28 Days Later

A paddler about to resurface after running Sacrilege at lower flow (Photo courtesy of Adam Edwards).

A paddler about to resurface after running Sacrilege at lower flow (Photo courtesy of Adam Edwards).

This story is not to scare you away from kayaking. This story is not glorifying anything. There will not be a lesson laid out at the end of this, although there are lessons to be learned. Dylan Thomas’ words Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light came to mind in the moment and after. Or maybe a simpler version: survive. 

This is just my way of processing a stressful moment on the river. We each deal with stress differently. In this case I returned to the river the next day with a different boat and paddled the river the same way. And have continued to paddle it on a regular basis. That is to say, sometimes you just get back on the horse. For me, part of getting back on the horse is writing about it. Well, let’s begin:

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the electric blue water running crisp and cold. We were more than ten amazing humans rallying down our local class V river resource. Eddys were being caught. Kayaks were flying through the air. Laughter was heard throughout the group. Everything was great.

I caught a small eddy above Sacrilege and waited for a few friends to pass me. When I spotted a gap in the parade of brightly colored kayaks I peeled back into the current. I was going to try for a more stylish line than usual. A single stroke from the eddy to the pool below. Everything was going great. I engaged my paddle with the current and pulled my launching stroke. I felt a satisfying amount of force pushing against the blade of my paddle, and I was flying. Everything was divine. And then it wasn’t.

My boat landed with a whoompf.  Suddenly all I could see was the world turning blue to white in a flash. The sounds of spring quickly turned into the chaotic washing machine sounds of a hungry hydraulic. As I landed the back of my kayak had been shoved deeper underwater than I’d accounted for. I cartwheeled back into the hole formed by the ledge. My heart skipped several beats. This was bad. I needed to roll immediately. I tried to roll my kayak back upright and felt myself being pulled very hard and fast to the left; into the cave. This was very bad . 

I continued to try to roll, banging my helmet against the roof of the cave. Trying one side then the other. Reaching out and trying to grab something anything to pull myself out and back into the main flow of current. Soon enough there was too little space to attempt to roll with the paddle so I began trying to grab anything with both hands. Paddle be damned.

It was time to swim. This was worse. I was upside down in my kayak fully submerged in the cave. I grabbed the rim of my cockpit and pulled myself forward shoving my face deep enough into the neoprene material that I could feel the air on the other side. Finding the pull tab for my skirt I grabbed it and pulled allowing myself to fall partially out of my kayak. I kept my grip on the rim, and straightened my legs as best I could pushing my hips towards the back my seat. I didn’t want the boat to roll over in the cave. I wanted that precious air. I allowed myself to fall out of the kayak a little. Once I began to fall I curled my body up in the tightest crunch I could manage  and tried to rotate myself face first back into my kayak.

Now that I found myself in a reasonably safer situation I took a moment to take some deep breaths. Most my body dangled in the current. I could feel water to my left pulling me down. The roar of Sacrilege was muffled by the depths of the cave and the interior of my kayak. Looking around the tiny red fishbowl that was now my existence I searched for light at its edges. Where the current pulled left the water darkened. To my front and right I could see slivers of light and air bubbles at the edges of the fishbowls rim. Water and air were being mixed and pushed downstream from the ledge. That must be where the real air is. The surface.  That must be where the light is. A surge of current pulled me harder to the left and I popped from under the kayak air pocket and into the darkness. I panicked but suddenly found myself staring at part of my kayak. My head was scrunched at an odd angle but I was not submerged. I could see the back of the cave and where the water met the back wall it lapped at it then swiftly and distinctly flowed down. Confused I gripped the boat tighter and pulled myself back under, realizing I was wedged in the back of the main cave but had not quite sucked down into the depths yet. There had been a space of open air beyond my boat.

Sacrilege at much lower flow (facing upstream): the cave extends along the entire right side of this photo (Photo courtesy of Adam Edwards).

Sacrilege at much lower flow (facing upstream): the cave extends along the entire right side of this photo (Photo courtesy of Adam Edwards).

Back in the relative safety of my upside down kayak I decided to swim for light I had seen. There was no way I would be able to communicate with anyone from where I was. They couldn’t know I was alive and well. And given the surges in water I did not have much confidence in being able to fight the currents. I thought about the ease with which the current had pulled me from under my kayak and shuddered. The time was now.

