A Lesson in White Water Humility

Sunday, May 18, 1997

It started simply enough. It was to be a white water trip down the Green River. There was a section with Class 2’s and 3’s, and another section with 3’s and 4’s. I was under the impression that I could safely do a class III, but a IV was pushing my limit of safety and sanity.

So we get on the water, and we’re doing the latter section. Never mind that the newspapers had just printed a front page article about raft-guides calling off trips because there was just too much water… I was with three other professionals. Never mind that I had not been in a boat in the last year – I just bought my very own Kayak. Never mind that the water was glacier fed and Ice-cold – I had a dry top on.

I remembered Kayaking with my younger brother last year. I was having a blast, and so was he, except that he was more over his head than I was. I tried to encourage him, but bailing out of the boat a few times has a funny way of draining away most of your ego and turning your thoughts to a nice walk.

So that’s where I was on this river. My companions told me the water was mostly Class-III, but either they were wrong, I was out of practice, or they classify rapids differently out here. Maybe all of the above. All I know is that there was a LOT of water, moving very fast, few eddies to pull into, and a big red sign hanging from the rocks: "DANGER – Continuous rapids ahead. Only expert boaters beyond this point!"

So far, I had been reasonably OK. I had already flipped twice, but managed to come back up. Adrenaline was quite high, but as the water got bigger, I became more and more timid. We passed the sign, and all of the sudden I felt very small. From my lowly spot inside my boat, the waves looked like mountains. I could see them ahead as I climbed the crest of one wave, then watched it get all the more ominous as I sank to the trough at its base. "DOWNSTREAM! — KEEP YOUR NOSE DOWNSTREAM, I told myself. Something that big taken from the side would spin me around so fast I’d end up somewhere inside of yesterday.

I paddled as hard as I could, but half way through any stroke and the river dynamics had completely changed. It was all I could do to keep breathing. Instead, I found I was gasping in a series of tiny gulps. I wanted desperately to scream, but my lungs refused to expel the air – perhaps knowing that at any moment I could be an under-water face plant, exploring the river bottom like Jacque Custeau.

And then it happened – with no recollection of how, I was now under water. My paddle was clenched in my hands, and I still had wits enough to try a roll, but I could not set up properly. The water on my face was brutally cold, and I was being tossed around from the bottom of a craft meant to float on the other side. I pushed and shoved my paddle to the side, but the current was just too strong. I decided to wait a while, and actually managed to count to three before trying again, hoping that I would have washed out of the worst of it.

No such luck. I tried my roll one last time, failed miserably, then set off my internal alarms: EJECT!! EJECT!! Reaching forward, I popped the handle on my spray skirt and headed for what should have been the front of my boat. Now completely out of the kayak, I swam for the surface, but it somehow seemed very far away. Surprisingly, I still had hold of my paddle as I broke the surface of the water alongside my boat. However, the danger was not yet over. I was still in the middle of this massive wave train, struggling to stay on the upstream side of the boat as it spun round and round in the current.

Though I know I only swam between 5 and 10 waves, it seamed like a quarter mile at that speed. My comrades where already in place helping me out – pushing my boat towards the river bank like dolphins trying to beach an injured whale. With the current as strong as it was, it took all three of them and my kicking as hard as I could to reach the shore.

I should have left the river back at the sign, but I didn’t, and now we were deep inside a gorge with steeply sloping banks. "It’s going to get considerably worse," one of them told me. It was about that time when I started thinking about the joys of a nice walk. I had been humbled by the Class-III’s, and knew that there were a series of IV’s coming up. So that left me with the choice of an uncertain future down this river bed, or a hellaceous bush whack uphill with a 40 pound, 10 foot boat. I chose to climb the hill, and was blessed with the opportunity to tell about it. It’s never too late to back out.


Copyright (C), 1998, by Ashley Guberman

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