I felt a clunk and then my momentum abruptly came to a stop. The water around me kept moving and I suddenly became very aware of the sound I was hearing. Sssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh is what it sounded like. Kind of a silent and soothing shhhhhh. But I was not in a position to be soothed.
Taking stock of my situation took much less than one second, but it’s amazing how many thoughts can rapid fire through the brain in that time making it feel like much longer. Reaching my hands overhead, or downward really, I was relieved to find space to move my torso.
Rapid fire thoughts number 1-7: my body isn’t trapped, but my boat is, I’m in an undercut, no one can reach me because I’m on the cliffed-out river left side at the bottom of a rapid, this is going to be a self rescue, I have all the skills I need to do this, I have 60-90 seconds of air in my lungs under these conditions, and please don’t let my body get shoved further into an undercut once I’m free.
Feeling for the pull tab of my spray skirt my fingers found rock impinging the front portion of my deck. Rapid fire thought number 8, Victoria once got trapped in her boat and her pull tab broke off her skirt. She had to pull the skirt off from the side rails of the cockpit. Check and done. I’m pushing my body out of the overturned plugged kayak and now I’m free of my boat. But I’m not coming to the surface. Current is pushing me down the rock wall towards the bottom of the river. My fingernails are filling with diatomaceous algae as I scrape them against the wall in effort to claw my way to the surface. I am also traveling downstream. This is good.
Black water turned to green then to day light and I surfaced about 10 meters downstream from where my boat was just coming loose of the undercut. Bolting for the river right eddy, Lisa swooped in on her kayak and helped tow me aside.
My team was awesome at getting me reunited with my boat, which took a while, as it was harder to wrestle to the side of the narrow South Fork Gorge. I had to top out on the cliffs and climb downstream quite a ways.
Relieved there were only two more rapids to go, but dreading them at the same time, I had to pull my head together and be ready to charge. By the end of the second rapid my body started to shake and I could hardly keep my feet pressed against the bulkhead.
Yeah, it scared me. It scared the people I was with too. Phil’s GoPro was running the whole time. Watching the video of it days later was kind of like watching that scene in the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man where just listening to the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell getting eaten by a grizzly bear was more than enough. Voices shouting with fear and urgency. Thank god I couldn’t hear them. I was in my silent shhhhhhhh world focused on task at hand. The video revealed that I was actually underwater for less than 30 seconds.
It’s been a private obsession of mine to ask experienced boaters about the worst situations they’ve been in and how they got out of them. This is not a sick fascination. It’s an education. My brain has compiled all the situations I hear and some others that I dream up and processed how I would react to them. I also practice breath holding exercises during my swim workouts to ensure that I’m able to maximize my lung capacity for functional down time.
Yes, I’ll go do that run again, when my gut tells me it’s right. My gut was telling me not to do a second lap that day, it was my first time on the run and pushing my limits to move as fast as the crew who knew it well, but I went anyway, and I shouldn’t have. It’s my favorite river, the Smith, and I’ll never stay away from it.
The next day I ran the North Fork at high-ish levels and could feel how timid I had suddenly become. Even back home on Chamberlains, a friend observed that I seemed to not be my forward postured aggressive self on the water.
It’s gonna take a while, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I’ll just pay more attention to myself, my signs, what I’m ready for and how much of it. After all, the boof stork has just started to deliver and my timing, stroke and hip lift have been coming together to produce some great airs.
Just to be clear, this was one afternoon out of many over Thanksgiving week of boating up to my limit. I was boating quite well, and even with my head underwater, never did I think, “oh my god, I’m gonna die.” It was more like, “okay, here I am and I’ve got this.” So if the above story freaks you out, just know that if you’re one of those people who get in a car everyday, I am totally freaked out by what you do and I consider the danger in your life to far exceed what I choose to do for fun. That word right there is the operative: fun. I don’t do this because I’m thrill seeking or seeking danger. I do it because kayaking is so much fun that it lights me up and makes me who I am.