This past weekend I took a trip up to Maine to go rafting on the Penobscott River at Canada Falls.
I was slightly nervous, which is natural when you do something completely new and different. I’d never rafted before, but I was with all people who’d been rafting before, some of them pretty experienced (one of the guests actually a guide himself). I’d said to one of my friends jokingly, “You won’t let me die, right?” and he retorted, also joking, “Of course not. I might throw you in, but you won’t die.”
The first trip down was fun and perfect. I didn’t fall out. We had a few fall-ins, but they were brief little splashes, barely out of the boat and accompanied by laughs. Really, it was more just one guy falling out over and over, earning himself the title of “Butter Butt”. We jokingly named the rapids, “Smiley faces 1-4”, “Frowny-face”, “Frowny-face With a Tear”, “Pinball”, etc. The guide told stories and jokingly talked shit about the other raft and guide.
“There was this one woman who was like, no joke, three-hundred pounds. I told her strait to her face, because I was serious, if she fell in with what she weighed she’d probably die. I expected to balk, but she said with a big laugh and smile, ‘Oh, no, that’s fine.’ She was a sweet lady. She didn’t die.”
“There was this one guy who informed me at the start of the trip in a deep, firm voice that he ‘was not to going to get wet’ and it was my responsibility to see this through. I don’t know why he didn’t like to get wet or how he thought I was going to stop this from happening on a whitewater rafting trip. It actually went okay for most of the trip. Then we got to a place I figured he might get wet and warned him that sometimes rafts flip on this part. I had not flipped all season, so guess what happened? After flipping I came up under the raft and stayed there for a moment thinking how much I didn’t want to face this guy. Once I got my resolve back, I popped out looked for him, and pulled him up onto the raft, figuring if I got him on the raft first, maybe I didn’t have to kiss my whole tip goodbye. I asked him “Ya all right? Ya all right?” and he responded, “That. Was. Not. What. I. Wanted,” and that was the last time we spoke.”
We laughed and smiled like idiots the whole way down.
We put in, had a snack, and drove back to the landing to go again.
“Some guests will believe anything. One time after snack people asked if they should put their wetsuits on. I replied in a serious voice, “Oh, yeah. The water drops like thirty to forty degrees in under an hour this time of day.” I told them it was because of these underground springs in the river and they ate it up. By the time they were ready to suit up I decided I should probably tell them the truth and not let them die of heat stroke.”
The run was going well until we hit a rapid wrong. I knew we hit it wrong not because of the look, feel, angle of approach, etc. I could tell by the sudden amount of ‘oh-shit’ was in the voice of the guide as he yelled out commands. I held on, was jerked on way, another, and then fell victim to the sudden vertical nature of the raft. I knew I was going in, and even though I didn’t want to, I was okay with that. Next thing I knew I was under the water upside-down and my right foot was caught on something. I pulled once and nothing.
I knew no one could see or help me.
I pulled a second time.
That isn’t going anywhere.
So this is how it ends.
I wasn’t scared, just a little sad. I’m not done yet. I have a lot left to do, a lot left unfinished. I’m not quite ready.
This isn’t to say I gave up, I kept tugging, but abandoned the idea of getting the water-shoe free at some point. Somehow I eventually slipped my foot out of that shoe entirely.
I was free, but no where near in the clear. I stared going downstream fast and I was still under the water. I knew I needed to lean back, let my life jacket take me up but as the rocks came by, I felt like I wasn’t going up at all, just forward.
I don’t know how I was able to hold my breath so well. I don’t even go under water and swim without pinching my nose.
Finally I broke the surface and gulped air- but I couldn’t much. I needed to cough out all the water so I made myself slow down. Years of meditation breathing helped, but I was told later that I still looked like I was in full freak-out mode. The raft I’d fallen out of was nowhere in sight, but I heard yelling, turned around, and the current was taking me right into a paddle being held out from the other raft. I grabbed it and no less than three sets of hands pulled me into the center of the raft.
I sat there and breathed. I was surprised to be there. I was thankful to be there. I was trying hard not to hyperventilate. I soon realized I needed to still treat this like a rafting trip and hold the fuck on.
At some point I realized my Boy was there. He had been in the other raft, but it’s hard to stay in vertical things.
We stopped at a bank and waited for our raft. I was asked how I was doing. I was asked if I was okay. I honestly had no idea. I wasn’t dying anymore. That was huge. Then I realized my ankle that had been caught was probably sprained, though I admit it was registering as pretty insignificant, inexact, and far away. I was alive, after all, and did what just happened really happen? My whole leg hurt, but the exacts of a lot of details were coming through at their own snails pace. I realized my helmet was gone only when it was pointed out to me and I was given another. My hat was gone. My paddle was gone.
Someone handed me my shoe. How the hell did they find my water shoe? The insert for my high arches was even still in there.
I tried hard not to show any hard feelings to it as I put it back on.
Now, this isn’t like the movies or TV. A helicopter doesn’t come in and take you away even after you or someone else realizes you’re hurt and freaked. You continue down the river.
The Boy and I went back into our own raft. Two of us had no paddles. We had a few more higher class rapids to go, one notable big one. I was trying not to shake or cry or introvert completely inward away from my surroundings.
The same friend who’d jokingly talked about throwing me in now looked at me with the extreme worried “I’m so fucking sorry” look and comforted me.
