Our Kayaking Scare

Though we are having a fun vacation, today nearly ended in tragedy.

Ginny and I went kayaking for the first time last month.  The water was calm and the kayaks were stable and we had a good time with no trouble.

Because we had such a successful outing, we go kayaking again today, Ginny and I, and we take Zach and Alexis as part of our Staycation.  We drive to Blue Ridge, near the Tennessee border, where we are told the Toccoa river is smooth and easy to navigate.  The water in the Toccoa River rises daily, when the gates to an upstream dam are opened, and then  it gradually returns to normal.

We are all beginners I tell the guides, and we need the easiest, most stable kayaks to paddle.  There is not much in the way of a safety briefing, but we are made to initial a sheet of paper that has several key points on it like these:

  • I understand that the water flow is dam controlled, and it is cold and swift.
  • I understand that safety is the number one concern of Blue Ridge Mountain Kayaking.

I ask about this last one.  “We’ve had people say that we aren’t concerned enough with safety,” the guide says.  Soon I will understand why this is.  When someone makes you sign a waiver that says safety is their primary concern, you can be sure that, as a concern, safety falls somewhere on the list below being able to deny legal liability.

I am first in the water.  Immediately my kayak is propelled downstream, in a very swift current.  I paddle against the flow to try to get back to where the others are entering the water, but it is no use.  I can at best hold my position, but I can not overcome the swiftness of the water.  We do not know it at the time, but we are entering the water shortly after the dam has been opened, and the speed of the water will continue to increase for a while.  We are less than a quarter mile from the dam.

It is obvious that this boat is not as stable as the ones Ginny and I used before.  I am wobbling in the water, and have to make an effort to stay upright.

Still, we manage to get all of us in the water and float along together.  The current does the hard work, and mostly we only have to keep ourselves pointed straight.

A half an hour in everyone is ready for lunch, and we debate whether or not to try to eat while paddling.  Not wanting a wet sandwich in cold water, I figure we are better off to try to beach the kayaks and have a picnic.  On the first attempt, due to the relentless current, not everyone makes it to the shore, and since the water is moving so swiftly, they can’t come back against the flow.  Zach manages to stop his kayak further down the river up against a fallen sapling, and first Ginny and then Alexis pull alongside him.  I am last to join.

Getting out of the kayaks is not possible here however, again due to the stiff current.  The group decides that we are better off to keep moving, rather than trying to find another spot.  We pass out sandwiches and move on.  Last to join the group, I am first to pull away.  Alexis and Ginny follow, and finally Zach who, now upstream from us, can’t get cleanly away from the sapling.  Caught by the current, the side of his boat goes under water and rolls away from underneath him.  He is suddenly in the water without a boat, and there is no way to get back to help him.

Ginny is quickly in full Mom-Panic-Mode, and who can blame her?  Having lost sight of Zach, she fears all sorts of catastrophes for the moment.  Zach is young, strong, and experienced in the water however, and he is able to quickly swim after his kayak and catch it.   I retrieve an unopened bag of potato chips and manage to catch the bobbing cooler that had been on Zach’s back deck, along with his paddle.

Zach realizes quickly that a plug that is meant to keep water out of the hull of his boat is missing.  The bottom of his kayak has been filling with water, and he is now listing.  He tries at first to bail it out with his hands, but unfortunately the swift current carries him back into more brush, and shortly afterwards he is in the water again without a boat.  This time he loses a shirt, sunglasses, and his iPhone.

Initially, I’m not worried about Zach, but only because I don’t realize the seriousness of his capsizing or understand the speed and the treacherous nature of the current.  I am far more concerned with Ginny, who by this time is quite fearful, and getting mad.

“I’ve had enough of this!” she complains.  “I want out of here!”

“You’ve got to calm down,” I tell her, “or you’re going to be in the water next.”

Ginny first tries to paddle back to Zach, and unable to do so, looks for a spot to stop and wait on him.

