Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Rapid Mortality

              The water ran cold and swift on the south fork of the American River. Snow run-off from the Sierra Nevada Mountains made icy rapids that taunted us at the river’s edge. On a bright Saturday morning the river teamed with kayaks and rafts and was lined with spectators clinging to the rocks. People waded in calm pools along the river’s length and pelted their enemies with torrents of water squirted from toy guns. Photographers, perched high on the rocky banks, captured the battles between rafter and river on film to be sold to the survivors.
Image courtesy of PhotoBucket.com
As we carried the raft above our heads to the water’s edge I felt a curious sensation in the pit of my stomach. This was not my first trip on the white waters but for some reason that I couldn’t explain this time was different. There were eight of us in my raft including the guide, a robust young woman who in the off season worked as a rescue diver. I was hoping none of us would need her off season skills on this venture. I couldn’t help, though, reflecting on the waiver of liability for accidental death that the rafting company made us sign before departure, along with our sandwich choice for the mid-trip lunch they provide.
Having defeated rapid after rapid with such colorful names as “Hospital Bar” and “Barking Dog” there were only two left until total victory but they were near the end of the trip and we enjoyed calm waters for a while until then. The water was calm, the rafters were not. This was the time for war on the river. Water cannons of every size and configuration appeared and unleashed their fury. Arcs of water crisscrossed the sky in all directions. One boat even fired pre-loaded water balloons (How did they survive the rapids?). No one was safe. It was blissful chaos with every boat being its own navy attacking whomever was in range. And who knew the handle of an oar made a perfect grappling hook to snatch an opponent out of his battle ship by the straps of his life vest? I learned quickly not to squirt an experienced guide in the face (they generally leave the water play to the paying customers), and then turn your back on him. He hooked me like a trout and pulled me right off my raft before I knew what happened. Down but not out, I was rescued by my crew to fight again.
With the war over it was time to face the last of the rapids. I sat at the rear of the raft with the guide on my right. Because these last two rapids were small by comparison she decided to “swim” this one. I wasn’t sure what that meant until she leaned back and slipped out of the raft like a SCUBA diver. Unfortunately I was not prepared for the sudden increase in buoyancy on her side of the raft that made my side dip down and expel me backward into the water. When I realized what had happened I was upside down under water and out of breath. Without her guidance the raft veered left with the current and slammed into a boulder that breached the water’s surface. My watery world moved in slow motion. Stay calm. Think. Somehow I managed to right myself but I still had only a normal lung full of air not the deep breath you would take before plunging into the water. And before my life jacket could perform its duty I was also pinned to the boulder by the current with a raft full of people above me. I could see the surface which looked within reach and yet unreachable. I pawed my way across the bottom of the raft until I reached the edge and popped up above the water. The next thing I knew I was back inside the raft. A fellow crewman had hoisted me aboard much to my relief. I didn’t notice that I had lost my paddle until someone from the raft behind ours tossed it to me as they passed by laughing. The ordeal lasted only seconds but had it been any longer I would have started to see my life flash before me.
The current bent the raft into a horseshoe shape around the massive boulder. We could see our guide a little further down river on the bank. She floated past the rapid into calmer water and swam ashore. For eight inexperienced and guideless people stuck on a rock I think we did well to free ourselves. We conquered the rapid, rescued our guide, and proceeded to take on the next one.
The final challenge came into sight as we rounded a bend. Our guide assured us that this one would be a piece of cake compared to the others. She gave the “all ahead strong” command and we dug in hard with our paddles to approach at full speed. A bump, a crash, a splash and we’re all in the water. Once I surfaced (this seems familiar) the boat spins past me capsized. I hear gurgled screams and see people being carried down river out of control. This time I held on to my paddle and was able to use it to snag a rock and hang on. I see the others have also saved themselves. Our raft beached itself just past the rapid where we all eventually met up. Two more rafts behind us were also defeated by this usually weak rapid. It seems that conditions can change year to year so sometimes even the guides are caught off guard. We ended the trip with a mixed crew but we all survived.
White water rafting is one of the most exhilarating things I can think of doing. It can be like an all-day roller coaster ride that you have control over, somewhat. A truly exciting way to interact with nature and no two trips are ever the same.