I oriented myself to the light, took a few deep breaths in the kayak and let go. Pulling myself down, out and to the right I struggled towards the light and against the current. As soon as I left the kayak, I was swept into the main, more open cave and pulled downstream towards the terminal end of it. I was quickly pushed back against the far wall and clawed at it; pushing, punching, and dragging myself towards the right, towards downstream. I tried to grab at the basalt to keep my head above water as long as possible. Moss and algae caked under my nails and coated my fingers making it nearly impossible to grip anything without a ledge. I was able to slow my progress a little and got one last gulp of air before being sucked under the downstream wall of the cave. I pulled against rock, pushed against current hoping to surface before my panic overrode my lung capacity.

As quickly as I’d submerged I found myself rising. Light blinded me for a moment as my eyes were heavily dilated. I surfaced  gasping for air in front a friend. He pulled me on his kayak and paddled me over to a protected eddy. Adrenaline and cortisol were flooding my brain and body. I was missing a shoe. My brain was missing oxygen. Hypoxic. I choked out a few sentences to the effect of I just needed a minute then I would go back and get the kayak.

Shock is a funny thing. It can paralyze you. It can give you power. It can make you try insane things. The adrenalized portion of my brain said keep moving, if you stop you’ll die. Get the boat, figure out the rigging system to get the boat. Shock can keep you moving, but it does not always allow you to stay rationale. The rationale side of my brain tried to kick in. It took some serious urging from friends to get it going. Reminders to get out the water, get on land, breathe slowly, and sit down. Calm yourself. 

Several friends began to talk me through why retrieving my kayak was a terrible idea. The boat had begun to submerge deeper into the cave and was barely visible. I would have to swim back into the cave with ropes attached and dive to find it. A guaranteed way to put my life back on the brink. And place my friends back in the painful position of watching it. This was not an option.

For every rationale I gave for getting it a calm voice would walk me through why it would or wouldn’t work and why we should wait. Cooler heads prevailed. As my shock wore off relief and gratitude set in. Another friend ferried my across the river to a spot where I could hike out. After making sure I was of sound mind and able to get out of the canyon on my own they headed downstream.

I spent a few minutes staring at the cave without thinking. Just watching water rush in and out. Air bubbling up from the deep. My mind slowly re-engaged and began to try and figure out why, how, things had gone so wrong. I’d made a mistake that had nearly cost me much more than I thought the entire event worth. Thomas came to mind: Do not go gentle into the good night...Rage, rage against the dying of the light.   

I thought about how quickly it had all happened. Felt the tendrils of anxiety tugging at the edges of my consciousness. Felt relief for having been able to fight, to rage, my way out through quick thinking and a healthy dose of luck. I felt anxiety because I have safely paddled similar lines over Sacrilege. I was angry with myself for making such a simple mistake. I was grateful I’d only lost access to air for a short while.  

All the emotions began to well up inside me as I stared at the water flowing inexorably over the ledge through the cave and back out again as it had most likely done for centuries. And on it flowed, downstream to other bigger features, bigger caves. Always forward. Always playful. And indifferent.

I started to laugh. I laughed for a good while. All the conflicting emotions, the anger, anxiety, gratitude and relief blended together and flowed out with it. I laughed until only quiet contemplation remained. I would be better and more vigilant.  I would be back. Tomorrow. To get my kayak. And if it wasn’t reachable I would return the next day. And the next. And the next. I would not repeat this. I made this promise to myself.  I also realized the futility in the promise. Kayaking is a calculus of mental and physical preparedness, technique and dumb luck. There are no promises. 

I accepted all of it. My failure, my desire to improve, the desire to return and the risk that goes along with it.  It would be there. And thankfully so would I I turned away from the river and began the hard hike and climb out the canyon.  Every burning lungful of air on the hike was appreciated, loved and earned. It was the best hike ever.

The author’s kayak retrieved after 28 days in the cave (Photo courtesy of Adam Edwards).

The author’s kayak retrieved after 28 days in the cave (Photo courtesy of Adam Edwards).

Interested in reading more outdoor survival stories written by People of Color? Check out "Grief, Trauma and Loss in the Outdoors" , "Blood on the Ice: The Hard Truth of Adventure Sports." and "The Joys and Dangers of Solo Backpacking."