I try to paddle back towards Zach also, but when I look back at Ginny, she is headed towards a large tree, which is standing 15 feet from shore.  This is a 12-inch diameter tree that’s easily a hundred years old, a tree that had the misfortune of growing by the banks of a gentlly-flowing river before men built dams that temporarily widened the channel of the river on a daily basis.

The tree was loosely shaped like the number four, and its horizontal branch is just about three inches above the surface of the water.  Around it, the swift current is roiling as it pulls against smaller branches that trail in the water.

I call after Ginny to tell her to avoid the spot, but I don’t even finish my warning.  There is no way she can avoid the tree at this point I know, and the only thing I can do is turn and go after her quickly.

Ginny tries to stop against the tree the way we had against the sapling minutes earlier, but here away from the riverbank, the current is much stronger than it was at the sapling that capsized Zach.  This tree, larger and unbending, doesn’t cushion her against the current.  I am maybe five feet from her when Ginny’s kayak strikes the tree and the current comes up over the stern.  The boat is suddenly out from under her, and she is immediately in the water.  Her paddle strikes her in the mouth.  Her shoes are torn off by the current, and they disappear.  Her body hits the tree hard, and it scrapes her arm.

I throw myself in after her in a futile attempt to grab her, just as my kayak collides with the tree’s low branches.

I am left breathless from the cold blast of hitting the water, and I am shoved towards the tree trunk.  Only now do I begin to appreciate the swiftness of the water.  If it is moving quickly on the surface, it is racing and brutal below, and it almost seems to tear at my clothes, my life vest, my shoes.  It is impossible to resist, and I am thrown into the trunk of the tree, right shoulder first.

Unlike Ginny’s, my kayak isn’t taken right away.  It is caught in the tree’s low-hanging branches for a moment, but the current is too strong to resist, and with the crunching of low limbs, it is pushed down and pulled under by some unseen monster.  It is gone without a trace.

I grab the tree.  It takes all of my strength to hold on to the horizontal branch.  The water is pulling at me, flowing down the back of my life vest, trying to pull me under.  The tree branch is slimy and slick, making it harder to hold.  The water is pushing me into the tree, and I know that if I can’t resist the water, my head will be slammed into the branch.  I fear being knocked out if that happens.  My feet are trailing downstream, and I can’t get them down to hold myself against the bottom; the current is flowing that quickly!

Ginny is in the same situation, but with a slightly better position. She is closer to the bank and in slightly slower water, but she is also worse off.  Being weaker, she is still struggling to hold on to the tree.   She can’t get any footing, either.

I know that I am going to have to get around the end of the tree to get to the bank, and that means that I have to get past Ginny as well.  It makes little difference, because I’m unable to move from where I am anyway. If I loosen my grip on the tree, I will be pulled under the branch and go wherever the kayaks went.  I am gripping the slimy branch with all of my might, both pulling myself up to stay above the water, and pushing off of it to keep my head from slamming against it. It is exhausting.

Maybe our best option is to stop resisting the water, I think.  If we let go, we’ll be carried downstream and can swim to the bank.  I consider this briefly, but it is too risky.

Our problem is that we can not see what is under the water around and ahead of us.  There is another large, partially fallen tree leaning out into the water just 30 feet ahead of us, and I don’t know what hazards it conceals.  I have not seen either kayak since they were pulled under, and I imagine that they are pinned against underwater debris.   If we go under water, there is no guarantee that we will ever surface.

I am unable to move.  I cannot continue to resist the current.  Help is not coming.

I am going to drown.

Ginny has a similar revelation.  She also cannot continue to hold on and will be swept away soon.  I can see the fear in her eyes.  She can see it in mine.

I do not remember my head going underwater, but my sunglasses are ripped off of my face.  They too disappear.

“Can we climb up the tree?” Ginny asks.  It’s a good idea, but just as impossible as every other option.  We cannot even move; we are held in place, still struggling.  To climb straight up out of the water onto the branch would require pulling ourselves up with our arms, and we can’t let go of the tree to try.

