A SWIMMING LESSON ON TOHICKON CREEK
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, Monday, December 6, 1993: A two-day deluge caused scattered flooding throughout the Philadelphia area. The downpour, the second in as many weekends, dumped nearly 2.5 inches of rain on the region in barely a day and a half, including a record 1.52 inches of December 5.
“ Marion , swim to the left.”
Yes, tell me what to do. I need someone to tell me what to do. I’m flailing my arms in a backstroke, kicking with my legs. How should I swim? Should I be doing the breast stroke, the Australian Crawl?
A red Dancer nudges alongside me and my savior, Ned Hughes, works me into a rare eddy next to an overhanging limb. I grab on and slowly inch my way to shallow water.”
Gasping heavily, I explode into a guttural moaning groaning, “Aagh . . . ohh . . . aagh . . . ohh!” (How do you spell the sound of relief?)
Ned asks if I’m alright.
Oh, it feels so good to breath. Deep. To be out of the water. I look at Ned and he’s looking back at me, smiling. I break out into laughter. Yes, I’m alright, I’m alive!
John Mellor and I were planning to paddle on Sunday. We had worked it out in advance with our wives. It just so happened that the ground was still saturated from the previous weekend’s rains. I rained all the day before, and it was still raining. John didn’t think the Tohickon would be running, but as we were driving along Old York Road we saw that the Neshaminy was flooded. Gullies of water poured along the roadside. Geddes’ Run was gushing. We both knew the Tohickon would be up, but how high? Our anticipation was keen.
Appalachian Whitewater describes Tohickon Creek as a small, fast runoff stream, Class III-IV, with a gradient of forty feet per mile. Flood state is at five feet. The run from Ralph Stover Park to the village of Point Pleasant is 3.8 miles.
At Ralph Stover we met Bob Broadbent and John Geiger. The gauge read 6.5 feet, sometimes surging up to 7 feet. Billy Pearlstein and some other boaters arrived. Six of us decided to do it. Others volunteered to run shuttle or to hang around and help out. John prudently exchanged his squirt boat for a Crossfire.
“Is everyone sure of their roll. Is it bomb-proof?” Pearlstein asked.
“Yeah, Bill,” everyone assured him.
We all knew the perils of our undertaking. If you swim, you’re on your own. We put on at exactly 9:30 AM.
The creek was a roiling, boiling, pulsating, red-brown frothy, living mass. It was a witch’s brew of compact choppy, violent waves that would throw you sideways and backwards, making a swift, awkward and bumpy ride.
The creek probably was racing along at ten to fifteen miles per hour. Ned scooted over to the left of the hold a “No Fish, No Swim.” The group was in close formation; maybe a little too close. I was doing a lot of slowing down and back-paddling, trying not to be last. Walt Blackadar’s “soft” approach to paddling is disconcerting, especially in blind turns. It threw me off a bit. I’d rather barrel ahead, gung-ho, slam-jamming all the way down. We were all grim-jawed, slowly probing our way, and then suddenly paddling aggressively to punch holes and break through waves. I’m used to eddy hopping and finding my line, but that day there were no eddies, no rocks, no playing, no surfing, but lots of intensity.
Floating passively, thinking too much, I flipped coming out of a deep trough and rolled up on my second try. John was next to me instantly, saying, “Nice roll!” But it was a lousy roll and I knew it. It made me tentative, which is bad.
In the book, Kayak, William Nealy says, “Be loose. It’s the single most concept to teach. If you’re not loose, you’ll get creamed.”
Ned took us through the next couple of bends and drops, expertly seeking out the safest routes, busting through river-wide reaction waves, avoiding ugly, gaping monster holes, and passing on the edge of some deep, growling hydraulics. Cataracts streamed down the gorge. It was a rare and beautiful sight.
Midway through Race Course, “a long rapid studded with waves and holes . . . with a ledge and then four offset holes . . . incredibly nasty at high water, “ I flipped again.
I miss my roll. Set up again and miss. Switch sides and try again and again. I can’t get my paddle and hands high enough out of the water. When I hip snap I get partway up and then fall back into the water. I don’t want to swim. I think I tried rolling about four or five times. Then, desperately fighting for air, I rip off the sprayskirt and exit the boat. I know full well that there will be hell to pay for doing so.
“The most common antecedent to drowning is panic, induced when one finds himself in a position for which he is not prepared mentally or physically. It can be avoided if he is properly trained, in good physical condition, have good equipment, stay with buddies, and within limits of experience.” The NOAA Diving Manual.
Now things really begin to become blurred. The sequence of events gets confused. In cold water submersions, they say, you lose some short term memory. I think I lost my paddle right away; I remember getting up on my overturned boat and riding it like a sled through some really big water. Then I was tossed off, but held on to the grab loop. The boat was in front of me, and I was pulled and yanked by it.
Jon paddles up next to me and I grab his boat to get my head out of the water to get my breath, to get my bearings. I need a few seconds to assess the situation. John is in dire straits himself. A huge chasm, its jaws yawning, looms before him. I’m weighing him down and he can’t paddle to maneuver. He asks me to let go. John, good old buddy, you made the right call.
