Disaster overtook our rafting trip on the remote Dolores River in Utah during the third day when the boat I was in ran into a huge jutting rock in the middle of No-Name Rapids and flipped over. I was trapped under the boat but escaped when my desperate dive into the underwater current carried me out behind the boat beyond the rock.
When I came up, I greedily sucked in a mouthful of air just as a cascading wall of foaming water poured over my head and drove me below the surface again. I was swept away down a long rocky chute by this torrential deluge of water rushing past the boulder which the capsized boat was pinned against. When my life jacket brought me to the surface again everything was a blur as, engulfed in tumbling, crashing water, I flashed by partially submerged boulders on both sides.
When I was underneath the boat I thought I was going to die, now that I was back on the surface I thought I might live. Although I was in desperate straits as the rushing current propelled me down the rapids at a reckless speed, at least I could breathe again so long as I didn’t get hung up on a rock and become trapped underwater again.
I plunged downstream past impediments marked by water boiling over their surfaces. I recall thinking that I had to save myself now, because my surviving this solo trip down the rapids was the best thing I could do now to help the two crew members I was leaving behind.
I know what you are supposed to do if you get thrown into a rapids. Get on your back, point your legs downstream and use your feet to fend off any rocks that you encounter. You have to trust your life jacket to save you and watch out that you don’t smash your head on any rocks.
I fought to bring my feet underneath me and point them downstream as I rolled over onto my back. I had never been in an element with this kind of power and omnipotent force before.
I was too upright in the roiling water and fighting the current too hard with my arms and this caused me to suck in water and start to cough. I forced myself to relax and lay back fully as I hurtled downstream. Clasping my hands across my vest and tucking my arms in tightly, I raised my head slightly and focused on looking down the length of my body to watch for approaching hazards.
Below me, water gushed around an obstacle just below the surface and I used my feet to skip over a submerged rock as I roared over it. Ahead of me, the current was taking me directly into a huge boulder standing upright in the river just like the rock which our boat had crashed into. I kicked mightily the instant I struck this towering edifice and careened off of it down river again.
Down I sped amidst the swollen eddies and crashing pinwheels of water for maybe a quarter of a mile. Suddenly I was discharged from this rockbound channel into calmer waters below.
As the gentler current of the river took over for the congested, frenetic rush of the rapids, I rolled over and did a slow sidestroke to the left bank. Grabbing at willow saplings on the shore as I passed by them, my quaking muscles barely allowed me to hoist myself onto dry land. I had survived.
I stood up and checked myself over while my chest heaved from exhaustion. Although wet, cold and bedraggled, I was uninjured.
I was by myself, almost half a mile below where I’d gone into the river. I hurried upstream along the bank to alert my other crew members that I was okay.
Above me were a capsized boat and two persons probably in need of assistance. It turned out that their situation was indeed desperate. (Right: My overturned boat trapped against the rock by the current. After being dumped into the water by the boat's sudden capsizing, I "came up" underneath the boat in the passenger well just past where the end of the red-tipped oar is barely sticking out from under the boat. There was no "air pocket" down there. After two futile attempts to get out from under the boat on the "upriver" side, I dove down below the boat in desperation and the strong current swept me out behind the back of the boat, where the lashed luggage is visible in the water, and sucked me down the rapids. Notice the other stuck boat behind our boat.)
I didn’t know that a second boat was caught in the middle of the rapids as well.