Saturday, September 22, 2012

Defying Death

Defying Death

I was talking with one of our suppliers the other day, and she told me she is going to Maine on her vacation.  This caused my mouth to go dry, and sweat to bead on my upper lip.  Visions jumbled into my head of the time I spent in Maine, on/in the Kennebec River the summer my older sister (who shall remain nameless)  tried to kill me.

I had traveled back to Massachusetts to visit family, and my older sister asked if I'd like to do some kayaking.  That sounded good.  I had kayaked on the stoic, flat waters of pristine lakes under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood in Oregon, and paddled down the meandering, innocent waters of the Lewis and Cowlitz rivers that feed from Mt. Saint Helens in Washington. It was relaxing and peaceful and allowed up-close interaction with Great Blue Herons and Osprey.

 "That sounds great," I said, "as long as it is an easy paddle."  She booked a trip down the Kennebec, insisting the brochure said the level was for "anyone."

When we got to the river, it turned out the first part of the trip was in a white water raft.  This concerned me because "white-water" and "kayaking" are not two terms I like to put together, but she insisted the rafting part of the trip was just the first part, and once through the rapids, we'd board the kayaks.  I had been white-water rafting on the Stanislaus River, in California, the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, and the Deschutes River in Oregon and it had been fun.  The Deschutes has one or two Class 4 rapids, depending on the water level, and before shooting them, everyone gets out and climbs over the rocks to stare at it, and plan the attack.  The guide tells the crew exactly what to expect, and how to paddle it. It is all very organized.  The rest of the Deschutes trip consists of several Class 3 rapids, and a lot of swift current that is fun in a raft, but nothing I'd want to do in a kayak.

"Okay," I said.  "Sounds good."  We got to the put-in place and my sister and I climbed into the front of the raft.

The guide shot me an assessing look.  "You are going to sit there?"

I was on the port side of the bow, and looked around me to see if there was something saying it wasn't a proper place to be.  On the Deschutes, people had always sat in the bow.  "Is there a reason why I shouldn't?"

He quirked an eyebrow.  "No reason at all."

The rest of the people crowded into the raft and we shoved off.  Within moments I heard a roaring, similar to the sound when you stand at the base of Multnomah Falls in the Columbia Gorge.  "What's that?"

It turns out that the Kennebec rafting portion is a perilous white-water trip through three miles of continuous, life-threatening Class 4 rapids.  At one point the churning waters swamped the raft as we dropped into a hole, and as we came up, I was swept overboard, sucked below the surface even though strapped into a very buoyant life-vest.  My first thought was "hang onto the paddle."  No one wants to be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.  My second thought was, "Why am I still below the surface?"  My life-vest still surrounded me, but with the force of Class 4 rapids it does not necessarily keep you on top of the water.  I fought my way toward the light, lungs burning, and gulped in a huge breath.  The rapids sucked me down again, and again, and each time I'd surface I'd only have time for a quick breath before being swamped again.  I laid on my back and kept my feet downriver, as were the instructions we'd been given at the beginning of the trip.
Coming up out of the Hole, Kennebec River

By the time they caught up to me, and dragged my nearly lifeless body into the bottom of the raft, I understood what a fish must feel after loosing a battle with a fishing line.  Except I was too exhausted to flap around.  I remained sprawled, still gripping the paddle, through two or three more treacherous death-drops, squeezing my eyes shut against the walls of spray bounding over the boat.  After several minutes of shameful cowardice, I crawled over the other passengers to my place in the bow while the craft plunged through more hurling rapids.

A short time later (a way, way too short time later, in my opinion) the guide headed to a rocky bank under the shade of birch and oak branches.  Two kayaks rested on shore.  Two.  One for me, and one for my nameless older sister.  Apparently we were the only two foolish enough to sign up for the kayaking.  With knees still shaking, I wobbled my way out of the raft and climbed onto the sit-upon blue plastic kayak, which the guide pulled into the water.  They pried the rafting paddle out of my fist and slid a kayaking paddle into it, then the guide splashed back to the raft and shoved off.  All around me the waters roared.  This was no meandering river.  As far as the eye could see, the power of the river screamed with miles of Class 3 rapids, before emptying into a more placid part of the Kennebec for the last four miles to the take-out point.

I don't remember much of kayaking the three miles of Class 3 rapids.  My mind shut down all non-essential thought and all I remember is terror and frantic paddling to keep from overturning.

When we got to the take-out place, my hands snaked to my hips and my chin jutted.  I lazered the guide with my gaze.  "How could they possibly list this journey as an "anyone can do it" trip?" I accused.

"Anyone can do it," he said, with a shrug.  "It is just that they may not be able to do it while still remaining in the boat," came the alarming reply.  Did my sister know this when she booked?  I say yes.  My mother insists she probably didn't.  I'd go along with my mother if it weren't for the fact my sister had scheduled a white-water kayaking lesson for "us" the day after our kayaking trip, on a tributary to the Kennebec.  Wouldn't you think she would have scheduled the class the day before the trip if she didn't have mayhem in mind?  And is it just me, or does anyone else find it a little too coincidental that the tributary on which the lesson was to be held, is called the Dead River?

Too late to save myself, Kennebec River

Yeah, me too.