Monday, May 17, 2010

In the blink of an eye...

Stateline Rapids, the three-quarter mile long robust Class IV+ rapids with its mandatory scout on both banks and its dangerously low water flow, was behind us. It had almost claimed our biggest boat but we were past it now and the guidebook promised us smooth sailing for the rest of the trip. (Right: After G skippered the 4-person paddle boat down the lower Stateline Rapids on the third morning, we thought we were home free.)

We were ready for a little relaxation. The hump past the impassable diversion dam the first day of the river trip and the drama that consumed the second day and the morning of the third day at the diabolical rapids had sapped our spirit of adventure and we were all looking forward to smooth, unruffled sailing down a gentle, sun-dappled river in the last half of the trip.

The weather was cooperating as the sky continued to be brilliantly blue and cloud-free, promising us no rain. The days were sunny and warm and the nights were cold but clear, affording anyone who looked up a spectacular display of stars.

We sipped an occasional beer and lounged on the boats as they moved lazily downriver at a leisurely pace. We reminesced about the good old times when we were freshmen and oh-so young in coed Sewell Hall at the University of Colorado in Boulder forty years ago.

Jy, who knew as little about oaring a boat down the remote, fast-moving Dolores River as I did, took over the helm from G, to give him a much appreciated break. We bounced our way down one small rapids with Jy at the oars, a fun little escapade of the boat first being pushed (better visibility) and then pulled (more power and control but you're going backwards) by Jy's oars as the current caught us and spun us around, We all laughed and carefully pointed out hidden rocks to the busy driver.

After a lunch of sandwiches on the bank of the river, Jy continued to row and we heard the increasing noise of another approaching rapids. Its entrance looked all right, with not too much water in turmoil down there, so we sailed on into it without scouting it out first.

We immediately got into trouble. Once we were sucked into the vortex of the thing, the inexperienced Jy pretty much lost control of the boat. Looming in our path was a big standing rock in the river which Jy narrowly missed crashing into as G yelled directions at him. The current spun us around backwards and we traversed alongside a line of barely submerged rocks across the stream while approaching another tall, broad free standing rock behind us.

G screamed, "Jy, don't hit that rock!" Easier said than done in the powerful rushing water. Now we were right next to the towering rock going backwards and the current pushed us right into it broadside.

Things happened in the blink of an eye next. The wall of water seeking a way downstream slammed us sideways into the rock. I was on the upstream side of the boat with G on the seat next to me and Jy behind me. The downstream side of the boat rode slightly up the broad face of the rock as the current tried to shove us downstream. This caused a torrent of water to immediately start flooding into my side of the boat which had been lowered ever so slightly by the dynamics of being pinned against the rock. The frigid river water cascaded into the raft with shocking swiftness.

In these circumstances everyone should climb onto the high (rising) side of the boat so that the added weight will bring that side back down and raise the lowered side. It was a maneuver we had never practised and for which there was absolutely no time now.

I thought, "Hey, the river is pouring in... ." In a flash the boat flipped over.

I was in the water fighting against the terrific current to rise to the surface. I had my life jacket on, which gave me buoyancy.

I rose in the water but never made it to the surface. I "came up" in a cold, dark watery place, underneath the overturned boat.

It was quiet under there but there was definitely no air pocket down there. I could feel the fury of the current all around my body, driving me back towards the rock face behind me.

I remember thinking that I had about one minute to get out from under this boat or I was going to die. I could feel the clock ticking.

The very death I had feared most, death by drowning, which was the very reason for my unease over this Bucket Trip in the first place, the overwhelming fear I thought I had defeated by travelling down Stateline Rapids, was confronting me. My 58 years had brought me to this one spot under the boat on this "insignificant" rapids in Utah and now I thought I was going to die alone, right here and right now.

I was determined to try to live though. I grabbed onto some rigging and clawed my way across the underside of the boat against the current to try to emerge from under the boat on the upstream side. I didn't want to be pushed back against the rock face behind me and get pinned there by the mighty water flow.

When I got to the air-filled bulbous rubber pontoon which encircles the boat, there was nothing to grab onto and the rushing current pushed me back. I tried again with the same result.

I was acutely aware of my single lungful of air. I figured that having failed twice at my efforts to escape, I had time for one more attempt at salvation before I blacked out. I felt myself weakening.

A rule on the river for anyone in the water is to stay with the boat. Besides the obvious risk of drowning, the water is dangerous because you can crash into all kinds of things while being propelled by the current.

It was time to leave the boat if I could, despite my fear of getting pinned underwater against the rock behind me. Holding fast to the rigging under the boat, I pushed off downwards and backwards into the current.

A moment later I popped out to the surface behind the boat, into light and air but in the midst of a raging torrent of cascading water. I grabbed a mouthful of air and was immediately thrust under the surface again by the force of the water. Now thoughts of death were replaced in my mind by thoughts of survival as I hurtled down a very powerful, rock-strewn quarter mile of rapids at warp speed.


Anne said...

As I read this, I realized I was literally holding my breath. I'm glad you obviously survived the ordeal, but I'll be curious in the next installment to know whether this reinforced or reduced your fear of drowning.

Petraruns said...

Anne's said it. MY heart is in my throat. More!

blue-haired lady said...

Okay. Now you're scaring us all. I am happy that I am reading this..unles you left instructions for a ghost rider......

Just_because_today said...

this was like reading a horror movie. Good God, so glad you made it. You did, didn't you?
what about your buddies?