It was a perfect storm of white water physics, the raft bumping and tilting at just the right moment as I reached out to dig my paddle in hard, right at the seam where the water was raging. The river grabbed my paddle and I was air-born, falling towards the worst possible part of the aptly named rapid, "The Ledge."
I landed in the heart of the boiling water and was immediately sucked down, my PFD offering no resistance in the aerated swift water. I had not gotten a full breath and gulped a good amount of water. My paddle was ripped from my hands and I felt myself going down, tumbling across the submerged boulders. My thoughts were surprisingly lucid, "my vest isn't working, I hope I don't get caught on anything down here, I need to relax, conserve my air until I hit green water and my PFD brings me up." I was down a long time, as white water swims go. My crew was worried, they were counting, waiting for my helmeted head to pop up. At last the river let go of me and I popped up facing the boat, gasping for air. "Mer, over here!" Dave yelled, and I could hear he was stressed. He stuck out a paddle for me to grab and I ignored it, swimming to the raft and grabbing the handle. Dave reached down and grabbed the shoulder straps of my PFD and started to haul me up....I was dead weight, I had nothing to give to help. Dave heaved again and I was on board, relieved, coughing violently, spitting water and phlegm, trying to correct the forced swim induced hypoxia, trying not to vomit from all the water I had gulped and choked on.
Dave kept asking me if I was ok but I did not want to use any air or energy to answer him. I nodded and held up my hand and I think he finally understood, putting his hand on my knee to calm me, waiting till I could talk. When I recovered my breath I reassured everyone that I was ok and stumbled back to my seat in the front of the raft. We all sorta debriefed on what had happened, me trying to appear good natured about it all for Webster's sake, a 15 year old nervous first time rafter. I think he was pretty freaked out seeing me pulled under for so long and then spit out, coughing and stressed. But such is life when you mess with water, fast water that simply obeys the laws of physics and can't tend to the vulnerabilities of thrill seeking humans. As Dave would say later that day, "it's a numbers game, you can do a run 100 or 1000 times without a hitch and then one day things go terribly wrong."
But my dramatic swim had a happy ending, a perfect recovery by Dave and crew, I was healthy with only a few bumps and scrapes and an adrenaline induced case of the shakes. But this same Sunday afternoon, 37 year old Susan K. wasn't as lucky.
Dave was strapping kayaks to his trailer when I walked up to hug him goodbye, wish him happy 50th b-day one more time. But he looked up grim faced and said he was just informed there was a kayaker pinned, down stream on the Tobin run. Dave is the west coast coordinator for American Whitewater and is an extremely experienced boater, trained in swift water rescue. I asked something about rescue efforts and Dave shook his head, "I think it's a recovery at this point." I sighed and said I was holding out hope until a fatality was confirmed. I jumped in my truck and headed down the canyon, pensive, trying to muster hope. A siren screamed by as EMS rushed ahead to the scene. Shit. A few minutes later I was passing the location, fire and rescue trucks pulled over on the side of the highway that parallels the river. As I drove past I scrutinized the faces of the boaters walking along the highway...their expressions intimated the situation.
I headed west to have dinner with a friend in Chico. I vented my concerns about the kayaker and my own scary swim off The Ledge. The company was a nice distraction but when I got back in my truck for the 2+ hour long drive to Auburn for the night, all I could think about was that kayaker. Did he/she die? Or did they get him/her out and revive him/her. I called Dave thinking he was probably out of the Canyon, back on cell service. I left a supportive message, asking him to call back only if he was up to it, knowing I would see him at a meeting on Monday. He didn't call.
Early Monday morning my cell rang and it was Dave. He quickly offered, "It wasn't good Mer." He had gotten there minutes after I passed the scene, had helped with the extraction of the body. "It made no sense, Mer, where she was, how she got trapped...there was nothing there." She was in an inflatable kayak, had come through a Class III rapid, got bumped from her boat but was out of the rapid, in calm water. She held onto her paddle and that appears to have have contributed to her entrapment. Nearby boaters acted quickly, smartly, a guy with a rescue jacket on, rescue rope secured to him, wading out to pull her out. They struggled for 30 minutes, desperately doing all they could to free her. Finally, they got her paddle out and then she floated free. They did CPR for more than 30 minutes...as Dave said, "it's easy to start CPR, it's almost impossible to stop." The medics arrived and worked on her some more, but it was all in vain...after 30 minutes in not-too-cold water, you're dead. You're gone. There's no getting you back. Dave helped them get Susan's body out of the canyon...everyone in shock and disbelief, maybe slightly relieved that on this day it was not them who the river had claimed.
At our meeting, Dave and I talked more at a break and he shared how difficult it was to talk with his 12 year old daughter who was in their truck, waiting for her dad to come out of the river with a dead body, a dead kayaker. Kayaking is something Dave and his family do all the time. Dave again said to me, "it's a numbers game, you play the odds, but sometimes you lose." He likened this tragedy to walking down a street and a tree branch falls on you and kills you. You can't prevent it, can't plan for it, shit happens. This woman was not in a rapid, she was in a place that looked safe, benign, but she was dead and those left behind need to make sense of it. Maybe they need to make the story be so random, so distant so they can dare to get back into a raft or a kayak again....even though we all know that if we do, the North Fork Feather might claim any one of us on some Sunday yet to come.
My thoughts are with the friends and family of Susan and all those who desperately tried to save her life.