Stories of Past that Make the Present
With finals week curb stomping my outdoor enthusiasm and condemning me to my homemade corner desk, I have nothing to entertain the masses (all 11 of you). I was avoiding staring at professor’s slides earlier by reminiscing on times in my life where I feared I would die (I don’t know if I’m just unlucky, or dumb, but it’s happened a few times more than a few times). When I was in high school, I lived in a small town in southern Alabama. Outdoor endeavors were few and far between, and usually consisted of a truck in mud or a gun in hand. Although I love hunting, I needed more activities to consume my life than just walking through the woods looking for deer that weren’t there.
I saved up money from my part time tree surgeon job and bought a super cheap 9.5 foot kayak that looked ridiculous on my ’93 Jetta. I spent my free-time paddling different stretches of the Choctawhatchee and Pea rivers in the surrounding area. I saw 5 foot gar, giant snakes, logs that looked like alligators, tons of cool birds and got my fix for adventure. Eventually, as most things do with me, it became unfulfilling. One 9 mile stretch of the Pea river had about 7 rapids spaced out between long, boring still sections. However, in early January to late February, the wet season, the river would rise 5 feet at the least and would rage through its constricting banks.
On my first journey down during flood time, I had one of those times where death wasn’t as far away as I wanted.
My kayak had a gigantic opening (remember, it’s cheap). It was not very responsive and sat really low in the water. I had a nylon spray skirt, which was barely good enough to keep a light drizzle out, a dry bag which I had strategically packed with the necessary survival gear, and a PFD which normally stayed strapped on by a bungee to the back, but I decided to wear it today.
I rounded the corner to the best rapid of the whole stretch, a class II normally, but today a IV as the flood crashed through the tiny chute like I’d never seen it before. My adrenaline surged as I back paddled above the chute for a moment to compose a game plan. I pointed my bow into the center of the chute as it sucked me into the whitewash. I could feel my eyes bulge as the first 5 foot wave lurched me upwards crashing water down around me. I crested the wave with a joyous yelp and my bow slammed down into the next wave throwing water over my head. I could feel the water filling my kayak but kept pressing hard on my left backpaddle, turning my nose hard left with the curve of the chute. I was spit out into the eddy at the base of the rapid and I screamed in elation, pure excitement escaped my mouth. I laughed in the face of the rapid, shaking all over from the adrenaline surging through my veins.
Of course, it wasn’t enough.
There are no other rapids as big as this one for the rest of the stretch, and I wanted at this one again. There was really no way to portage around the rapid to get back up to the topside, so I devised a plan to paddle back to the top. With the water being so high, there was an area to the left of the main chute where the water was moving slower through the constriction, it would be a stretch but I felt that if I really dug in hard I could make it back up.
My shoulders burned as I swung the paddle back and forth like a dragonfly’s wings. I dug in hard with every dip but my endurance, or lack thereof, won in the end and I couldn’t muster the strength to keep digging. To my right was a rock so I had to dig in with a hard left backpaddle to spin left back into the chute, but I had to get turned fast enough to not hit the first break sideways. It wouldn’t be a good story if I had banked hard enough.
I smacked the first wave break completely sideways and had no chance, the kayak flipped with ease and I could feel the freezing cold water suck me downwards out of the kayak. I kicked hard against rocks as I bounced around under the water trying to get to the surface. Even with the PFD, surfacing seemed to be taking forever, finally I emerged in the whitewash and frantically searched for my capsized vessel. I spotted the blue underbelly just ahead of me, it was sitting dangerously low in the water and sinking fast. By the time I got to my kayak, it was nearly half full of water, but all of it’s contents were still inside. I had to form an L-shape with my body and cradle the kayak in the upright position to keep it from rolling and sinking.
I drifted downstream frantically searching for a spit to swim to. I crashed into the next rapid, struggling hard to keep the kayak upright, inevitably failing as I got sucked under once again. This time, I smacked a rock hard and stuck to it. The force of the water pounding at my back pinned me against the rock and I couldn’t get my feet up to push off. My arms strained as hard as my lungs while I tried to push against the force of the river. It’s weird the thoughts you think of when you think of death. I remember thinking of my mom and how pissed she was going to be if I was late for dinner.
Finally I found a knob on the top of the rock and dragged my weight upwards until the river was able to push me over the rock and my PFD lurched me back to the surface and I did the signature loud gasp for air right at the last second. This time, I couldn’t see my kayak anywhere. I floated downstream still not able to reach the edge when I spotted the kayak pinned sideways against a log, barely above the surface. My emergency kit was still inside when I managed to kick the kayak around the log. I cradled her once again and we began floating downstream. We were spit out into a still section where I was able to limp the kayak to the shore.
I was beat up, bleeding from my knees, scrapes on my hands and some bruised thighs. It was about 40 degrees out and the water was freezing. The wet clothes on my body lowered my body temperature quickly as I huddled over some petroleum soaked cotton balls, desperately trying to start a fire. Once I got a fire going I ripped the soaked clothing from my shivering body and stood butt naked on the bank of the Pea river, holding my clothes over the fire with a tree branch. Laughing seemed like the only thing that allowed me to make sense of the whole experience. I was an idiot, and my mom WAS pissed that I was late for dinner, until I told her my story.
Oh the naivete of youth and inexperience.