I don’t know why this happens with boyfriends, but like moth to a flame, The Boy punctuated his concern and comforting with pats to the knee of the leg that was hurt. That’s when I started to realize the knee was worse off than the ankle.
So I went in and out of calm. Everyone was joking and smiling and getting a bit of a smile back on my own face.
Then we hit another rapid the wrong way. I was pushed into the raft and lost my grip on the rope, but hell if I was getting thrown in again (which I think I said aloud). I grabbed the rope again and get back to where I should be, at the edge with my paddle.
The guide was gone. The guest who was also a guide was gone. We pulled in one more person who fell, and there we were, four of us with paddles, two without, no guides for advice, and no steering (the guides steer at the back). The guides were far away, off to the side towards the opposite bank, when they come up. To add to matters, we were going the wrong way very, very quickly.
A few of us yelled ‘all back’ and were going all back to slow down best we could. ‘Throw in Friend’ meanwhile turned us sideways pushing on a rock by the shore, jamming us on a rock so we couldn’t move. We were far from the guides, but we were somewhere they could get to that wasn’t going to move. Also, a guide from the other raft (also had an additional guide on their’s) came and joined us via the shore. He calmed us down, praised us, and waited for the guides to make their way to us, which they did through the water. With our guide, I’m sure it was the experience that got him to our raft, our guest guide was much newer, but still got to us as skillfully.
They got as close as they could. We were still in the rapid, falls left to go. We were actually wedged in one. They were on a big rock we’d pass by once we were free. This was as close as they could get without being people in barrels going over the falls (without the barrels).
Our new guide told us the plan, to shove off when he said so. He yelled for the guides to then jump in the raft as it went by. It sounded like something that would only work a movie, not a real plan. I had no paddle to help, but as we went by them, I moved up and pushed The Boy up knowing when they were pulled in they’d need somewhere to go fast to get situated for the next rapid which was right there.
If they had not gotten in the raft before that, it would have been bad. Later I was told that we somehow did the exact right thing. I was the only n00b to rafting there, the others were experienced enough (or lucky enough, or both) to get us where we needed to be.
As much as an unlucky trip this sounds, in many ways we were exceedingly lucky.
Back at camp, there was no conscious decision that needed to be made: we were going to do some drinking after that adventure. We were rested from the couple hour ride, we showered, ate, and then prepared to drink.
Apparently you don’t need to buy yourself drinks when you almost die.
When this happens, people who didn’t think that they were going to die will be over-nice to you. However, some will be too completely too taken in their own adventure to pay yours mind. Apparently some people will feel damn one-upped.
“You almost died? When I fell out of the raft, I could have kept going and went down that falls,” argued the guest who was also a guide. While drinking, ‘my almost death is better than your almost death’ seems like a logical discussion point.
“Dude, you’ve got training! What did I have? Instinct? I literally had resigned to dying. You said so yourself, you knew exactly what you had to do and had not to do to get out of this. Me? I said, ‘My foot is stuck, I’m fucked.’ I had no idea what to do.”
“Well, yeah you did. You get yourself uncaught!”
“Yeah, I didn’t know how. Now I know why you guys have the fancy knives on your life jackets.”
Meanwhile, our guide blamed himself for the whole thing. He brought me ice and I tried to tell him it wasn’t his fault. Apparently I was the first accident form he’d ever had to fill out in his three years if being a raft guide. He had always wanted to be a guide, hung out around this place since he was much younger, and became one as soon as he could. He had just turned twenty-one which shocked me.
“I never thought I’d have to fill one out. I always thought I wasn’t going to be one of those guides.”
I told him that’s why they were called accident forms. It was an accident. I told him I had a great time up to that point, and I really did. I’d go rafting again. I have another trip planned that hopefully the injury won’t interfere with, but it seems like it will.
“You are now a guide,” he told me several drinks later.
“Really? You know, that was my first time rafting.”
“I don’t care! Anyone that goes through that and comes through and is coming back… If you were taking the test right now, I’d sign off on it.”
Sure, I’ll be an unofficial guide. Honestly, I don’t know that I’d ever want to actually be one. That’s a lot of responsibility. It’s also a lot of trust, that those in the raft will do what you say, do it well, help each other, not freak out, and remember to do every tip you’re told. You have to be calm yourself, full of authority, and have enough of a charm and soft touch to calm people down, make them feel like a team, and lead them to lead themselves.
He was a great guide. I don’t blame him by any means.
Canada Falls is a recently opened, so the guides don’t (and can’t) know it as well as the other trips (since no one yet does). Even once they do know it well, it’s a technical, steep and aggressive part of the river. I knew that it had Class V whitewater rapids before I went. I’m hardcore, but so is that trip. I kicked ass, but only about as much as my ass was kicked.
My knee it turns out is sprained pretty badly. I have physical therapy next Wednesday and I should know more after my first appointment. The estimate given by the doctor is that I can expect to go back to Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu end of August or, more likely, the beginning of September. I was getting close to my six month mark, when your body is supposed to start to wake up to Jiu-Jitsu (as the owner of the school says). I was starting to feel that, but now there is this setback. It looks like as The Boy goes off the injury list soon, I’m joining it.
I’m not at all regretting the trip. Life is for living, friends. The living part involves calculated risks. With them you’ll get more from life, I think, and your last moments will be filled with less regrets. Carpe diem and goodnight.