A guest post by Stephen Cameron:
I swam last week on the Ohanepecosh. “Big deal,” you may be thinking. Everybody swims sometimes, especially if they're running hard stuff. But this was significant, it's been about thirty years since I'd surrendered to the river gods, pulled and ejected. Besides, it was me.
O.K., the whole truth. I did actually swim about ten years ago in the surf when a wave walloped me with a direct hit. That doesn't count, does it? After all, it wasn't on a river. And...well...there was that time in 1991... Sure I swam, but my skirt blew that time too. I can't be faulted for that, no, I certainly can't. “I wuz framed...”
1991. That was, as Andy Corra put it, a gruesome day. We were driving from Seattle to run Tumwater. There was an inch of slush on the road and just before the pass, a car, driving way too fast, roared by. A minute later, we came across the head-on collision. A crowd, doing absolutely nothing, was gathering. Then someone uttered those dreaded words, “Stephen, you're a medical student, you can help.” Yes I was, but barely. I was an early third year, just out of my two years of classroom study; my field experience was minimal.
Nothing to do but plunge in, all eyes upon me. The passenger, a woman, was alive. But screaming so hysterically I couldn't even get her to unlock her door. No wonder, I suppose – the driver, her boyfriend I think – looked rather life-less. So we hauled him out and into the slush, unclear if CPR would help (by the way, in major trauma, it doesn't). I hesitated, hoping he wasn't HIV+, before placing my lips on his bloody pale lips (front teeth knocked out by the steering wheel) and doing a couple of rescue breaths, then compressions. I must say the chest compressions worked splendidly, circulating blood through the body just like we'd been told it would. How did I know? With each compression, blood squirted out of his ears. A basilar skull fracture. Game over.
After that little horror show, no one felt much like paddling. Plus, it was cold, gray and drizzly. A hot chocolate sort of day. But – you know how it goes – we'd already done most of the drive, we'd always wanted to do Tumwater, we were a solid group of paddlers, things would work out, etc., etc.
Then we got to one of the last big drops, which I thought was boat scout-able even though everyone else thought not and were up on the bank. Anyway, it was the usual sad, sad story; I dropped into a hole, got worked, then sort of fell out of my submerged boat. Popped skirt. Swim – not fun.
Mortality Awareness Day, we called it.
* * *
2010, the Ohanepecosh. A very fun weekend with Ryan Cole, Dan Dellwo, Nate Pfeifer, Chris Arnold, Jenna Watson, Scott Brigdam and Roman Androsov. A great group. The run on Saturday was going well, except for Nate losing his headcam early on. Then Ryan got cocky and decided to attempt a freewheel off a six foot drop. Attempt being the operative word. The landing was – shall we say – wonky, and he dislocated his shoulder in the curtain. Luckily for him, he'd dislocated it a couple times before; it was nice and limber and basically went back in by itself.
Right after that we came to Elbow Room, which we decided to portage farther upstream than usual. It was steep, the thin route cutting sharply up to the left above an underhung cliff. Roman led, with me a few feet behind him, just to his right. Suddenly, his boat peels off his shoulder. As it careened away, I pressed myself hard against the cliff as to not get knocked off. I was relieved when the boat hit bottom, but then heard someone yell, “Roman, he fell! Roman fell!” Jesus Christ! I only saw the boat fall. That was a twenty foot vertical fall onto rocks! I down-climbed as fast as possible, expecting a real nightmare, a mangled mess.
But he was standing up, looking clear-eyed, moving all extremities, unhurt. He could remember his name, converse, everything. It was un-friggin' believable. How was that possible? He'd slipped, the boat had jolted and pulled him backwards off the slope. Backwards! Twenty feet! Somehow, God knows how, he did something close to a full flip and was cushioned by the boat, or...or...we don't really know. Neither does he. But – I'm serious here – none of us had ever seen such a miraculous close call. I asked if he'd re-create it, but he politely declined.
And then we're down to Petrified, the last major rapid. Ryan and Chris and Dan nail it, it didn't look too bad. Trouble was, I didn't really see the line in my minds' eye, a little part of me thinking, “It's not bad, it'll work out fine, it usually does, I'm good enough to wing it, if they can breeze through so can I...”
Anyways...more sadness. I get pushed too far right and drop, with history's most feeble boof, into the meat of the big top hole. Forty worthless seconds spent trying to claw out exhaust me, and I call it and pull. I flounder under the froth for another twenty seconds (I swear it was sixty), then flush down through the next two ledge holes.
One brilliant little side-line: My foam-core Werner remained in the hole, terminally recirculating. Chris, on the left side, immediately “saw” the solution, tied a stick to his throw rope and threw it upstream of the paddle. Just as it plunged into the hole and underneath the paddle, he masterfully lassoed that little doggy like a professional rangler and reeled it in on the first try.
Then next day, Nick from Seattle makes the same mistake I did, at the same hole, but windowshades, dislocating his shoulder for real. Sitting on a rock shelf, we put it back in fairly quickly. There was a kind of luck again, because there happened to be a raft right there that took him down to the take-out.
What have I learned? Make sure you see the line. Don't fall off cliffs. Don't drive too fast in snow. Don't kiss dead strangers.
And the last thing? Swimming Sucks!