North Fork Feather
by Joshua Foster
Gold Country Paddlers Newsletter Sept 2013
How do I write about a near death experience? I faced my mortality. Stared the Grimm Reaper in the face. He wasn’t ready to take me. The North Fork Feather River is tucked away in a beautiful deep canyon in the Sierras filled with spectacular granite walls. The whitewater is technical and fascinating. The Tobin section on the Feather was my first step up into the class 5 realm of whitewater almost a year prior to this story. It is a maze of narrow chutes and 6,7,8 foot drops. It is also a maze of deathtraps and sieves, some stompy holes and some places you never want to be.
My second time down the Tobin run I ran this narrow chute. I was told, “make sure you point your nose right coming out of the chute.” I snuck a stroke in too early and bounced my nose to the left coming out of the chute. Frantically I back-paddled while staring into a sucking eddy with a very obvious sieve below the surface. I leaned out to grab the nearest rock and pulled myself out dropping backwards into the next drop. A year later my skills and experience had dramatically improved. I was now exploring new lines and taking on a leadership role in the groups I went down in. I led people down giving good technical beta for the crux drops. I was there when anyone had an issue from quickly being out of my boat with a throw rope in hand to feeding beta on the fly to a fellow boater as he rolled up in the lead in to the next drop after a beat-down in the crux above. I was looking out for my safety and the safety of everyone I was running with. I had 6 amazing runs during the course of the weekend.
My seventh run I’ll never forget. I was leading down all the rapids and waiting at the bottom as my four other partners came down behind me. I was charging through each rapid, as my lines were getting very precise over the weekend. I was here after all to practice the race lines exploring the idea of racing down this run in the month to follow. Confident in my abilities and the abilities of everyone one with me I charged down the left side of the Tobin Ledge. I nailed the line, carried a lot of speed out of the drop and came up on the next drop far left of where I normally run it. I turned to get back right, then straightened out to boof the drop. I wasn’t very worried about where I was. I didn’t foresee getting stalled in the hole and surfed. My nose got pointed into a corner of rock and I worked to turn taking draw strokes and sculling to keep my head above water. I reached as far out of the hole as I could trying to catch a current to carry me out of the hole. I flipped and tried to sail my paddle deep looking again to catch some green water that might carry me out.
I felt a small change and thought I might be out, then tried to roll. I failed in my attempt and tried again. I’m not sure if I was against a rock or if it was the current, but my normally very strong combat roll wasn’t pulling through. Not sure how much longer I could hold my breath under the boat my brain said, “time to swim!” I needed air! I’ve rarely opened my eyes under water. In fact almost never while kayaking. I’ve spent a lot of time upside down. I’ve pushed myself off rocks, off kayaks. I’ve lost and found my paddle and all by feel.
I punched out of my boat and almost immediately as I was moving through the water I sensed something being wrong and opened my eyes. What I saw was more than terrifying. I was being pulled away from the light at the surface of the water and everything was getting darker around me. I could see boulders, granite, zipping by me until it got too dark to distinguish anything. I could feel the rock around me slipping through my hands as I was being swept deeper. My thoughts went to sieve. I envisioned myself getting pinned somewhere deep in the abyss I was being pulled into.
My brain was processing a million things at once from all around me and it fired off a million thoughts inside my head at the same time. I thought about my companions and how useless they were to me in that moment. I thought about every conversation I’ve ever had about the power of water. I thought about letting myself ride it out and hope that I come out somewhere. Almost simultaneously I thought, “NO!” I couldn’t slip down, it would be a gamble with my life. There was one way out and it was against the current. I thought I was dead, but I wasn’t going to quit. I was certain for a moment that I was going to drown. I was going to become a tragic story, a statistic.
Fighting to halt my descent my knee caught a rock shelf and my hand braced against another surface. My other leg was sucked into a constriction that felt too small for my torso. In last last few inches halting my descent, calling on all my strength, I could feel a huge increase in the pressure from above pushing me into the constriction. It was as though I were about to become a plug in the hole holding the weight of the river on top of me. I pulled myself up against the pressure and planted both of my feet firmly on a rock while holding a strong crouched position. I took a brief moment here to assess my situation, my lungs, my level of exertion just maintaining my position, my options for escape...my option for escape. I knew I had only one chance to get out of this situation and no time to do it.
Sure in my every movement I began climbing against the current mantling and pressing on the rocks around me. I moved at least a full body length before I got body pinned by another current against a flat rock. I was in a precarious balancing act that had two outcomes; slipping down to the bottom again, or sliding up over the top to the surface. I feared slipping down off of the rock back into the abyss as I couldn’t possibly fight back out of it again. I shimmied and fought, pushed, kicked and slowly rose until the bulk of the current was pressing on my lower back. Looking up I could see the sun beaming into a whitecap of water at the surface just a few feet above me. A little more struggling and I cut loose and shot to the surface. I took about a half dozen swim strokes that got me to the nearest boat. U
p until his point my mind working and at a hyper pace processing everything that was happening. I had remained calm and focused. I was moving quickly but methodically. I couldn’t afford errors. My body’s instincts from 12 years as a climber saved me. As soon as I was stable on rock I seemed to gain some control over my situation. I made the conscious decision to escape and held my composure through all of it until I grabbed the kayak at the surface. My partner started to pull me into the nearest eddy and I foolishly let go and started swimming for the eddy. Quickly I realized my mistake and swam back towards his boat. I began to let out these uncontrollable gasps. I gave up kicking. He pulled me up to a rock in the eddy. I took hold of the rock, laid my head against it and began to sob.