Almost immediately I’m swallowed up completely and stopped by the hole. I’m still holding onto my boat with my left hand. I get pummeled pretty good, then flush out. Everything’s happening too quickly. I want things to slow down for a moment so I can catch my breath.
A tree is before me. The boat goes to one side of it while my body goes to the other. We come to a sudden stop. The boat and I pivot around. My hand is jammed against the tree trunk, with tremendous forces pulling the boat. I foolishly think I can pull the boat back upstream, around the tree and to me. I don’t want to let it go; I’ve been swallowing water and need it for support.
Something gives. Me, naturally. And the grab loop is ripped from my hand. I’m spun around facing downstream being pushed toward a bunch of treetops in the muddy red water. Strainers. They look so inviting. All I have to do is hold on awhile, catch my breath, gather up my strength and work my way to the shore somehow.
After being propelled into a small tree, I groped through the branches, drew a few breaths and started sinking slowly. My sprayskirt got hung up on something below. I should have had one of those neat, deadly-looking knives some people have strapped to their PFDs.
I am pulled down, into an abyss of dark swirling water. Then I come up into the light, which translates into air. Then down again into the wet, cold, smothering darkness. Like a piston, Up and down. I’m being recirculated! I’m vertical the whole time, almost standing up. If I sink down deep enough I’ll be able to touch bottom and may be able to spring off of something solid.
I’m thinking a lot of things. My wife. My daughters. Feeling so helpless and out of control. I’m caught up in something so overpowering I can’t do a damn thing. My head and body seem to have separated. Whichever area of the brain is causing my body to function now is not listening to the part that thinks about what I should be doing. The alarms have sounded. All emergency systems have been switched on. Now I’m out of it somehow, totally spent, exhausted. I’m not sure if I have any fight or energy left in me. That’s when I heard the voice, coming, it seemed, from above.
“ Marion , swim to the left.” The reset button is pushed.
After assuring Ned I would be able to walk to the takeout, I started the steep hike to the road. Still gasping, feeling woozy and shivering uncontrollably, I dropped to one knee, doubled over and puked. It was 9:50 AM, only twenty minutes since putting on. How long was the swim? Two minutes? Three? Time is relative to your point of reference. An eternity can be compressed into a few unforgettable minutes.
My ring finger was bent in a peculiar way, lying across the middle and index fingers just touching the thumb, purple and distended. I was reminded of that grotesque scene from Deliverance when the canoeist is pulled out of the water with his arm wrapped unnaturally over his head.
At the road, almost on cue, a four-wheeler with a boat on top and headlights flashing screeched to a stop. The driver was John Geiger; he had watched some of the swim, but from his vantage point rescue was impossible.
John sped to Doylestown Hospital , elevating my hand, keeping me warm, talking to me reassuringly. At the hospital, I met up with Bob Broadbent, who also was being treated for a broken hand. While he was chasing down Eric Hatcher’s loose kayak, Bob’s boat had gotten caught in a strainer and he had to leave it.
Tonight as I write this, it is raining, and I’m thinking about paddling again. I lost my boat; it’s somewhere along the Delaware , I guess. My paddle has been recovered. I sustained a convoluted fracture of my ring finger; a couple of pins have been inserted and I’ll be out of commission for six to eight weeks. I’m anxious to get into a pool and work on my roll. I want to be a Ninja Master of the roll.
I’ve just kissed my eleven-month-old daughter, Liz, good night. My lovely wife is in the next room wrapping Christmas gifts. Tonight I’m very content, warm, dry, secure. The Jack Daniels helps. I know I’m a very lucky man. I’m not religious, but I know God was with me on the Tohickon on that Sunday morning.
SOURCE: Marion Ambros, Philadephia Canoe Club CaNews
AUTHOR’S NOTES: So what went wrong? Over the past year, I spent ninety days paddling. I’ve attended roll sessions, done lots of flat-water canoeing, been in a couple of marathon canoe races, surfed Atlantic and Pacific beaches in a kayak, paddled a flooded Lehigh at 10,000 cfs, spent a weekend on the Cheat, a bunch of Thursday nighters at Flat Rock, Scudders, Lambertville, Tohickon on three feet, etc. Last time I swam was at Anne’s Rock about sixteen months ago after doing an ender. Do I have a bomb-proof roll? Obviously not. But for the past year or so I thought I did.
I was simply outclassed. I was over my head. There, I’ve said it. By blowing the roll, I put at least six people at risk. I feel bad about that. To do Class V (expert) water you have to be a trained athlete. The last time I had paddled was two weeks earlier on the Schuylkill (Class I) and then two weeks before that during the Tohickon release (Class III). You can’t be an expert by paddling easy water only once or twice a month.
What went wrong? Besides being in decent physical shape, I think what helped me most of all were the lessons I learned during my numerous past swims. I’ve never been ashamed or hesitant to swim before. I never felt that I couldn’t have coped if left to myself. I’ve been trying to restrain myself from exiting too quickly, especially after some numbing, head banging, muscle-paralyzing, solo swims in freezing weather. Swimming skills are absolutely necessary and everyone should develop them.