Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Second Chance

Jack Cassada asked about a post where I mentioned I almost died on a whitewater rafting trip. Here's the story Jack (finally). Before you begin, know that I have the video to prove this story is not embellished.

It was July 2000. Another couple, (good friends of ours), my wife and I travelled to Maine once agian to check out the fast water. In 1999, we conquered the Kennebec River. Beyond a couple slips in the water, the last being on purpose. It was a great time. Our confidence through the clouds, we figured we were ready for the big water on this year. The Penobscot is not the most challenging whitewater but when you intentionally schedule your vacation during a big "Release" of water from the dam to the becomes shall we say a "challenging" ride.
So we emerge from our make shift "tarp-cabin" the 2nd morning and made our anxious way down to breakfast and then shuttle to the river. All of us were really amped for a fun ride. We broke into 4 teams of 6 and 5 Raft Guides started suiting up the paddlers.

I did say 6 teams right...oh yeah, about 15mins later, Hangover Harry waddled in. You see, when there is a big "Release", all the Raft Guide nut-jobs take off in the dark and compete to see how has the biggest cojones and braves "White Washer" by night. Should be illegal right? In a perverse way I think if a guide can bounce his/her butt off the rocky bottom of the Penobscot in pitch blackness then daytime should be a breeze... Anyway, they all must of had a great time and Harry (as I will call him --I do know his real name) clearly celebrated his courage by the fire all night long.

Back to the story, so...Harry asks us if any of us 6 (yes 2 strangers joined our shoddy crew) have rafted before. We all bobbed our heads up and down and the natural nerves of thrill morphed into natural nerves of fear as we prepared to be guided down the biggest river by the baddest drunk. Come on now, people pay for the thrill..we wore rafting jackets, if you fall out, you fall out...remember to keep your teeth together (keeps water out) feet up (keeps your foot from being pinned under a boulder or branch by 20,000 lbs of moving water.

So we drift out in a wide sprawl at the bottom half of the river and besides the guide falling in the water early himself. We had a fun morning. I think the splash did him good.

Break for lunch and grab the bus north to hit the Class 5 rapids now that we are warmed up. The guide "prepares" us for what is about to happen while we stare at our BBQ lunch.

Harry: "Ok so this is the real deal...we are gonna hit some big water. When we first put in we gotta get to a perfect 15degree angle to the right. When the big fall comes the water turns the raft and as long as we hit this angle we will be fine. If we miss this angle, we are gonna flip and there's no edge to swim to...sheer walls of rock line the sides and if ya get wet keep your feet up and ride it out. It takes about a 3osecs to clear the whitewater. I will wait for you at the bottom. Two more things...if the raft flips, make sure you get out from underneath not hang on to the raft. If we flip stay to the right. There is nasty pool to the left. Got it? Good, you'll do fine."

My buddy's wife: "Maybe we should skip this and let in at the bottom."

We put in 4th. The first team hit the angle but flipped at the bottom. They all cheered and got back in. The next 2 hit it perfect and had a great ride. Then there was us, the paddling lambs being brought to slaughter by Captain Morgan. We get in and without being told, we start paddling to 15degrees.

Harry: "Whoah guys, not yet. "

Harry: "OK NOW!!! Hard to right."

Crew: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

Harry: "Whoah not too hard...DAMN WE MISSED IT!"
Pause. So, at this point the raft was spun too far to the right and we went over at an angle. The boat spun and flipped back to front at a 45 degree angle (details are impressive--clearly the experience branded a memory eh?)
So up until this point my wife and tell the story the same...this is where we part in our recollection. First, her side...the boat flipped...she was the right...dunked by the falls, lost her water shoe, and bounced her a$$ down the right fork at the bottom of the river.

Now my side...the boat flipped, I went in and the boat landed on top of me and my buddies wife.

Pause...didn't Harry say something about that being bad....hmmm....

After being dunked into the falls my helmet pushed up underneath the the cross-member of the raft. Fear. Instinct taking over... swim like you've never swam before. My knee bashes a rock and I am thrown down to the left into that nasty pool I mentioned earlier. This is the point were the seriousness of the situation grabs me like a cold hand around my neck. I proceeded to be bounced like a corky up and down in the eddies. Pause...I hate opening my eyes under water. So at one point I am sucked down like Davy Jones sat on my shoulders and open my eyes. Underwater cyclones of bubbles spun around me like a the movie Tornado. It's so beautiful. Wait a freakn minute. I am not dying down here, I push off the bottom and gasp a full mouthful of water on the way out. All of a sudden a pair of angelic hands grabs my vest and pulls me over his kayak like a dead deer.

JT: (gasp...choke...)

Anonymous Kayaker: "Gotcha...You okay man?"

JT: "Hoo-ahhhh, Hooo-ahhhh (nasty sound of water exiting your lungs)"

At this point I proceeded to scream my wife's name like Rocky Balboa calling "Adriannnnne" at the end of his big fight. A few but painfully long moments later I see her waving and shouting for my buddies wife. A few moments later she comes over to me bruised and coughing water too. After we all calmed down. Big decision we continue down the remaining 30mins ride with a new boat or head back in the bus that was called to pick up ourt busted (yes, I said busted) raft. My buddies wife and I both say "no way". We are cut, bruised, exhausted and tired of screaming swears at Hangover Harry. My wife and buddy (remember they went right...) are bruised but convinced that they paid to come up here...they are finishing the river. Sounds admirable. My buddy's wife and I didn't care one bit. I did try to talk my wife out of it but since it was with another guide I held my breath and didn't stop her.
In case your wondering...somehow Captain Morgan ended up on top of the upside down raft. Which to add more reality ... was actually broken. The mid-section blew out. Aren't those rafts supposed to be more durable?

Morals of my story:
  • Don't raft with a cocky guide whose hung over

  • When that near death sensation hits...fight it

  • If your pride is hurt, brave the river. If you're body is hurt by the river, brave your pride.

We laugh about the story to this day. My buddy and wife want to go again. I will go if she goes but I think I will work the Class 4 whitewater a couple more times before I brave the Class 5 with a sober guide again.


Blogger Jakada said...

On the eve of kayaking down the Hockanum River..your story hit the mark. Thanks for sharing it. Quite riveting! Captain Morgan reference is funny. My family and I enjoyed the Kennebuc last year but after your story, we won't hit Penobscot any time soon. I was a little anxious about the class 2 tomorrow but now..fugetta about it...

10:35:00 PM  
Blogger Mangold DW said...

So... when are you going back? Next year you need to try the local downriver races, not a whole lot of whitewater but enough to get wet!

7:59:00 AM  

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