I paddled across the flat pool looking for the broken slot in the first 3-foot ledge which would define the proper line for the 8-10 foot drop immediately following. It didn’t reveal itself until the last moment, but there it was, not even a correction stroke needed, nothing ahead but a whoopee time. The slot is smooth, a little froth in the platform before the longer whoopee ahead. The adrenalin is up some, but a more straight forward run couldn’t have been imagined.
As I start to drop through the first slot the boat begins to find its own way (going with the flow) and then –damn it!—everything stops. All the slack in my posture disappears instantly, the forward momentum stops, the bow is buried and very quickly the stern sinks down in the slot and water flows up the back deck against my back and up over my head.
Well, suddenly a simple run becomes somewhat more complicated. Still, no great concern, some wiggling and juggling will reveal the direction to push-pull-or shove. Breathing is no problem. I’m in an envelope and visibility straight ahead is good. In fact, there’s Larry Osgood on the right shore of the lower pool taking pictures, but why did he drop his camera and run back beyond my right side peripheral view?
Now I begin to feel some concern. The boat won’t budge, not even one little bit. The only water I can reach is too aerated to be effective, I can get some resistance but no real response.
I had felt a momentary sense of panic when the stern first sand and from some minimal instability as the kayak settled against the bottom of the slot. However, I now began to consider my options and possibilities.
The water was very cold but I had been boating all day in full wet suit and paddling gear, including a wool sweater. However, as it was going to be a very quick run I hadn’t bother to don pogies. When my hands were in the water this was a problem, but if I pulled them into my chest they could actually get relatively dry and warmed-up.
The next thing I recall thinking about was just how stable I was. Some paddle probing quickly reconfirmed that I was VERY stable. I then gave some thought to jumping out but quickly abandoned that option for the moment, as I would have had to give up the paddle to pull it off, and some tentative experimentation had convinced me that an all-out effort presented the real possibility of folding the boat around my lower legs before they cleared the cockpit.
At this point, I recall thinking that I had done about all I could do from my position, given that there were several very hip river people ashore and they were surely getting their act together. I was stable, relatively warm and had no breathing problems. As far as I was concerned, I was in good position for 30-60 minutes while things were getting organized on shore. “They must be very busy because I haven’t seen or heard anything,” I thought. “All the activity must be from my rear, up river as it were.”
My main concern at this point was in keeping my hands warm and in being ready when real rescue efforts began. My feeling was of absolute confidence that things would soon resolves themselves.
“Now, what the hell is happening,” I thought. “Something is changing and I haven’t the faintest notion what it is. I can barely hang onto my paddle and I’m being tipped over. Maybe there’s a river monster in here!”
I retrieve my right blade from very solid force on the right side. Now I’m having to fight off a bit of panic. The reason is that something has changed, but I can’t figure out what it is.
I’m trying to figure out what’s changed, very tentatively probing the right side water when again I’m nearly flipped. This time, however, I hear a voice. “Stop pulling.” It’s Kevin Hanrahan and he’s worked his way out to a point where he can grab my paddle.
At this point, things happen very suddenly. I want to cooperate with the rescue effort so I yell to Kevin to try again, but I don’t pull too hard as I’m very concerned about an off-balance shift to the right. Our first joint effort immediately resulted in a complete flip. For the first time I have a feeling of – panic?—the word doesn’t seem right – extreme concern? – not much better. I’m now upside down, head under water, still in the lot, with tremendous pressure against my back and head. The rotation hadn’t done a blessed thing towards freeing the boat from the slot and I was having a tremendously difficult time with my wet exit.
I was hanging upside down in a very heavy, fast slot with all the force of the water pushing forward. I think it’s at times like this that the psychology of survival begins to assert itself. There was no doubt in my mind that I would get out. At the risk of sounding vain and/or smug, I can actually recall considering just what it was going to take to get my legs out without breaking them or breaking my knees by bending the in the opposite direction. Succeed it did, and as I popped up, there were Kevin and Peter.
Kevin grabbed my arm and in turn grabbed Peter’s arm, who was trying to hang onto a very cold, slippery, smooth ledge. They were both imploring me to swim. The urge was there—oh, was it ever!—but why didn’t the legs respond? I twice came to the brink of the lower drop and looked over, but I didn’t like the prospects, as we were off to the right side of the main channel and some very nasty-looking, splat-type rocks were immediately below us. On the other hand, we weren’t making any progress towards getting upstream to the ledge under which Peter had found refuge. I yelled to Kevin to let me go so as to get into the main channel with its clear drop into the pool below.
The actual drop was nearly uneventful, except that just as I went over the edge I saw Kevin right behind me and was concerned that he would drop on my head as he went over. That didn’t happen. We both popped up and swam to the left shore where we were quickly joined by the others in a very heartfelt reunion.
My knees were not broken but were very severely strained. Two weeks of prescribed bed rest coincided very neatly with the two-week New York subway strike and an additional six weeks of progressively less and less hobbling brought this event to a happy ending.
In retrospect, I think I should have made a stronger effort to communicate with the shore-side rescue effort and inform them of my condition. This would have afforded the rescue effort much more time for a somewhat more sophisticated attempt.
This article, reprinted from the newsletter of the Kayak and Canoe Club of New York, typifies the kind of study which goes on at major whitewater clubs following “near-miss” situations. It’s only by this sort of evaluation that future accidents can be prevented; in many cases, fatal accidents are preceded by numerous, similar “near-misses”.