Lessons learned the wet way
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
It’s not if you’re going to swim.
It’s when you’re going to swim.
Those words have drifted from many an experienced rafter’s mouth. Take heed, as these are words of wisdom that speak worlds of truth. I found this out early enough as a newbie to the West. I popped off the front of a raft, right into the Colorado River in Westwater Canyon. Luckily the swim was quick and high above the intimidating Skull rapid. But I was as scared as an olive about to be skewered and immersed in a gin martini. Impromptu swimming lessons in cold river water can do that.
Mother Nature is quite the teacher.
At the time, I was still fairly green to rafting. Camping, hiking and answering nature’s call in an old ammunition box – aptly named “The Groover” for the sexy marks left on your bum – were all pretty new to me, too. Flash forward about six years, and I’m still learning lessons about the river.
And life in general.
Even when it’s not high water, a day on the river doesn’t always end up as expected. Boats flip. People swim. But for the most part – especially on Mother Nature’s calmer river sections – they don’t. Many factors come into play. There are Class V rapid-filled excursions and there are nice-and-easy float trips. Having experienced rafters on board and knowing what lies ahead never hurts. And don’t forget those nifty PFDs (personal flotation devices, aka life jackets, for nonriver folk).
They really are life savers.
This reminder smacked me in the face and called me Sally during a recent raft trip through Glenwood Canyon. We put in at Grizzly Creek, planning to take out at Two River Park. Sounds easy enough, right? Kendra, Dane and I weren’t exactly expecting our fate as we slipped our feet in the foot holders and pushed off for what we thought would be a fairly uneventful ride. Luckily we had two other oared boats in our group, so we had back-up. In the end, that was the best move we could ever make, second to wearing our PFDs.
All remember kids, there’s safety in numbers.
All was fine until about 15-20 minutes in, about the time we hit Maintenance rapid. I was warned it was a big one when I had stopped by Whitewater Rafting earlier in the day to pick up paddles. We thought we had it and went in hot, digging hard. But the boat had lost some air, and it began to taco. Next thing we know we lost our captain off the back. Kendra and I gave all the girl power we had but the boat went highside and flipped.
We’ve got swimmers.
This kind of carnage is best described as a yard sale, with all the items in the boat – including me, Kendra and Dane, a couple of paddles and some beer that had not been properly secured – going for a dip.
I’m embarrassed to say the combination of fear, cold, cold water and big waves sent me into a bit of shock. I kind of panicked, breathing in so hard I was making a sound that’s best described as a suffocating elephant. Actually, I have no idea what a suffocating elephant sounds like, but I was loud.
Kendra must have been in a different kind of shock as I heard her scream, “Our beer!”
Mostly I thought I was going to die.
It was every man, woman and paddle for themselves as Dane almost made it back to the boat. I was swimming hard at first and panicking, imagining what my mom would think if I drowned.
Something tells me she would probably not be so happy.
I was having trouble making it to the side, so I pictured myself floating on down the river, feet forward as I’ve always been taught, trying to keep my head above water. Thankfully I calmed down and felt myself naturally eddy out to a spot along the shore. Once there, I grabbed a rock and held on until I could catch my breath. I saw Kendra a few yards downstream from me, a trooper with her paddle still in hand. I couldn’t even recall the moment I let my paddle go, knowing I had failed miserably in that department.
Always keep your paddle. If you lose it, the ride down later can be pretty difficult.
Kendra wasn’t sure if she had died and gone to heaven. When she was still in the water, she spotted a woman with beautiful white hair like my mother along the bike path, checking to see if we were OK.
“Am I alive?” she wondered, still in a bit of shock. “And what is April’s mom doing here?”
We were mostly embarrassed. And glad my mom’s twin wasn’t holding a video camera.
We caught up with Dane and the boat with our new best friends, George and Wendy, who successfully followed us into the rapid and saw the whole hot mess. They made sure we were OK, then we deflated The Piehole – renamed The River Chicken after flipping on our maiden voyage – and put it on the back of their catamaran raft. They took us on down to the No Name eddy where we reunited with our remaining soldiers (the floating beers), the rest of the paddles and the Mountain Beverage crew in front of us who collected it all.
We came out unscathed, besides a few curious bruises, tired arms and ears full of water.
Later I heard from a friend and Whitewater raft guide who heard we flipped.
Nothing’s secret in little ol’ Glenwood Springs.
“We [meaning Whitewater raft guides] don’t hit it between 7,000-8,500 cfs [cubic feet per second],” Caleb said, in a Facebook instant message.
“We thought we could take it,” I replied.
“Wow, I didn’t check yesterday … But it’s 8,300 right now so probably pretty close to that! … Famous last words, ‘We thought we could take it!'” he joked.
I’m just glad those weren’t my last.
And I don’t plan to swim again any time soon.
April E. Clark broke the flip news to her mother and she simply replied, “April, you are crazy.” Dian translation: “Please never go rafting again.” April can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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