And then miraculously, over the course of just 10 seconds, the water drops just a bit.  The surge of the water released from the dam is slowing some.   It has loosened its grip on us, just a bit.  It is the difference we need.

I am able to release my grip on the tree long enough to reposition my left hand, and I pull myself over to the end of the horizontal branch where Ginny is.  At the same time, she is able to move around behind the tree, where she can hook her elbow around the “4” branch, which gives her some leverage to hold on.

Just as suddenly as it fell, the water begins to rise again and picks up speed.  We are still in grave danger, but in a better spot.  I am no longer at risk of being dragged below the tree branch, but we still have the debris downriver to contend with.  It is impossible to get out of the water here; even if we can get to the bank, it rises straight up about six feet.

I carefully work my way around behind Ginny, while she clings as hard as she can to the tree, her elbow still wrapped around the upright branch.  I’m now another step closer to the bank.  A small, mostly rotten stub of a branch juts out towards the bank, and I grab this and try again to get my feet down on the bottom.  The riverbed feels as if it is covered with smooth, flat, grapefruit-sized stones, loosely stacked upon each other.

I am able to finally get some tentative footing here, largely because I am closer to the bank and behind the tree, where the current isn’t as swift.  Still, the water presses against me, and the smooth stones under my feet slide against each other as I try to stand on them.

The branch I am steadying myself with suddenly snaps off in my hand, and my feet began to slip, unable to hold against the water and unsteady on loose river rocks below.  I’m going to drift away back into the stronger current.

“Ginny, catch me,” I say matter of factly, and somehow she is able to do so.  Her right elbow hooked around the branch, she is able to let go with her left hand.  She reaches it out to me and I grab her.  It gives me just enough stability to stay where I am.

At this point, my thoughts flash to Alexis, who is obviously long gone by now.  I envision her drifting down the river, in tears, unable to stop or fight the current to get back our way.  At least Zach will be with her, if he’s gotten back up on his boat.

Now I am able to step to my right, towards the left bank.  The current is much calmer here, just 12 inches away from where I’d been.  I am able to stand on my own, without support, though it is still difficult.

At this point, someone calls to us from above, “Hey, did you guys lose your boats?”

I can’t figure out how someone has been able to see us from the shore, but I am glad there is help nearby.  It takes a moment for me to realize that the voice is Zach’s.  He has managed to right his kayak and get back aboard, then paddle across the river, where he’s gotten out someplace above us.  I am relieved to know that he is okay, but I am quickly horrified to think that Alexis must surely be alone, headed downstream, frightened, and unable to paddle back.

Zach wants to try to get down to us, but the bank is much too steep.  He goes downriver to look for access and returns a moment later to tell us that we can get up the bank just down stream, beyond the fallen tree ahead of us.

“Okay, babe, you’ve going to have to come to me now,” I tell Ginny.  We have to get into calmer water, or our strength is going to run out.

Ginny, sizing up the situation, responds “You go ahead, and I’ll come later.”

I consider that for a second.  Could I get more secure footing, then have her let go and catch her as she drifts by?  It is too dangerous, too risky.  What if I miss her?  What if I catch her, but slip and we both float away?

“No babe, you’ve got to come with me,” I tell her.  “Push off towards the bank and hold on to me.”

To her credit and despite her fear she does exactly this, and we are both able to get our feet beneath us.  The closer we get to the vertical wall of the riverbank, the smoother the water is.  We work our way downriver to the tree that we had been afraid of being caught in, and are able to duck underneath its trunk.  The tree is concealing a steeply sloped shore.  Zach is there at top.

“Where’s Alexis?!” I shout.  I am panicked.  It has suddenly occurred to me that she might not just be alone on the river, but she might be in trouble like us.

“I don’t know,” Zach tells me.  “I was behind you, and I didn’t see her.”

