would have been more fun for Joel if he hadn't had to rescue us all many times over.  He wanted to run the Canyon, which is the next river section below if all had went well with the one we just did, but it was already nearly dark when we crawled out of the river and even if it wasn't there was no way I was going to allow him to go alone! 

So, there you have it, I am officially an old geezer now, who knows when to say no. With age has to come some benefits and one of them is Common Sense.  Just float trips for me from now on in water less than a foot deep most places and the next time I do this river, (trust me, it will be awhile) it will be so much fun to bounce off of rocks again with my dear, just-as-old husband in the canoe! 

I dozed off somewhere in here writing this, the storm has passed without damage, thankfully, and Joel's alarm is going off.  The sun will be up soon.  I know I should stop this nightowl lifestyle of mine, but just writing about what happened has helped calm me down, because I didn't sleep well last night anyway and the entire day on Tuesday was kind of a blur of aches and pains, MAN am I stiff!

Monday night, I tossed and turned, felt nauseous (probably a bit too much river water?) and when I did fall asleep I kept reliving the underwater I hope I've put the fear to rest and maybe someday I will get back on that horse.

Thank you to all of my friends and loved ones; life is short, and a special thank you prayer to God!
Waterfall downstream in Big Falls
Remember, a rock might just be your best friend someday!


LC said...

I think I'll stick with my life of gardening, stained glass, and woodworking... dangerous enough for this old man!! L

Karen said...

That's what I'm going to do from now on, too!

The Dutch Baker's Daughter said...

Holy cow, had me in that water with you! That was frightening! So glad you are OK. Whew...I'll stick to my boring pontoon boat.