Of course.  I realize he is right.  I have no idea what I’m going to do now to find her.

“Alexis, we are okay!” I yell as loudly as I can, trying to think positively.  I want her to be calm on the water.  I don’t get a response.  She is surely a long way away by now … or unable to answer.  I have to get out of the water!  I have to find her!  I call again, but again there is no response.

I try to climb up the sloped shoreline, but it is sandy and steep.  I can’t get my feet up out of the water, because there is nothing to hold on to.  What little grass that is there is easily uprooted as I grab it.

Zach disappears again for a moment and returns with his paddle.  It is long enough to reach down to me, and I grab it and pull myself up.  At 235 pounds, I am afraid I’ll pull Zach in, so I don’t put my full weight on it.  Ginny puts her hand on my rump and pushes, and Zach pulls and I pull and I am finally able to get up on the shore.  The past 10 minutes feel like they’ve passed in 10 hours.  I turn to reach for Ginny.  Zach says “No, I’ve got her,” and I am glad for that.  I don’t have much strength left, and I need to find Alexis quickly.

At the top of the bank, I start to head downriver.  Ginny is now out of the water.  My heart is pounding, and I think to myself that it would be a hell of a thing to survive a drowning only to die of a heart attack.

Alexis, often my timid child, has been nervous about kayaking today.  All day she has been reluctant to be out in front of everyone, and has pretty quickly learned to control her kayak well so as to remain in the middle of the group.  “I think I like this better than tubing!” she tells me just before the incident.  I hope that she has been calm enough to survive on her own.

My cell phone is sealed in a waterproof pouch and looped over my neck, and luckily it is still with me and dry.  I head through a field of milkweed and try to dial 911 as I frantically look for my little girl downriver.

“ALEXIS!” I call again.  This time a sweet, sweet voice responds.

“I’m here!”

I cry now for the first time, as I write this.  What a relief it was that she was okay.

I reach the other side of the field, and there she is, safe.  She has paddled her way to the shore, and found a gently sloping bank where she beached her kayak and climbed out.  She had seen our lost kayaks go by, and she tried to catch a loose paddle but couldn’t quite reach it.

She had also heard my calls to her, the shouts I made when I thought she must be far away.  She had answered me each time, but the churning water between us had drowned out her voice.  She had decided that she should wait for us where she was, rather than try to come to us on land and miss us going by in the water, a good decision.

I am quite proud of my girl.  In moments she has grown up and developed a cool and logical head.  She has handled herself perfectly, all alone.  She has used her head, and not let her emotions get the best of her.

We return to where the others are standing, Zach holding his mother while she cries, a cry of relief.  “Thank you for not leaving me,” she tells me, and it moves me deeply.

We call the kayaking company.  They are annoyed that we have lost our kayaks, and tell us to watch out for them, that they will be coming in a three person boat to ferry us downstream to find the lost boats.

Ginny throws her hands up and shakes her head violently.  “I don’t think you’re going to get my wife in another kayak,” I say.  What I don’t say is that there’s no way I’m getting back in one either, not on this river.  An hour later, a van arrives, and we are returned to our starting point.

In all, we’ve lost a pair of shoes, a shirt, an iPhone, four lunches, our rented cooler, two kayaks, two paddles, and two pairs of sunglasses.  We are lucky that this is all we’ve lost.  I expect to have to pay for the lost equipment, but by the time we get back to our car, someone has called and reported finding the missing boats.

We can talk of little else for the rest of the day, both discussing seriously what has happened and and joking about it because we need to laugh.

I am moved by the thought that it was not our time to go.  We were cared for, protected, and I have to acknowledge this fact.  I was tiny and powerless in the grasp of that river, and yet I made it out alive, my family with me, not because of any skill or ability I had, but because the river subsided at just the right moment.

Life is a gift.  It is not earned, not deserved, not manufactured.  Every moment is precious and irreplaceable.

I’m fortunate to get that reminder.

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